The unexpected victory of a grassroots labor movement at Amazon in New York

It was at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, in March 2020, at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse, a gigantic sorting center located on Staten Island and destined to serve the enormous New York metropolis. By this time, the Big Apple had become a ghost town, the global epicenter of the pandemic, and Amazon was critical to the city’s survival.

Employees then live in fear of Covid-19. Upon learning that one of his co-workers has tested positive, Chris Smalls, an African-American from New Jersey, requests that the warehouse be stopped for disinfection. Management refuses and quarantines him for pay. In the process, on March 30, Chris Smalls organized a small demonstration that got him fired, on the pretext that he was breaking his confinement. “Acting cost me my job” he regrets then.

Amazon, second largest employer in the country behind Walmart

The young man, who was 29 years old at the time, was still acting and exactly two years later he opened the champagne on Friday the 1stis April, in New York: Warehouse workers at JFK8 voted overwhelmingly (2,654 votes to 2,131 votes) in favor of organizing of its site, which employs more than 8,300 people. “To the first union in the history of the United States on Amazon”Mr. Smalls toasted, after the count. A first for this group, the second largest employer in the country behind Walmart, with more than 1.1 million employees.

The company founded by Jeff Bezos, which has always managed to avoid unions since its inception in 1995, suffered a bitter political defeat. “We are disappointed with the outcome of the Staten Island election because we believe it is best for our employees to have a direct relationship with the company”lamented Amazon, in a brief statement.

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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gloated on Twitter: “I think it will be a boost for the labor movement in this country.” Joe Biden’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, recalled for her part that “The president is a long-time supporter of the right of workers to organize for better jobs and better lives.”

Two years after the Covid-19 pandemic, eighteen months after the election of Joe Biden, who promised to be the most “pro unions” never elected, there is a strong political momentum. This phenomenon occurs in a context of US union decline: according to the Department of Labor, the rate of unionized private sector employees fell, in 2021, to a record low of 6.1%. With unionization reaching 33.9% in the public sector, the overall rate in the United States is now 10.3%, double what it was in 1983.

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