Future of labor faces fundamental shift after Amazon union vote
April 5, 2022
Now that Staten Island Amazon warehouse workers have voted to form a union, what comes next?
The following Cornell University experts are available for interviews on next steps and larger impacts of the first successful union attempt at Amazon.
Adam Seth Litwin, associate professor of industrial and labor relations, says a big decision lays ahead for Amazon – fight and try to prevent a union contract, or accept the results and create a positive relationship with the new union.
“Amazon has a big decision to make. On the one hand, the company can keep fighting. It can try to prevent the JFK8 workers from ever reaching a contract and continue fighting tooth and nail to combat any additional organizing. On the other hand, Amazon could accept these results, declare neutrality on any other attempts — including ongoing ones — to organize their fulfillment centers, and embark on a constructive relationship with the new union.
“We’re all interested to see how collective bargaining could change wages and conditions on Staten Island. But whatever those workers negotiate will far understate the effectiveness of union organizing. In the leadup to this vote, Amazon has very publicly raised wages and employment conditions. In all likelihood, many of their competitors have, too.
“Perhaps the easiest, legal way for an employer to halt union organizing is to improve their treatment of workers. The mere threat of unionization pushes employers to improve conditions — one reason why very low union density numbers bely the real impact of unions on labor market outcomes.”
Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research and a senior lecturer, is an expert on union and employer strategies in organizing and bargaining. She says JFK8’s move to unionize is sending ripple effects throughout the labor industry.
“Workers at the JFK8 Amazon Warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y. took both the labor and corporate world by surprise when they voted for union representation with Amazon Labor Union (ALU). An historic victory, it is having ripple effects throughout the labor movement and corporate world.
“ALU’s victory (and Workers United victories at Starbucks) shows workers that they can take on the world’s largest and most powerful anti-union employers—and no matter how hard the employer tries to stop them—they can win.
“Unions are celebrating ALU’s victory and taking note of the key role played by on the ground worker-to-worker organizing in the campaign’s success. Time will tell whether the rest of the movement can or will adapt their organizing culture to be less staff driven.
“Amazon continues to act with the same hubris that led to the organizing campaign in the first place. Rather than admit defeat, the company is challenging the legitimacy of the election on the grounds of NLRB interference.”
Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says Chris Smalls’ victory story is an important moment – giving workers hope and proving as a lesson for traditional unions, showing they must revise their models of organizing.
“The Amazon workers’ victory in Staten Island, plus the increase in union support at the Bessemer, A.L. facility – despite a multi-million anti-union intimidation campaign – is a continuation of a trend that will force the current investor driven profit business model of corporate America to change.
“Workers are demanding a share in the prosperity of corporate America. In additional to a good middle-class sustainable wage, workers are demanding basic health and safety on the job, social safety net protections including paid sick and family leave, plus control over their working hours to allow them the ability to plan their lives with their families.
“The fundamental shift after the pandemic is simple – consumers are more sympathetic to workers' and want corporate American to do better. This energy and momentum exists in big facilities like Amazon, but also in small retail like Starbucks. Even in places like McDonalds, workers are walking out of jobs in collective action demanding better working conditions.
“Traditional unions must change their models of organizing; they can't wait for one big formula, or policy solution, to organize the whole corporation at the same time. They need to start experimenting and listening to workers on the ground, giving them the tools to organize and supporting them with the legal representation to do so.
“The David versus Goliath story of Chris Smalls is important because it gives workers hope that they can also challenge the big power of corporate America. But it is also a lesson for organized labor, that they must learn to follow the courage of the workers ready to organize at their own facilities with their own message.”
Harry Katz, professor of collective bargaining, is an expert in trade unions, contract negations and collective bargaining. He can speak to the recent uptick in organizing and strike activity in the larger context of the labor industry now and throughout history.