(NEW YORK) — Encircled by camera-wielding supporters and journalists, Chris Smalls popped a bottle of champagne one year ago today to celebrate a watershed election that established the first-ever U.S. union at Amazon — but the celebratory times for the union wouldn’t last.
Smalls, a former warehouse worker at the company’s facility in Staten Island, New York, and the president of the Amazon Labor Union, or ALU, launched the campaign alongside his co-workers, raising money on GoFundMe as they sought improved pay, benefits and working conditions at the facility.
The independent union overcame well-resourced opposition from the company and helped propel a surge of labor organizing across the country, some experts said.
However, the ALU encountered difficulties almost immediately. In the months following the victory, labor campaigns were defeated overwhelmingly in elections at two other Amazon warehouses in New York.
Meanwhile, sharp divisions emerged within the ALU, according to interviews with four current and former workers at the Staten Island facility.
Amazon has also mounted an ongoing legal challenge against the results of the union election, leaving the labor organization far from signing a collective bargaining agreement that it hopes will deliver a base pay of $30 per hour and other improvements at the facility.
The New York Times first reported on the divisions within the ALU.
“No matter how it ends, this was a significant moment,” Joshua Freeman, a professor emeritus of labor history at Queens College at the City University of New York. “It contributed to a wave of union organization efforts all over the country.”
“Obviously, there have been a lot of bumps in the road since a year ago,” Freeman added.
In a statement to ABC News, Amazon Spokesperson Eileen Hards said the company respects workers’ right to unionize but it contests the results of the election last year at the Staten Island warehouse, also known as JFK8.
“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union,” Hards said. “They always have.”
“We strongly disagree with the outcome, and as we showed throughout the JFK8 Objections Hearing with dozens of witnesses and hundreds of pages of documents, both the NLRB and the ALU improperly influenced the outcome of the election and we don’t believe it represents what the majority of our team wants,” she added.
“They appeal everything and we continue to fight that legal battle,” Smalls told ABC News about Amazon’s ongoing challenges to the union vote. “It’s been ruling in our favor and we don’t see it reversing the other way.”
The headline-grabbing union victory at Amazon last April accelerated an upsurge of labor organizing that took hold nationwide during the pandemic, as a tight job market and sky-high prices helped fuel activism among workers at high-profile companies like Starbucks and Apple.
Over a yearlong period ending in September, petitions for union representation jumped 53%, NLRB data showed. Moreover, last year labor unions reached their highest level of public support across the U.S. since 1965, a Gallup poll showed.
“Amazon workers took the brave step to unionize a year ago,” said Seth Goldstein, a partner at Julien, Mirer, Singla, & Goldstein who represents the ALU. “No one thought that was possible.”
After the union victory, however, Amazon filed objections with the National Labor Relations Board seeking to overturn the outcome, including allegations that NLRB officials showed a favorable bias toward the workers and that union leaders bribed colleagues in an effort to win their support.
“Amazon’s abuse of the legal process is simply a stalling tactic that is meant to delay our negotiations and cause workers to lose faith in the process,” the ALU said about the allegations in September.
So far, those legal challenges by Amazon have failed. In September, a hearing officer for the NLRB recommended that the vote should stand. A few months later, in January, the NLRB officially certified the ALU, putting Amazon under a legal obligation to bargain in good faith. Amazon appealed the ruling.
Goldstein said he is confident the ALU will ultimately overcome the legal challenge. However, the court battle has delayed the start of negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement between workers and management. And even after negotiations begin, the back-and-forth could stretch on for more than a year before a contract is signed, he added.
“We all knew that this would unfortunately get bogged down,” he said. “I’m not surprised — I’m saddened.”
Such delay is typical for a first union contract, but it can fray labor solidarity, some experts said. The average length of time before a new union signs its first contract is 409 days, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis in 2021.
“It’s hard to keep a group together if you’re not improving their lives in a concrete way,” said Freeman, of the City University of New York. “You can do it for a while but at some point people roll their eyes.”
While the ALU fights Amazon in court, the union also aims to put pressure on the company through organizing within the Staten Island facility and building support among workers at other warehouses as well as leaders within the wider labor movement, Goldstein said.
However, the visible presence of union support within the Staten Island warehouse has diminished significantly since the victory last year, according to three longtime workers at the facility.
“Right after the election, there were about a dozen people I saw on the first floor wearing ALU t-shirts and yellow ‘organizer’ vests,” Natalie Monarrez, a worker who considers herself pro-union and initially organized with the ALU but ultimately voted against unionization due to concerns regarding its leadership, told ABC News.
“In the past few months, I haven’t seen any ALU t-shirts or yellow vests,” she added.
Smalls, who has traveled nationwide over the past year to speaking engagements and meetings with Amazon workers at other warehouses, has received criticism from some union activists over a perceived lack of focus on organizing within the Staten Island facility, he said.
“Whenever I’m in town, I meet with workers. I can’t organize with them inside the building. I can’t hold their hands,” Smalls, who was terminated by Amazon in 2020, said. “The requirement of any union president is to travel and amplify the workers. That’s exactly what I do.”
Smalls was fired after being accused of violating COVID-19 safety protocols, but he has alleged retaliation. Amazon denied that retribution played a role in the firing and said Smalls had received “multiple warnings” for violating social distancing guidelines.
Another sharp divide within the union centers on the governance structure that underlies its decision-making and leadership.
An initial version of the union’s constitution, filed with the Department of Labor last June, ordered that the first union elections should take place 60 days after certification of the union, a step that precedes contract negotiations; or in 2024 if the union had yet to be certified by then, according to the document.
However, a new version of the constitution, filed in December, pushed an initial election back to 90 days after the union signs its first contract, the document said. The union may not sign a contract for more than a year, leaving officers, like Smalls, in their current positions without risk of an election challenge.
At a union meeting in December, Smalls offered attendees an ultimatum regarding the new version of the constitution. “If you can’t organize by this structure and this document, this ain’t for you,” he said. “This is the law from here on out.” Some members walked out of the meeting in protest.
When asked about the meeting, Smalls said: “No one is above the constitution, including me. They don’t want to follow the rules — there’s the door. They chose the door.”
Nicole Druda, who began working at the Staten Island facility in 2021, said she voted against unionization in part because she had become disenchanted by a union that represented her at a previous job. But she said she spoke to an ALU organizer in November and began supporting the union this year.
“I really want something that will benefit me as an employee,” she said. “And as somebody who wants to be more politically active, this could help workers in general across the country get more of a voice.”
Smalls said he expects the union to reach an agreement with Amazon on a first contract within the next year.
“I don’t want to do this forever,” he added. “I’ve been laser focused on this. The only thing I have is a contract in my vision — nothing more, nothing less. A contract for the workers so we can move on to the next thing.”
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