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Christian Smalls celebrates with Amazon workers

Union organizer Christian Smalls celebrates with Amazon workers following the vote to unionize a Staten Island, New York warehouse on April 1, 2022. (Photo: Andrea Renault/AFP via Getty Images)

'David Beats Goliath': Workers in New York Vote to Form Amazon's First-Ever Union in US

"We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space, because when he was up there, we were signing people up," said Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union.

Jake Johnson

Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York won their election Friday to form the retail giant's first-ever union in the United States, a landmark victory for the labor movement in the face of aggressive union-busting efforts from one of the world's most powerful companies.

According to an initial tally released by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), there were 2,654 votes in favor of recognizing a union and 2,131 against. The number of disputed ballots, 67, is not nearly enough to change the outcome.

The historic unionization drive at the JFK8 fulfillment center was spearheaded by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a worker-led group not affiliated with any established union. Christian Smalls, the president of ALU, was fired by Amazon in 2020 after he led a protest against the company's poor workplace safety standards in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

"When Covid-19 came into play, Amazon failed us," Smalls said during a press conference after the union victory was announced. "We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space, because when he was up there, we were signing people up."

Long-time labor journalist Steven Greenhouse wrote Friday that "the unionization victory at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island is by far the biggest, beating-the-odds, David-versus-Goliath unionization win I've seen."

"America's wealthiest, most powerful, most seemingly indispensable company has lost to a pop-up coalition of workers," Greenhouse added. "A generation, the younger generation, is stirring."

Amazon, which spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants in 2021 alone, worked hard to crush the unionization effort, forcing employees to attend hundreds of captive-audience meetings and threatening workers with pay cuts and other potential consequences.

But the company's union-busting campaign wasn't enough to overcome the upstart revolt led by ALU, which was founded just months ago.

Derrick Palmer, a co-founder of ALU and an employee at the Staten Island warehouse, said he expects Friday's victory to be one of many. The election still must be certified by the NLRB.

"This will be the first union," said Palmer, "but moving forward, that will motivate other workers to get on board with us."

In a statement, Amazon said it is "disappointed" by the results and signaled it may file formal objections claiming "inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB." Just last month, the NLRB sued Amazon in federal court, alleging the corporation unlawfully fired a Staten Island warehouse employee in retaliation for workplace organizing.

The board asked the court to force Amazon to fix its "flagrant unfair labor practices" ahead of the Staten Island union election. On Friday, Amazon pointed to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce blog post characterizing the NLRB's legal action as "curiously timed."

Widespread celebration followed the official announcement of the union's election win on Friday, with progressive lawmakers and activists hailing the victory as a potential watershed moment for the U.S. labor movement, which has struggled for decades amid corporate America's relentless assault. Union membership in the U.S. declined by 241,000 workers in 2021, according to Labor Department figures.

"The organizing victory at Amazon on Staten Island is a signal that American workers will no longer accept exploitation," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted Friday. "They're tired of working longer hours for lower wages. They want an economy that works for all, not just Jeff Bezos."

The union has much difficult work ahead. As HuffPost labor reporter Dave Jamieson noted, it must negotiate "a first collective bargaining agreement with one of the most powerful companies in the world."

"It can take years for a union to secure a first contract, and some never manage to," Jamieson wrote. "Amazon would have a strong incentive not to offer the union a decent deal, for fear it would only encourage more unionization elsewhere."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated a quote from Christian Smalls.

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