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The Future of Workers’ Rights

The Future of Workers’ Rights

On April 1, 2022, workers voted convincingly to form a labor union at Amazon’s facility in Staten Island, New York. Amazon’s fight against unionization met its match, defeated not by well-funded external labor unions, but by a low-budget, independent group, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). The ALU spent $120,000 on the campaign, raised through GoFundMe, defeating the trillion+-dollar Amazon empire’s push to suppress worker organizing. The company spent $4.3 million in 2021 alone on anti-union consultants to help keep its 1.1 million workers disorganized and disempowered.

The workers voted 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of creating the ALU, the first-ever Amazon union. The darkhorse victory grew out of the determination, courage and conviction demonstrated by Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, who had worked at the facility, and whose authenticity resonated during the 11-month-long union campaign. In the spring of 2020, after learning organizing efforts were underway in their New York City warehouses, Amazon launched a smear campaign against the organizing lead, Smalls. Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky questioned Small’s street-casual demeanor and called him “not smart, or articulate” – unfounded stereotypes which reveal thinly-veiled racism exhibited by the Amazon executive team. Amazon attempted to silence Smalls by firing him in 2020 after he led a walkout to protest COVID-related health and safety issues.

The termination sparked something in Smalls, and he and his partner, Derrick Palmer, began their union campaign in earnest in early 2021. Concurrently, Amazon ran two major campaigns against unionizing efforts in Alabama and New York City. Amazon paid anti-union consultants $3,200 per day, each, to host mandatory meetings for captive audiences of employees, and one-on-one meetings with workers to turn them against the union organizing efforts. The mandatory meetings were typically led by Amazon managers who delivered scripted anti-union speeches and slideshows, but the efforts backfired, when contrasted with Smalls’ grassroots approach.

Smalls organized workers by waiting at a Staten Island MTA bus stop that brings workers to and from the LDJ5 Amazon sorting center and the JFK8 fulfillment center. Smalls would wait at the MTA bus stop for hours at a time, days on end – even after being arrested and accused of trespassing and resisting arrest on Amazon property. The bus stop outside the warehouse became a place of refuge for workers to enjoy Palmer’s homemade baked ziti, empanadas, and West African rice dishes alongside a makeshift bonfire to warm colleagues waiting for the bus in the cold. Meantime, Smalls and his team used unconventional organizing methods such as Twitter and TikTok to raise money, recruit legal representation, and gain supporters.

The momentous victory of the ALU is especially important in the light of the drastic decline in union membership in the U.S., which fell from 20% in 1983 to 10.3% in 2021. Early unions’ intentions were to raise wages obtain basic worker protections, and level the playing field. In fact, many of today’s employment laws would not exist had workers not unionized. However, despite these great ideals, anti-union campaigns and the unfortunate reproduction of bias within some unions have been barriers to progress. Gradually, as unions became more institutionalized, many workers began to feel suspicious of them. Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, the majority of whom are young, Black, Latino, working class and urban, may not have felt that established unions spoke for them.

Smalls, a 33-year-old Black man operating independently, and his ALU, stepped into this void. When asked about traditional unions, Smalls said he felt that established unions were “disconnected from innovative styles of organizing. To emphasize his point, Smalls camped out at the MTA bus stop for 10 months as union president. The ALU’s innovative use of scrappy resources such as social media, the MTA bus stop, and makeshift advertisements made with tape and cardboard, may be revealing a new era in workers’ rights. In the envisioned new era, leadership takes nontraditional forms, where union presidents come from diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses, and organizing methods are no longer restricted to well-staffed offices and dues-financed operations. Smalls, with his collection of tattoos, gold grills, and former career as a rap singer, may be the future of labor unions in America, an outsider to mainstream power structures driven only by his passion to make people’s working conditions better.

Undoubtedly, advocating for your rights in the workplace is a terrifying endeavor, especially against a giant like Amazon, but by harnessing the strength of community, Smalls was not alone. What Smalls and his team have shown is that this source of strength, plus some clever grassroots labor organizing, can fell giants.

Bryan Schwartz Law stands unwaveringly with workers in advocating for their rights. When such rights are violated, Bryan Schwartz Law will empower workers to fight back. If you feel that your employer has compromised your rights in the workplace, including your right to concerted action with your co-workers, reach out to us here.

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