Worker-Led Organization: Is a New Labor Wave on the Horizon?

by Andrew Selva

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, workplace safety measures became more important than ever, especially in environments where large numbers of employees worked in close quarters with one another. Unsurprisingly then, it was common in these environments for employees to speak up and voice concerns about the adequacy of such safety measures. This is exactly what Amazon supervisor Christian Smalls did in March of 2020, when he organized a worker protest over allegedly inadequate COVID-protection measures. In response, Amazon fired him. Smalls then spent  the next two years organizing  his coworkers, who would officially vote to form Amazon’s very first labor union, appropriately named the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) on April 1, 2022.

Labor unions have seen something of a resurgence in recent years, after a decades-spanning nosedive in participation and popularity. A 2019 report published by the Brookings Institute indicates that union density has been on a steady decline since its last peak in the 1940s and 1950s, at which point roughly thirty-five percent of workers belonged to a union. This golden age for labor unions was a direct result of the passage  of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 (also known as the Wagner Act), which enforced the rights of employees and protected collective bargaining organizations. Decline in union participation would not begin until a decade later, with the passage  of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which significantly altered the NLRA to place limits on union conduct, reflecting  growing reservations in Congress about supposedly “unchecked” bargaining power.

The passage  of the Taft-Hartley Act inspired  several states to pass “Right to Work” acts, which seek to protect individual workers from being obligated  to join a union. These laws seek to protect non-union workers by exempting them from paying dues for unions at their workplace if they are not personally a member. This sounds good in theory, but critics of such acts argue that they stifle the formation and/or joining of unions in the first place, encouraging a free-rider mentality that prevents the necessary number of employees from voting to unionize. As of 2021, 27 states had passed Right to Work legislation since 1947. Comparing these against those states which had not passed such legislation, the aforementioned Brookings Institute report found that union density declined at a noticeably steeper rate between 1977 and 2018 in states with Right to Work legislation than in those without. All told, by 2018, union density in the private sector had decreased to just over six percent.

However, in recent years, the American labor market has seen a resurgence of collective worker movements. In the month of October 2021, the job market was hit with a wave of labor actions so large that some have begun cheekily referring to the month as “Striketober.” Nearly 1,500 workers at Kellogg’s cereal factories walked off the job after the company failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement for over a year. Similarly, a strike by the Hollywood union International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) was narrowly avoided when they finally came to a collective bargaining agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Health care workers in California and Oregon voted to authorize a strike following Kaiser Permanente’s proposal of a two-tiered wage system that would set wages lower for future hires. Finally, over ten thousand workers at fourteen different John Deere locations went on strike after the United Auto Workers union announced it had been unable to reach a new contract with the company. All this occurred within a single month.

Even with the resurgence of collective bargaining in recent years, there is considerable resistance from large-scale employers. Amazon, in particular, has historically spent incredible effort and resources to stifle union organization among its employees. In 2015, employees from a warehouse in Chester, Virginia attempted to have an election to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Initially, over half the technicians employed there indicated interest by signing union cards, leading the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to organize an election. In response, Amazon brought in an Employee Resource Team to reverse this progress and stave off the vote. In the midst of constant performance reviews, mandatory anti-union meetings, and dubious layoffs, the vote failed.

In July 2015, the union filed a complaint against Amazon with the NLRB, alleging unfair labor practices which included threats, surveillance, and “informing employees that it would be futile to vote for union representation.” A settlement would eventually be reached, wherein Amazon would admit no wrongdoing, but be required to post notices in the Chester warehouse disavowing 22 specific behaviors, including such statements as “We will not threaten you with the loss of your job,” “We will not interrogate you,” “We will not engage in surveillance of you,” and many more.This reprisal was seen by many as a mere slap on the wrist for the online retail behemoth, and reflects the historic trend with many other attempts to unionize in other locations. 

So what was it that allowed the Staten Island ALU to break the trend? For one thing, they did not rely on an established union, instead opting to start their own. When asked how the organization process began, Smalls said: “We’re talking about four people that started this all. Two tables, two chairs in the tent. And that was it. We started signing people up. We just say, You know what? We’re going to sign people up for this union and see where it goes.” The ALU also relied on small-scale, worker-to-worker communication and grassroots fundraising to organize, turning to GoFundMe appeals for funding instead of the more traditional existing union coffers, and spreading the word through off-site barbecues, bus-stop discussions, and even TikTok.

The new union members are well aware of their unique success. When comparing the successful Staten Island vote to a struggling similar effort in Alabama, ALU Vice President Derrick Palmer said: “First of all, you know, they’re an established union with a limited amount of Amazon workers that are actually organizing. So we feel like they didn’t really have that one-on-one connection with the workers. And I feel like that’s vital to a union campaign, that you need to talk to these workers, you need to really understand their pain and what they’re going through.”

This sort of personal, localized approach could prove to be the new norm for labor organization in the modern era. Starbucks, another giant of the employment world with a similar reputation with regards to labor, has also seen significant momentum from its employees of late. Starbucks workers have voted to unionize ten corporate-owned stores, and over one hundred and fifty more have filed for union elections in the past six months. This movement is still being overseen by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, but just like with the Staten Island ALU, it has relied heavily on worker-to-worker communications over email, text and even Zoom.

These little victories are encouraging, and rightly so. After all, who doesn’t like to see David triumph over Goliath? But if such outcomes are to continue, a reconsideration of the NLRB’s approach to enforcing its rules is in order. Suppression of labor movements is rampant with large-scale employers like Amazon, and they rely on their massive resources and influence to simply overwhelm their workers with propaganda and bureaucracy to hamper the organization process. The independent nature of small labor groups like  the ALU is a major contributor to their success, as it completely flouts the popular employer claim that unions are just greedy outsiders seeking to exploit workers for dues. If these victories are to continue, it is paramount that the NLRB support these emerging local unions every bit as much as it does their more established counterparts.