BROOKLYN (CN) — Amazon union organizers cheered, hugged and popped champagne in celebration of their historic voting victory Friday, which created the company’s first-ever union in the United States.
“Today, the people have spoken. And the people wanted a union,” said Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union. “This is a prime example of the power that people have when they come together.”
Fellow organizers swarmed the union leader as he stepped out of the National Labor Relations Board office in downtown Brooklyn, where votes were counted. He became one of the most visible union leaders when organizing efforts began around a year ago.
Smalls, who worked for Amazon for five years, was fired after leading a March 2020 walk-out of Amazon employees in protest of inadequate protections against the spread of Covid-19. His firing is part of the basis for a retaliation and workplace safety lawsuit filed last year by New York State Attorney General Letitia James.
The final tally was 2,654 yes votes, about 55% of the votes, to 2,131 votes against unionization. Both Amazon and the newly formed union can dispute ballots over the next several days.
The hard-earned win for the independent union owes thanks to consistent efforts to build relationships and trust with employees, Smalls told reporters. Organizers helped raise money for fired workers to help pay their bills and aide those who were homeless and living in shelters. They gave out food — pizza, chicken, pasta, meals cooked by Smalls’ aunt — and held 20-something barbeques.
“Giving out books, literature — giving out free weed ’cause it’s legal,” Smalls said, followed by laughs in the crowd of union members and supporters who gathered in Brooklyn.
“We did whatever it took to connect with those workers, to make their daily lives just a little bit easier, a little bit less stressful,” Smalls said. “When they got off, they saw us right there at that bus stop. Having a bonfire, lighting up s’mores. Whatever it took, we were right there for them every day, and I think that resonated with the workers — something that no established union could do.”
The union’s treasurer, Madeline “Maddie” Wesley, echoed that sentiment in an interview with Courthouse News. Union members and their attorneys have cited Amazon’s sky-high turnover rate as a particular challenge, which the company uses as a tactic to crush union efforts. An independent union, where workers know the ins, outs and grievances of employees, was necessary, according to organizers.
“We believe it’s the only way to organize Amazon, because Amazon has specifically designed their employment system to ward off unions,” Wesley said. “We had to be creative.”
Wesley works at LDJ5, another Staten Island facility, which will hold an election of its own later this month. The two teams are working together ahead of that vote; the initial chapter would have included all four Staten Island facilities, but ultimately broke out into separate chapters.
In the future, Wesley plans to hold webinar training sessions for workers in other parts of the country interested in creating their own chapters. She noted that even though Amazon is in a league of its own, it’s setting standards for employment practices all over.
“Amazon is the future of labor in the United States and around the world,” Wesley said.
Friday’s tally was announced as a separate Amazon union effort in Bessemer, Alabama, is underway for the second time. The results are too close to call, but if successful, the chapter will be part of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.