The ALU also benefited from geography. “New York City is a union town,” said RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum during a Thursday evening press conference, noting that he was “thrilled” for the ALU, which at that time was ahead in the results. “It is one of the most union-friendly towns in one of the most union-friendly cities in the United States. Alabama, on the other hand, has a different environment. It’s a right-to-work state with very, very low union density.” (Unions in right-to-work states cannot require workers to pay dues or union membership fees, blunting their power.)
In both Bessemer and Staten Island, Amazon dispatched pricey union-avoidance consultants to run ferocious anti-union campaigns, barraging workers with “vote no” texts, in-app messages, letters, ads, one-on-one conversations, and anti-union meetings. A Huffington Post report published Thursday found that the company spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants last year. Over the course of a yearlong campaign, the ALU filed dozens of unfair-labor-practice charges with the NLRB, accusing Amazon of actions that included clearing out pro-union literature and retaliating against ALU supporters.
Amazon has long fought against labor organizing, but the Covid-19 crisis sent it into overdrive. Employee dissatisfaction grew as executives racked up billions in profits, while essential workers risked their safety to meet exploding demand for ecommerce during the pandemic. A few months into lockdown, fed-up workers in Bessemer contacted the RWDSU about unionizing.
Other employees staged protests and walkouts, blasting the company for failing to adequately protect them. In Staten Island, Amazon workers Christian Smalls, Gerald Bryson, Jordan Flowers, and Derrick Palmer organized a walkout of the JFK8 warehouse, after Smalls says upper management asked him not to notify the Tier 1 associates he supervised about their exposure to Covid-19.
In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel wrote, “Since the early days of Covid, we have always followed the guidance of federal and local health authorities, and our own workplace health and safety experts and independent epidemiologists, ensuring we can continue to serve communities while providing a safe and healthy work environment,” citing the $15 billion the company spent on Covid-19 safety.
The company promptly fired Smalls for violating a quarantine policy, which he says didn’t exist until after his firing. It also fired Bryson for violating a policy against vulgar language. Last month, the labor board asked a federal court to reinstate Bryson, who had filed an unfair-labor-practice charge, accusing the company of retaliation. Executives vowed to make Smalls the face of the union movement, according to a memo leaked to Vice, saying he was “not smart or articulate.” Smalls set out to “make them eat their words.”
Smalls traveled the country continuing his demonstrations, including one in October 2020 outside Jeff Bezos’ Beverly Hills mansion. In April 2021, Smalls and his former coworkers launched the Amazon Labor Union, with Smalls as president.
Organizers campaigned at the warehouse daily, setting up a makeshift headquarters at a nearby bus stop, which they staffed through rain, snow, and below-zero temperatures, until a December NLRB settlement allowed them to occupy the break rooms inside the facility. They flooded social media with images of food deliveries to workers and videos of union members lambasting company representatives in anti-union meetings. They commandeered the Voice of the Associates Board, where workers can post feedback for their supervisors, to challenge anti-union messaging. They told workers the ALU was fighting for a pay raise to $30 an hour, longer breaks, and better job security, among other demands.