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What Amazon's 1st union means for organized labor


Amazon workers at a warehouse on Staten Island in New York have pulled off a shocking upset. They voted to form a union, the first at the company in the United States. Gwynne Hogan of the member station WNYC reports on what their victory means for organized labor.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Warehouse workers are waiting with anticipation. They've come to a plaza outside the offices of the National Labor Relations Board in downtown Brooklyn, where the votes are being tallied.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Looking in the telegram. I'm looking...

HOGAN: Each update from the count inside...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Twenty-six hundred to 2,101. Oh, my God.

HOGAN: ...Sparks spontaneous screams, hugs and tears.



HOGAN: The ALU, or the Amazon Labor Union, was created by current and former workers at the Staten Island facility. It's a scrappy group not affiliated with any national union and has never run a drive before. And yet, against all odds, they pulled it off.

CHRIS SMALLS: Union strong, baby.


HOGAN: The president of the new union, Chris Smalls, pops a bottle of champagne.

SMALLS: To the first union in American history.


HOGAN: Smalls worked at Amazon for five years, but he was fired at the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020 after he led a walkout over safety concerns. The company says they fired him for violating COVID protocols. Some 8,000 employees work at the warehouse, and more than 5,000 cast ballots in the election.

SMALLS: If I could do this unemployed, what's stopping anybody?

HOGAN: A spokesperson for Amazon says the company is disappointed in the outcome of the election, and they're reviewing their legal options. But organizers here say this is just the beginning. There's a second union vote scheduled at the end of the month for a warehouse right across the street from the first one. And the union wants to organize other warehouses in the region as well.

SMALLS: I think this is going to be another tidal wave of, you know, efforts going against Amazon, just like Starbucks. You know, we hope that we have that type of effect.

HOGAN: The first Starbucks shops voted to unionize in Buffalo, N.Y., last fall. And now organizers say more than 150 stores across the country are seeking a union vote. Labor experts are watching to see if the same type of ripple effect might occur with Amazon. Ruth Milkman is a labor sociologist at the City University of New York. She says, looking back on U.S. history, growth in unions doesn't happen incrementally. It comes in spurts.

RUTH MILKMAN: Other workers will see that it is possible to overcome employer opposition, and maybe they'll try it, too. You know, if you can do it at Amazon, you know, this giant behemoth, maybe you can do it in my workplace.

HOGAN: The Amazon labor union campaigned on promises of higher wages, longer breaks and better job security. And worker Meena Shuler (ph) was eager to cast her ballot in their favor. She was the first person in line when polls opened over a week ago.

MEENA SHULER: I just hope that this makes Amazon a better place for the employees all around the world because it's OK to want high standards, but we deserve - as human beings, we deserve high standards, too.

HOGAN: Organizers say they're planning to celebrate their victory and get some much-needed sleep. But come Monday, they'll be back at it, campaigning to bring another 1,500 workers into the union.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Union, union, union...

HOGAN: For NPR News, I'm Gwynne Hogan in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gwynne Hogan