The remarkable win by Amazon workers in Staten Island to unionize was no small feat. Just 18 months ago, this newly formed “Amazon Labor Union” did not exist. I recall that not long ago this was unthinkable! In 2018, Amazon announced that, after a national search, Long Island City was chosen as the site for a huge, 4 million-square-foot headquarters, with plans for 25,000 jobs immediately and an additional 40,000 jobs within 15 years. Among those protesting their strong opposition—which ranged from concerns about congestion to environmental issues—there were those who feared that Amazon, with its long history of worker abuse and union bashing, could never be tamed in this union town, let alone succumb to union organizing. True to form, in March of 2020, a Staten Island Amazon warehouse worker, Christian Smalls, led a walkout in protest of deplorable, COVID-related workplace conditions. Amazon’s general counsel’s meeting notes said of Smalls: “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent to which the press wants to focus on him versus us, we will be in a much stronger PR position.” WOW! They not only dismissed Smalls as insignificant, but arrogantly condescended that an unpolished, tattooed young Black man could be used to unionize.

Amazon fired him, but their strategy backfired.

Among other features of this phenomenal win was its true home-grown, grassroots nature. There were no high-end, highly paid professional consultants and organizers involved. There were no deep-pockets, all-in, 24/7 outside companies, community groups or even larger unions providing a constant flow of funding, advice, and “boots” on the ground. This was a worker-driven effort by current and former Amazon workers, who set up a GoFundMe page and held BBQs, and after-work parking lot chats—in several languages. Workers connected to one another in a way no one else could. This was more effective than any clever talking points created by Amazon’s team of PR pros.

Many lessons have been learned from this victory. Clearly, other workers throughout the nation, working at jobs formerly thought to be impossible to unionize, now see that it can be done—and with little money by rank and file workers. Labor scholar Jane McAlverey wrote in her book “No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age” that “staffers see themselves not as ordinary people, but as key agents of change.” What have big unions with more money and members to utilize on organizing efforts learned from this David and Goliath triumph? Clearly, they need to question how their assets should be spent. Big media buys?

Organizers’ iPads for instant sign-ups? Block parties? No doubt, the options will be discussed at length, studied by focus groups, polled and analyzed—probably with many opinions and conclusions. But with the economy currently at a record high, unemployment at a record low, and while we are still basking in the glory of making labor history, now is the time for all of us who believe in workplace equity and dignity to fight, collectively, and one-on-one, for union formation and membership growth. As the old adage reminds us: “April showers bring May flowers.” For union workers, long-time and brand new, the protections and benefits they enjoy make up many bouquets.

Gregory Floyd is president, Teamsters Local 237 and vice president at-large on the general board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters

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