An Amazon warehouse outside Albany, New York, is looking to organize with the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU), highlighting a major shift toward worker-led unions that aren’t affiliated with the large national organizations that still dominate union membership in the US.
It’s the third union campaign to be backed by the ALU, whose president, Christian Smalls, was fired by Amazon in March 2020 after he led a walkout demanding protections from the then-raging pandemic. That led to the ALU’s founding last year by him, other former Amazon employees, and warehouse staff. In April, the ALU successfully organized workers in Staten Island, New York, into the first unionized Amazon warehouse. It’s still the only successful example of unionizing Amazon.
Now organizers at the Albany-area warehouse are collecting signatures from their fellow employees at ALB1 Fulfillment Center, where they estimate about 400 workers are eligible to join the union. The union campaign is underway with an upcoming rally on July 17 in Albany’s Washington Park, as well as a website for donations.
Heather Goodall, who works at the Albany-area warehouse and serves as the union’s campaign manager, said the organizing committee met with national unions, including the Teamsters (“They didn’t seem to have the same goals and strategies that we did,” Goodall said) and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which backed an ultimately unsuccessful Amazon organizing effort in Bessemer, Alabama. Goodall said they chose the ALU because they believed in grassroots organizing and thought it would ultimately be more effective.
“We have an opportunity to make history by working with them,” Goodall said, “and we also wanted to create that solidarity across the board with all Amazonians.”
How independent labor unions could change organizing in the US
As the world’s second-largest employer, Amazon has more than 1,000 warehouses in the US and so much need for labor that it’s worried about running out of people to hire. Its warehouses would seem to be good candidates for organizing, given employees’ concerns about dangerous working conditions, grueling quotas, and technology that’s led to people accidentally being fired and losing benefits.
But Amazon union campaigns have thus far struggled due to the company’s huge size and high turnover: It’s harder to build solidarity when employees don’t stick around long enough to know each other. Amazon has also employed a range of alleged union-busting tactics. So far, just three Amazon warehouses—two in Staten Island and one in Bessemer—have gotten to the point of holding union elections.
Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement that Amazon employees have the choice over whether to join a union. The company’s position, she said, is that “we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees.”
If the ALB1 effort near Albany is successful, it could lend momentum to both the burgeoning labor movement at Amazon and to the broader trend of independent unions spearheading organizing efforts at major US employers, especially chains and other companies with lots of physical outposts.
Workers at a Trader Joe’s grocery store in Hadley, Massachusetts, will vote later this month on whether to form an independent union, which would be the company’s first. Starbucks’ huge wave of successful union drives are backed by a larger parent union, Workers United, but have largely operated as decentralized, worker-led initiatives in each individual store.
Labor experts say there’s reason to bet on grassroots unions as the way of the future. “We may be on the cusp of a union revival like American workers haven’t seen in almost a century,” John Logan, director of San Francisco State University’s labor and employment studies program, writes in The Conversation.
The advantages of grassroots organizing
Young, independent unions like the ALU lack the resources, experience, and reach of national unions. But they have some big advantages, too.
Companies often try to discourage workers from joining unions by framing the groups as bureaucracy-laden third parties that don’t understand the culture and history of a particular workplace and will only get in the way of resolving issues better worked out directly between employers and employees.
But such arguments tend to fall flat with workers when the union is led directly by their colleagues, who understand workplace issues firsthand. “When workers take the lead, it means you’re more likely to have local buy-in—the organizers are inside the workplace and known and trusted by their co-workers,” Logan writes.
Many companies also prohibit outside organizers from entering their property, as longtime labor reporter Steven Greenhouse writes for The Century Foundation. But they can’t stop current employees who happen to be spearheading union efforts from organizing their colleagues on company premises—a tactic used to great effect by the ALU in its successful Staten Island campaign. Independent unions can also organize more cheaply and more quickly than traditional unions.
That said, these grassroots campaigns may well need additional help, legal advice, and funding from traditional labor to succeed in the long run, particularly when they reach the bargaining stage with companies like Amazon. “The big unions have the money and resources to help the new youth-driven movement expand rapidly,” Greenhouse observes in the Los Angeles Times. But rather than help grassroots unions, leaders in big labor could decide to compete with them, instead.
What Amazon warehouse workers want
Chief among the issues ALB1 workers hope to address are what they describe as unsafe working conditions caused by issues like jamming conveyor belts, broken loading carts, and overstuffed and collapsing bins. The workers have taken photographs to document some of those issues on a publicly available site.
Another important issue involves better training for new employees. Organizing committee member Kim Lane has worked at the ALB1 warehouse since it opened in 2020. She says new employees are often so concerned about meeting their productivity metrics that they don’t complete their tasks correctly, neglecting to label heavy packages or properly close boxes. That has big consequences for employees in charge of moving the boxes, who may throw out their backs lifting a box they didn’t know was heavy. “It’s definitely production over safety,” she says.
Amazon spokesperson Nantel said in a statement that “while we aren’t perfect, we don’t believe these few anecdotes represent the experience of our more than a million front-line employees.” She noted that Amazon is investing heavily in safety “from people—we now have a team of more than 8,000 dedicated safety professionals—to training, to tools and technology.”
The workers also want better wages, such as higher pay when they take on an onslaught of packages during 10-hour shifts for Amazon Prime Day, and to have a say in policies like Amazon’s often-criticized productivity metrics.
If the ALB1 warehouse workers are able to collect enough signatures, the next step would typically be either seeking voluntary recognition (not likely to be granted by Amazon) or holding an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Goodall says they’re hoping to bypass the need for an election by asking for NLRB recognition under a legal standard called Joy Silk.
“We won’t be bullied, manipulated, or abused,” Goodall said. “We will get Amazon to recognize us.”