After only 11 months of organizing, Staten Island warehouse JFK8 has become the first Amazon warehouse in the United States to successfully unionize. The victory came by a vote of 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of joining, with 67 ballots being challenged. Amazon Labor Union now represents the largest fulfillment center in New York.
The grassroots efforts, led by best friends Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, were met with great resistance from company leadership. Workers say Amazon put together mandatory warning of the dangers of unionizing. Amazon’s brief statement about the development forebodes a rough road ahead for contract negotiations. The statement reads, in part: “We’re disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.”
It's clear that the workers at warehouse JFK8 see unionizing as a benefit to company culture. They have outlined “eight immediate changes” they'd like to see put into place as protections and benefits, including paid time off for work injuries; promotions to account for the extra work, training and skill required for some positions; and reinstating 20-minute breaks.
Palmer, who led internal efforts to organize, told National Public Radio that unionizing wasn’t necessarily an inevitable path forward: “…you know, who knows if Amazon would have treated us right? Instead of listening to our concerns, you know, during the pandemic, they decided to take their own stance." The impetus to unionize began after Smalls, the interim union president, described being wrongfully terminated for organizing a walkout due to inadequate pandemic safety conditions in the warehouse. Smalls told NPR he has already heard from 50 warehouses around the world that are interested in following in the fulfillment center’s footsteps.
Amazon has been open about its mission to be "customer-centric" — some may argue to the detriment of worker treatment. But does there have to be a tug of war between company success and attentiveness to employee needs? It seems the company has already been shifting its approach toward employee welfare. In a 2020 letter to shareholders, founder and Executive Chair Jeff Bezos wrote: "Despite what we’ve accomplished, it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for our employees’ success. We have always wanted to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company. We won’t change that. It’s what got us here. But I am committing us to an addition. We are going to be Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work."
Soon after the news of the newly-minted union broke, LinkedIn announced its top companies to join for career growth. For the second consecutive year, Amazon was placed at the top. In a way, unionizing can also be seen as a vote of confidence in the company. Smalls told NPR: “You know, people got to get out of that mentality of, 'Oh, let me just quit my job.' Because when you quit your job, guess what? They hire somebody else. So you're jumping from one fire into the next, and the system doesn't get fixed by doing that." By staying, employees show that they think progress can occur.
If Amazon were to embrace the tide of unionization amongst its workforce, it could also welcome additional business benefits. For one, Amazon's turnover rate of hourly employees has been unusually high, even before the start of the pandemic — at a rate of about 150 percent a year. Hiring replacements doesn’t come cheap. Susan Schurman, who was executive director of the George Meany Center for Labor Studies, told the Harvard Business Review back in 1998 that there are also risks to challenging unionization efforts. A company could risk further souring its relationship with employees, she said.
Today, pro-union organizations such as Union Plus tout a similar outlook on the benefits unionization can have for employers. Further, the Economic Policy Institute has argued that unions are particularly crucial during times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for people of color.
Almost a quarter century ago, Schurman added potential benefits that are often overlooked: "I find that dealing with union representatives is absolutely the best way to solve most of the problems related to human resources that I face on a daily basis quickly, efficiently, and to the satisfaction of all parties. I’m convinced that one of the most difficult challenges top managers face is getting honest information from their management teams about the problems that go on within their organizations."
We have yet to see what will come from the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island. What is certain is that the needs of these employees are starting to get the attention they deserve.
Image credit: Yunsik Noh via Unsplash
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.