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The unexpected victory of a grassroots labor movement at Amazon in New York

Members of the Amazon Labor Union celebrate the founding of the company's first union, in New York City on April 1, 2022.

It was at the start of the Covid-19 crisis, in March 2020, at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse, a gigantic sorting center located on Staten Island and intended to serve the huge New York metropolis. At the time, the Big Apple had turned into a ghost town, the global epicenter of the pandemic, and Amazon was essential to the survival of the city.

Employees then live in fear of Covid-19. Learning that one of his colleagues has tested positive, Chris Smalls, an African-American from New Jersey, requests that the warehouse be stopped for its disinfection. Management refuses and puts him in paid quarantine. In the process, on March 30, Chris Smalls organized a small demonstration which earned him his dismissal, on the pretext that he broke his confinement. “Acting cost me my job”, he laments then.

Amazon, second largest employer in the country behind Walmart

The young man, aged 29 at the time, continued to act, and exactly two years later, he popped the champagne on Friday 1er April, in New York: the employees of the JFK8 warehouse voted by a large majority – ie 2,654 votes for and 2,131 against – for the syndication of their site, which employs more than 8,300 employees. “To the first union in American history at Amazon”, toasted Mr. Smalls after the count. A first for this group, the country’s second largest employer behind Walmart, with more than 1.1 million employees.

The company founded by Jeff Bezos, which has always managed to avoid unions since its creation in 1995, suffered a bitter political defeat. “We are disappointed with the outcome of the Staten Island election because we believe it is better for our employees to have a direct relationship with the company”lamented Amazon in a terse statement.

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Vermont senator Bernie Sanders gloated on Twitter: “I think it will be a boost for the labor movement in this country.” Joe Biden’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, recalled for her part that “the president is a long-time supporter of the right of workers to organize for better jobs and better lives.”

Two years after the Covid-19 pandemic, eighteen months after the election of Joe Biden, who promised to be the most “pro unions” never elected, there is strong political momentum. This phenomenon occurs in a context of American union decline: according to the Labor Department, the rate of unionized private sector employees fell, in 2021, to an all-time low of 6.1%. With syndication reaching 33.9% in the public sector, the overall rate in the United States is now 10.3%, twice as low as in 1983.

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