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Big victory at Amazon gives unions promise — but no end to challenges

A vote by Amazon workers to organize their warehouse in New York surprised and inspired long-time labor backers, for whom a new reality is settling in: It can be done, though it won’t be easy.

News on Friday of the first-ever US union coming to the nation’s second-largest private employer ricocheted among labor groups as they began to see a path ahead to enlist workers and end decades of contraction in their ranks.

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Amazon now seems a more manageable target for them, though still a challenging one. Some 55% of votes cast at the Staten Island facility were for the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a new group headed by the online retailer’s former employee Christian Smalls.

The company said it may file objections, and if and when the ALU’s victory is finalized, it still must win a contract.

That can be as hard as winning an election, said Gregory DeFreitas, a professor of labor economics at Hofstra University.

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Amazon spent more than $4 million on labor consultants in 2021 to try to sway workers, according to a government filing.

“Amazon just has sort of tremendous resources with which to fight unions and tremendous determination to do whatever is necessary in order to remain union-free,” said John Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University who studies anti-union actions.

Duplicating the success at Amazon could be difficult. Local knowledge and warehouse experience helped the ALU’s leadership, who at times distanced their work from that of national labor groups.

“The leaders workers know and trust – that’s what wins,” said Burt Flickinger, managing director at retail consultancy Strategic Resource Group, who advised some unions on organizing Amazon. Flickinger said he expects union efforts to focus on more warehouses and Amazon-owned Whole Foods stores, adding that unions would need to replenish depleted bank accounts to organize.

The New York win builds on several recent ones at Starbucks coffee shops. It also helps create a view that the labor movement is changing. The ALU brought innovative organizing tactics to bear, building momentum through social media, said Joshua Freeman, a history professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. The ALU raised money through a GoFundMe account.

At the same time, traditional unions are reaching out to help ALU leader Smalls. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is offering “whatever support we can,” said its president, Mary Kay Henry.

The invigorated purpose was palpable among union leaders on Friday.

The Teamsters, a dogged opponent of Amazon for years that had yet to unionize one of its US sites, is continuing to bring their fight “on the shop floor, at the bargaining table and on the streets,” General President Sean O’Brien said after the ALU’s victory.

People shouted and jumped for joy at the national offices of the SEIU.

“This will spread like wildfire,” Henry said in an interview. “It’s a huge source of inspiration to workers that are battling the five major corporations in the airline industry, the workers that are battling Starbucks.”

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