Amazon Labor Union: a long and restless fight

Published on Nov. 19, 2023

Work Hard. Have Fun. Make History. Every day, hundreds of thousands of employees across the world read these words printed in large, bold font, just before they clock in for work in a large field of gray and yellow, lined with metal machinery stretching up to one million square feet.

This is the landscape of Amazon’s fulfillment centers, which house millions of products from ‘A to Z’ as they await to be shipped out to the doorsteps of the e-commerce company’s 300 million plus active customers. In today’s material driven world, and particularly as the recent global pandemic invited a steady emergence of remote-centered lifestyles, Amazon workers assumed a position which, to some degree, rendered them postmodern first responders– meeting our dire demands for sanitary or other essentials via overnight express shipping.

And though Amazon fulfillment centers continue to transform their operations through highly advanced robotics that can efficiently navigate its mass production facilities, the rapid same-day delivery enjoyed by Amazon Prime members simply wouldn’t exist without the labor contributed by its human workforce.

However the more the Amazon worker’s story unfolds, the more apparent it becomes that there are urgent reforms required to address the many complaints put forth regarding rights and safety violations. Each day employees of the Amazon fulfillment centers must “meet rate,” an expression collectively used by workers to refer to the high quotas set for them on the amount of packages they scan and prepare for exportation.

The stressful environment this generates has caused many employees to leave the job, reporting that they were often obligated to cheat safety standards and operate their shifts in utter silence in order to meet the requirements of the day.

According to former employee experiences, it appears that “Work Hard” was the only aspect of Amazon’s motto at play.  In fact, perspectives offered by Jeff Bezos himself as well as multiple of Amazon’s senior executives found in the PBS Frontline documentary, “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos,” reveal that the chief priority for Amazon has always been an “obsession with the customer.” Such a pursuit, in the case of Amazon’s growth, has largely silenced and compromised the safety of the very workers they have employed to keep their company alive and their customers satisfied.

Between 2021 and 2022, Amazon has been cited for violating Washington state labor laws through unsafe work practices at the three of its fulfillment centers, which, according to accounts of various regulators, put employees at serious risk of musculoskeletal injuries. Regulators found that the physical hazards, provoked by requirements of picking or stowing hundreds of items per hour for long shifts with short breaks, are known by Amazon management and ignored. Amazon has denied all allegations and are fighting lawsuits defiantly. It appears that in the wake of controversy, Amazon shifts their widely announced customer priority back to the worker– identifying that the “safety of [their] employees is [their] top priority,” as relayed by an Amazon spokesperson in response to safety lawsuits in Washington. And yet, when efforts among workers to voice concerns as a collected front arise, Amazon surely asserts its disfavor of unionization.

According to an animated video formerly previewed to Amazon management regarding employee rights and labor laws, unionization does not serve “the interests of [their] customers, [their] shareholders, or most importantly, [their] associates.” Perhaps unionization does not directly concern these parties, but there is most certainly a widespread interest in the social benefits brought by unionization. According to Gallup’s annual Work and Education survey, labor union support from Americans is at its highest since 1965, at a majority of 71 percent.

The Amazon employee’s fight for unionization has been long and restless, only turning progressions, and in some respects regressions, in the past couple of years regarding the actual ability for Amazon’s workforce to exist as a unionized front. As labor unrest began to stir during the wake of the pandemic, as fulfillment center workers were fed up with the conditions and standards brought about by their work. Chris Smalls, before founding the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), led a small protest on this matter in his warehouse branch in Staten Island, during March of 2020– which would lead Amazon to terminate his position at the company. Just a year later his efforts would however achieve the first ever victory on behalf of workers to establish their intolerance to unfair wages and safety compromises. The 8,000 workers employed at JFK8 warehouse had outvoted, just barely, the opposition to approve the unionization campaign, marked as a highly significant moment in the history of Amazon. Among the new unions’ demands were eight immediate changes from Amazon, including paid time off for injured workers, pay raises, an end to arbitrary discipline, and a shuttle bus to and from The Staten Island Ferry to accommodate the far commute. For months on end, the organizing committee handed out flyers in the break room and operated a sort of Union Hall at the M.T.A. bus shelter across the street from JFK8, where workers catch the S40 or S90 to the ferry terminal. Various signs displaying messages such as “We’re not machines– We’re human beings” could be found on the buses.

The ALU remains the only labor union for Amazon in the United States. Amazon’s response: “‘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.”  Amazon even unsuccessfully attempted to sue the board to challenge the recognition of ALU, claiming that they felt the election process was not “fair, legitimate, or representative of what the majority of our team wants.” In addition to this response were multi-angled attempts to overturn the union favored votes. While the historic victory has sustained, Amazon’s most powerful executives upholding an anti-union perspective has generally meant that ALU expansion opportunities outside Staten Island have not developed in the way many hoped it would. The stagnation even festers internally; NYC workers under Chris Smalls leadership have recently begun to outwardly oppose the election practices upheld within the union and proposing major changes in its executive board.

Union drives nevertheless continue to form across the states to raise various concerns associated with being a worker for Amazon: heat exhaustion in warehouses, illegal intimidation tactics, low pay, and poor working conditions regarding COVID-19. Though effective change in response tends to be scarce, Amazon has received many citations for “illegally interfering from employee labor organizing.”  What’s more, the ALU has yet to seriously be recognized by Jeff Bezos lead management at the top of Amazon, and negotiations between the groups have not commenced.

As a means to deter pressure from the ALU demand of raising the company’s entry wage for its workers from $18 to $30 per hour, among other objectives, Amazon has decided to increase the average wages of its warehouse and transportation workers from about $18 to $19 per hour. Analysts with the investment banking and advising company Morgan Stanley projected in a note to clients that if Amazon were to raise JFK8 employees’ hourly salaries to $29, operational expenditures might rise by $203 million. That is, however, a small portion of the company’s yearly operational expenses, which exceeded $500 billion in the fiscal year 2022. Considering Amazon’s objection to union demands, analysts at Morgan Stanley further posit that they “do not expect a rapid trend toward unionization,” but that if additional warehouses choose to unionize, Amazon’s costs will increase, concluding that even unionization of just “1% of Amazon’s front-line workforce would result in an additional $150 million in annual [operating expenses].”

Other technical accommodations have been mediocre attempts to satisfy complaining workers, while many Amazon workers continue to find it not enough.        

The power of unions does not just exist within the unions themselves. Even those of us on the outside of the Amazon workforce hold the power to contest greedy management by denying expansion opportunities in our cities without the agreement to allow unionization. Such a situation happened when Amazon sought to place its second headquarters in New York, and most recently when it sought to place a large fulfillment center in the middle of the tightly packed San Francisco. Despite promises to San Franciscans to meet product demand quicker with the construction of a more local facility, the people of the city know that truck drivers will suffer, as their wage standards are eroded by competition by Amazon’s  anti-union approach. Unions and community groups working together to defeated Amazon’s plans in New York and San Francisco. Organized labor is the platform they have and cannot afford to lose in the wake of rising wealth inequality and huge conglomerates attempting to control every branch of society, so it is vital that we all do our part to defend its necessity.

by Sydney Tweedley

Additional Materials

  1. Read about Amazon Union in New York here