‘The model listens’: the victory of the union at Amazon hatched in a small apartment | Amazon

Jhe living room of the small two-bedroom apartment on Staten Island — sometimes called New York’s “forgotten neighborhood” — is full of office supplies, mail, red union stickers and flyers with union information.

It seems almost unbelievable that amid this chaos, and armed with just $120,000 they raised on GoFundMe, its occupants, Amazon workers Brett Daniels and Connor Spence, helped successfully organize workers at the gargantuan 855,000-square-foot Amazon warehouse nearby — the first of the company’s warehouses in the United States to vote for a union.

“This is a monstrous victory for the working class,” Daniels said. “The Amazon Labor Union has shown that what seemed impossible is possible.”

The apartment in a two-story suburban house was the headquarters from which Amazon workers won one of the biggest victories for American unions in decades. Beating Amazon’s multi-million dollar effort to stop them from organizing involved tireless organizing, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook and lots of free homemade food. But above all, said Julian Mitchell-Israel, 29, an Amazon worker and one of the first organizers of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), they listened.

“It’s not that we’ve established a new organizational model here,” Mitchell-Israel said. “The model listens and shines a light on people’s stories, and when we build a platform, use it to elevate their stories, because that’s what has been compelling to workers, that’s what has pushed people to vote yes.”

Amazon Labor Union defied the odds without any affiliation to national unions and without the valuable support of the political class that has seen other efforts to organize at Amazon spurned.

The surprise victory was hailed as historic in the US media, and its organizers were bombarded with interview requests from around the world. Elected officials and prominent figures issued public statements of support, including Joe Biden and several members of Congress, all the attention that had been lacking before the vote, as most of the media and elected officials, including apparent supporters of the organizing efforts, ignored ALU’s efforts.

The union also has received inquiries from Amazon workers at warehouses and delivery stations in the United States and abroad, asking for help and asserting their interest in organizing unions at their own work sites. Meetings are scheduled with New York elected officials in Albany and with Sean O’Brien, president of the powerful Teamsters union, which has also pledged to unionize Amazon.

Amazon Labor Union leaders, left to right, Connor Spence, Brett Daniels and Angelika Maldonado. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

For Mitchell-Israel, the noise distracts from how ALU won. “There’s so much talk about this union in a way that I think abstracts it and makes it a phenomenon that it’s not. It’s just people, stories, love and of necessity, and that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “You go and you listen and rather than telling them they should vote yes, telling them this is how you you organize, you just ask them the right questions, and people will come up with their own answers. People have different answers, and because it’s the workers, they’re the ones affected, that’s going to be the right answer.”

With more than one million employees in the United States, Amazon is the second largest private employer in the country. The company has faced public scrutiny for years over workers reporting abysmal working conditions, high injury rates and immense pressures on productivity, which have contributed to annual turnover rates by about 150%.

In Staten Island, the Covid-19 pandemic has escalated the clash between Amazon and its employees. ALU founder Chris Smalls, then an assistant manager at Amazon, helped lead a strike in March 2020 over lack of Covid-19 protections and was fired soon after. Leaked memos showed Amazon executives disparaging Smalls as ‘not smart or articulate’ during a meeting with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and suggesting it would be a win for them if they did. him “the face of the entire trade union/trade union movement”.

“Good, there you go! Smalls tweeted last week.

“The workers I organize with are like my family now,” Smalls told the Guardian. “Bringing this victory to them is the best feeling in the world after the birth of my children. »

Smalls’ story proved powerful on Staten Island. “When I talk to workers, I tell them I was wrongfully terminated because I tried to protect the health and safety of workers, and that can happen to you,” Smalls said after helping form the band. “You can complain or submit a grievance, and they could just fire you or target you to be fired, or retaliate against you. And there is no protection, so the only way for us to be protected is to form this union.

The ALU fight is far from over. Organizers are currently gearing up for the next union election at the LDJ5 sorting center in Staten Island, which begins April 25, and are cementing resources, such as finding office space, ahead of the fight to negotiate a first union contract with Amazon, which will continues to vehemently oppose unions.

The tech company may have lost that battle, but it’s still fighting. “We are disappointed with the Staten Island election result because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” Amazon said in response to the labor victory. “We are weighing our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence of the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) have witnessed in this election. .”

Shortly after the union victory, internal documents leaked to the Intercept revealed that an internal messaging app intended for employees would block the use of words or phrases such as ‘union’, ‘pay raises’ , “living wage” or “representation”.

Amazon has a history of firing workers involved in organizing activities and automatically firing workers for minor infractions, including Jason Anthony, a picker at JFK8 on Staten Island and a union organizer and founding member of ALU.

In the summer of 2020, Anthony was automatically terminated from Amazon when his unpaid leave went into the red. He was out of prescription drugs and transport to the warehouse was limited due to Covid-19 restrictions and staffing issues with public transport.

ALU founder Chris Smalls disparaged as
ALU founder Chris Smalls, denigrated as “neither smart nor articulate” in internal Amazon communications, had the final say. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

Anthony had to wait over a year to be rehired, but is currently being investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over Amazon’s alleged lack of accommodation for workers with mental disabilities. He is currently on short-term disability following a back injury sustained at Amazon during peak season in December 2021.

He knew Chris Smalls long before Smalls became a celebrity in the American labor movement. “Chris was the best person you could work with. He cared about his people from a human perspective, not just as a manager,” Anthony said, “When he was made redundant in 2020, I’m went into the building to support him and when I was fired several months later I called him and asked him for his support, so since then we have developed a brotherhood that will never be broken. might argue, have internal disagreements here and there, but at the end of the day, we always come together.

Now, the ALU will begin negotiations with Amazon with the aim of improving working conditions, wages, breaks and their lives as workers. The union plans to strengthen these efforts in the United States and abroad at Amazon.

New York is a union city and replicating Staten Island’s victory may prove difficult across the United States. Another organizing effort in Alabama is in play, with Amazon currently leading the votes. But Anthony is convinced that change is coming. “This victory is just the start of a world revolution,” he said.

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