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Amazon Warehouse Workers Just Redefined What’s Possible for U.S. Labor

The new Amazon Labor Union is a ways from a contract, but could still signal a new wave of organizing efforts at companies that have long repelled them.

Christian Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), speaks during a news conference outside the National Labor Relations Board offices in the Brooklyn borough of New York on April 1.

Christian Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), speaks during a news conference outside the National Labor Relations Board offices in the Brooklyn borough of New York on April 1.

Photographer: Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg

Two years ago, on the day Christian Smalls led a walkout demanding better Covid safety protections at his Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in New York City, the company fired him, saying he himself violated safety rules. There were some copycat protests scattered around the country shortly afterward, and the company’s public relations took a hit, but its grip on its labor relations appeared very much intact. For longtime labor advocates, Smalls’s firing seemed like one more example of a targeted dismissal that achieves its goal of scaring other workers away from organizing, even if it gets reversed.

When Smalls announced he was going to try to create a new union and trying to organize the thousands of employees at his old workplace on Staten Island, that too seemed destined for a familiar outcome. Over the past few decades, such efforts at the most prominent nonunion companies in America have almost always ended in defeat. Instead, Smalls pulled off a shocking triumph. On April 1, when the National Labor Relations Board finished counting the ballots, his Amazon Labor Union had won 55% of the vote.