Desean Mcclinton-Holland/The New York Times

Cornell students and faculty discuss recent Amazon unionization efforts.

April 13, 2022

ILR Faculty and Students Share Insight on Amazon Unionization and Beyond

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On April 1, workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse won what many labor experts consider a historic victory for the American labor movement.

Despite a multi-million dollar union-busting campaign by Amazon, workers at its Staten Island warehouse voted 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of unionization. This is the first successful unionization effort by Amazon employees in the United States.

While the Staten Island warehouse succeeded in its unionization effort, Amazon continues to successfully squash unionization efforts at other locations: on the same day that JFK8 voted to unionize, an Alabama Amazon warehouse’s unionization vote failed, although some votes are still being contested.

Many have been left seeking a reason for the two outcomes. Faculty at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations are speculating as to the causes.

Unlike at the Bessemer, A.L. facility, where the workers attempted to join the national Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the organization responsible for the JFK8 vote, Amazon Labor Union, is an independent union led by Chris Smalls, a former Amazon worker who was fired in March of 2020 after leading a walkout to protest poor warehouse safety conditions at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Proskauer Employment and Labor Law Assistant Professor Desiree LeClercq, industrial and labor relations, said she believes that Smalls’ charisma and organizing skills contributed to the union’s success.

“This is how our labor movements have always gone,” LeClercq said. “There’s always been a fierce warrior that’s kind of driving the path and everybody else gets really motivated and follows.”

LeClercq attributed the difference in results between Staten Island and Bessemer in part to the difference in leadership.

“If the results really center on one person and that person is really just tied to this particular facility, then potentially that charisma variable isn’t going to be at these other Amazon facilities,” LeClercq said.

John Clancy ’22, a senior in the ILR school, echoed this sentiment when discussing the union’s success.

“[The unionization movements are] kind of getting back to the basics of the 1930s and kind of the wildcat strikes of labor action beginning within the workplace and not from the outside,” Clancy said.

However, LeClercq pointed out that there are advantages and disadvantages to both the independent and national models of unionization.

“With a larger union, they’ll also get the legal support and the strategy ideas for once it comes time to start trying to negotiate for that first contract,” said LeClercq.

Although Amazon has vowed to challenge the JFK8 election results, LeClercq said she does not believe they will succeed, since appeals are made on technical grounds which she thinks are missing in this case.

Recent unionization pushes have not been limited to Amazon. Workers at Starbucks have also begun unionization efforts. As of March 21, over 150 Starbucks stores had filed petitions to unionize. Ithaca’s three Starbucks locations voted last week to unionize, making Ithaca the first American city to have all its Starbucks locations fully unionized.

Some ILR students point to changes in worker perceptions of the value of their labor as a driving force behind the current surge in unionization drives. Arlenny Taveras ’24, a sophomore in ILR, said she believes that the current economic climate has made unionization more attractive and important than ever.

“People are just growing intolerant to not having enough money to cover basic needs,” Taveras said. “So especially [for] retail workers or service workers at Amazon and Starbucks it’s very important for them to have that unionization.”

With the success of recent Amazon and Starbucks unionization efforts, Clancy said he hopes that more workers will be inspired to unionize.

“Once you start winning elections, hopefully that’s going to turn into a wave,” he said.