Last Wednesday, Derrick Palmer clocked in his 7:15 am shift at Amazon’s giant Staten Island warehouse and spent the day packing boxes of board games, iPhones and mini vacuums. The next morning, he boarded a train to Washington, DC, where seasoned union leaders praised him and his best friend, Christian Smalls, for doing what once seemed impossible: unionizing an Amazon facility.
Last week, his David versus Goliath victory has become a symbol of the growing power of working people. In a recent episode of “The Daily,” the two men recounted the twists and turns of their story, from a fateful misdirected email that bounced back in their favor, to the do-it-yourself tactics they used, like free marijuana and campfires, to forge a bond. with co-workers.
But the duration of his victory is far from assured. In the coming weeks, the fight between the new union and Amazon is likely to get even more heated. Amazon is mustering its legal muscle to try to overturn the election. The new union will try to win another tougher vote at a second location on Staten Island. And everyone will be watching to see if similar efforts crop up at other Amazon facilities, and if the company will be able to shut them down.
As this unfolds, here are three questions to consider:
1. What does this union want?
Smalls and the other leaders of the Amazon Labor Union won in large part because Staten Island workers have a long and varied list of frustrations. This week, he said the ALU was prepared to demand sweeping changes to Amazon’s working conditions and safety, wages and benefits. But the campaign lacks the kind of single, motivating goal, like a $15-an-hour minimum wage, that has given other labor organizing efforts a focal point.
Amazon, responding in part to political pressure from the national minimum wage campaign, raised wages to $15 in 2018 and now pays an average starting wage of more than $18 an hour.
2. How will Amazon respond?
To overturn the election, Amazon would have to meet a high standard, proving not only that misconduct occurred, but that the problems were so pervasive that they tainted the entire vote, explained Wilma Liebman, a former director of the National Labor Relations Board.
But regardless of the outcome, or whether the new group manages to negotiate a contract, the company has a bigger question to answer: How will it address the underlying concerns that allowed the union to get this far?
Amazon, in a sense, faces the same conceptual challenge as the new union: the list of worker grievances with the company is too long.
Our Times investigation last year revealed just how fraught Amazon’s work model had become, with a sky-high annual turnover rate of 150 percent and a low-trust, machine-based approach to management. In contrast to its precise handling of packages, its HR systems were so overloaded that we found a pattern where the company inadvertently fired its own employees. Injury rates continue to be a serious concern. And there is more
On Thursday, in his first letter to shareholders since taking over as chief executive, Andy Jassy acknowledged the breadth of the problems. “We have researched and created a list of what we believe are the top 100 pain points in the employee experience and are systematically addressing them,” he wrote.
But Amazon, known for its ambition, shows no signs of making fundamental changes. In yesterday’s letter, Jassy said she would continue to take an “iterative” approach, making repeated adjustments, to the company’s goal of becoming “The Best Employer on Earth.”
3. Will other warehouses follow?
Smalls has said that workers at more than a hundred other Amazon facilities have contacted the union, interested in organizing at their locations. In an interview this week, he said that ALU now plans to go national. If Staten Island’s efforts prove contagious, Amazon would start to look more like Starbucks, where more places vote to unionize each week.
But it is too early to know if something like this will happen. “Let’s not make a movement out of a single event,” Andrew Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, said in an interview this week. “We don’t know if this is an extraordinary event or a reproducible event.”
Last month, in another contested election, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama appear to have narrowly rejected unionization, though the margin is narrow enough that the results won’t be known until hundreds of contested votes are litigated.
The key difference between Amazon and Starbucks is the sheer size of each site, which must be individually unionized. For Starbucks, the union needs about 20 votes to prevail in a single cafe; at Amazon, with its huge warehouses, the union needs more than a thousand, which makes each election a much more difficult task.
The stakes in this fight could not be higher for Amazon, whose entire retail model is based on a coast-to-coast blue-collar chain, or for the unions themselves. Despite rapid organizing at Starbucks, and the frequent arrival of high-profile examples of other new organizing efforts, union membership has been going downhill for decades.
If workers at Amazon, the nation’s second-largest and perhaps the most influential employer of our time, decide they don’t want or need unions, or can’t out-compete Amazon’s resources, it will be an ominous sign of the relevance of organized labor. . . So expect nothing less than a bitter, messy and protracted battle that could help determine the future of American work.
THE LATEST NEWS
war in ukraine
Bringing consent to the ballet
For dancers, touch is routine. Now, when it comes to choreography that simulates sex or violence on stage, some companies are hiring intimacy directors, writes Laura Cappelle in The Times.
In recent years, more movies and plays have turned to intimacy directors to choreograph scenes and care for the actors’ physical and emotional well-being. But intimacy work for screen and theater doesn’t necessarily translate to dance, where the choreography is mostly unchangeable. And dancers have been discouraged from speaking up when they feel uncomfortable. Stories of borders being crossed are common in ballet, where training begins young and most companies maintain a strict hierarchy.
Intimacy coaching sessions offer a space for dancers to express their concerns. For a production at the Scottish Ballet, two directors of intimacy gave workshops and had private conversations with the dancers. Subsequently, the change in the dancers was “instantaneous”, said the director of the company.
In one exercise, dancers used a drawing of a body to mark areas they felt vulnerable and then communicated this to their colleagues. “Seeing it in black and white and talking to your partner opens up all that trust,” said one dancer. “And it wasn’t just me saying it. It was the whole group.”