Amazon's first warehouse union marked the true turning point towards 'real change' for workers, says a labor-history professor

Amazon's first warehouse union marked the true turning point towards 'real change' for workers, says a labor-history professor
Union organizer Christian Smalls speaks following the April 1, 2022, vote for the unionization of the Amazon Staten Island warehouse in New York.Andrea Renault/AFP via Getty Images
  • The past year saw Striketober, a Great Resignation, and dozens of Starbucks unionized.
  • Plus, President Joe Biden has called himself the "most pro-union president" ever.

It's been a big year for the American labor movement.

Thousands of workers hit the picket line for Striketober, union organizers made it to the White House, and Starbucks unions are spreading across the country.

All of that came with a rising number of workers quitting their jobs, reaching a new high in April 2021 that has continued to climb.

Ileen DeVault, a professor of labor history in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, told Insider she's had a lot of reporters calling to ask if these events are changing the trajectory of the decades-long decline in union-membership rates. Her answer was simple: "No."

"It's a drop in the bucket," she said, noting that unionizing a single Starbucks location would add, at most, a few dozen workers to total union membership rates. Even with the momentum and media attention, unionization rates are still at historic lows — and there's a long way to go before unions even approach the strength seen during the unionization highs of the 1950s.


"I've said over and over again that the real change would come when the first Amazon warehouse unionized," DeVault said. "I think that's a major change."

In April, that happened.

The upstart Amazon Labor Union pulled off a surprise victory at the JFK8 Staten Island warehouse — marking a first for the tech-retail behemoth that employs at least 950,000 workers nationwide. Amazon fired ALU's founder, Christian Smalls, in 2020. Now, Time Magazine asks if he's "the future of labor." Smalls recently traveled to the White House, where President Joe Biden commended him.

"Obviously, the Amazon workers in Staten Island, the Starbucks all across the country, other organizing drives going on, there is something afoot here," Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh said at the White House during the meeting.

In a blog post after the union win, Amazon said that it was "disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees."


A burst of activity after decades of decline in union membership

The Congressional Research Service found that the worker-unionization rate hit a postwar high of 34.8% in 1954. Since then, unionization membership has mostly been in decline.

In 1983, the first year with comparable data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership was at 20.1%, nearly twice what it is today.

The Economic Policy Institute attributes falling union rates to labor laws — such as allowing companies to make anti-union meetings mandatory — that are "tilted" toward employers. Jennifer Abruzzo, the general counsel for the National Relations Board, wants to end this precedent.

The labor movement, the Biden administration, and progressives have also rallied around the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would provide new protections for organizing workers. The bill has passed the House, but it's stalled in the Senate and unlikely to move.

"Let's hope it stays that way," Sean Redmond, the vice president for labor policy at the US Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a blog post. "Maybe then union leaders will think of ways to improve their product that will convince more people to buy it willingly."


But even if the law stays as it is, that might not curb the upswell of organizing. The National Labor Relations Board has already reported a 57% increase in union-election petitions in the first half of fiscal year 2022.

"The law being broken is probably the biggest challenge, but workers aren't waiting, as we've seen," Liz Shuler, the president of the AFL-CIO, the country's largest labor federation, told Insider. "We're not waiting around for labor-law reform. People are out organizing despite the roadblocks. I think the public support has given a huge boost to working people."

Businesses are taking note; UBS said in an April note that it's a labor "environment that has not been seen for decades." While UBS said it's too early to call pro-unionization a trend, it noted that Starbucks has "momentum" — and predicted that JFK8 won't be the only Amazon warehouse to unionize.

"I think we're gonna see more and more organizing happening in this country," Walsh said. "I've spoken to a lot of people, I've spoken to a lot of unions, I've spoken to a lot of companies. And I think a lot of companies are cognizant of this."