A Growing Wave of Unionizing Drives Change
In the winter of 2021, Matt Littrell was a 22-year-old worker at an Amazon warehouse in Campbellsville, Kentucky. Then, the workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, began a unionization drive, citing below-market pay and grueling production quotas.
In April, the workers in Alabama voted against forming a union with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and then also lost in a revote in March 2022 after the National Labor Relations Board found Amazon had improperly interfered in the first election.
Despite those losses, Littrell was inspired to take action in Campbellsville. He is now leading an effort to get his union to become the second workplace to unionize with the independent Amazon Labor Union following the historic union election.
“Amazon just doesn’t treat people right,” Littrell says.
Littrell’s story is representative of the stories of many workers of his age who are flocking to unionize at chains like Apple, REI, and Starbucks, which has seen more than 300 of its stores file to unionize since December 2021. According to the NLRB, union elections across all industries have increased by more than 56% since then.
These massive organizing efforts follow an unprecedented wave of strikes that saw workers walk off the job in more than 2,000 workplaces since March 2020, according to Payday Report’s Strike Tracker.
“There is a sense of momentum here,” Littrell says. “People really want change.”
Littrell’s journey is a tale of a moment that has seen unprecedented organizing, and of a struggle to overcome barriers to unionization both in labor law and that big businesses set up to thwart workers.
At first, Littrell liked working at Amazon, but right away, he began to notice problems at the plant. He tried to get involved in a plant-wide safety committee but noticed that management wasn’t responsive to its feedback.
“I would still see people getting injured over some of these things. I would still see people getting written up for getting injured when it really wasn’t their fault,” Littrell says.
The failed Bessemer unionization drive opened his eyes to more possibilities.
“I was just a working-class guy before that—just working to pay bills,” Littrell says. “It was my own personal looking into what they were doing down there in Alabama and I saw that, hey, there’s some real potential here to actually force management to do some things.”
Littrell slowly began talking to some of his own co-workers about organizing. In September, the employees launched their SDF1 Action Committee, which they named after the Amazon warehouse where they work.
The SDF1 Action Committee slowly grew in 2021 to a few dozen members. Then, in April, Amazon Labor Union workers in the company’s Staten Island warehouse became the first in the country to unionize. The victory kicked Littrell’s organizing into high gear.
“That was very motivating,” Littrell says. “That’s when most of our momentum actually picked up. That’s when I was emboldened to go out and start talking to people more and more.”
The Staten Island drive lit a huge spark across the country, with the Amazon Labor Union quickly receiving calls from hundreds of Amazon workers across the country seeking to unionize their workplaces. Littrell was one of those workers who called the Amazon Labor Union.
“It filled me with hope and optimism,” Littrell says. “And just really, you know, there’s times when you’re organizing that you’re gonna get kind of discouraged when you’re a small thing, right? And that really provided me some reassurance.”
Not only did the Staten Island workers win, but their victories also called into question established labor union practices, such as relying on professional union organizers, who lack shop floor experience, instead of the rank-and-file workers to lead campaigns.
“When we took our organization efforts on, we just decided that, you know, Amazon workers need to organize other Amazon workers,” Amazon Labor Union Vice President Derrick Palmer told NPR. “We knew we had to have an unorthodox approach.”
Now, the Amazon Labor Union is attempting to unionize two more Amazon warehouses in Campbellsville and Albany, New York. Littrell says the independent union model appeals to many workers.
“With an independent union, people really feel like they run the union, because they are the ones forming it,” Littrell says.
However, being an independent union doesn’t mean unions are going to automatically win elections. When the Amazon Labor Union attempted to unionize a second warehouse on Staten Island, the company ran an aggressive anti-union drive. Ultimately, the Amazon Labor Union lost the vote by a 2-to-1 margin.
In Campbellsville, the anti-union pressure from the company is getting intense. Littrell says he has been written up multiple times and he fears he could get fired any day as the union drive intensifies.
“Surprised they haven’t gotten rid of me yet. The clock has been ticking for a while,” Littrell says.
Even if the workers do win, their employer could drag out the process of recognizing the union and bargaining a contract for years.
“An employer is always in a position where it can say, ‘No, no, we’re not going to bargain with them,’” says St. Louis University labor law professor Michael Duff. “And the NLRB, the administrative agency has no authority to command anybody to do anything.”
It’s unclear if independent unions will be able to muster the resources for long multiyear union struggles.
“With an independent union, we will have to do so much fundraising on our own and all this other stuff. And, you know, the fundraising so far hasn’t really been all that great,” Littrell says. “Independent unions have a lot of struggling to do.”
To prepare for long-term battles, the Amazon Labor Union has already begun courting larger unions and has begun a financial partnership with the Teamsters, a massive union with 1.2 million members and one of the largest strike funds in the United States, which could become a crucial advantage in upcoming negotiations.
To win contracts, unions will likely have to engage in large-scale strikes at multiple Amazon warehouses across the country, Duff says.
“If an employer thinks that a union can engage in a work stoppage and can hold out for months, a period of months, then that may inflict real economic pain on their employment,” Duff says. “If on the other hand, the employer believes that at the end of the day, the union really can’t and won’t do anything like that, it really doesn’t have that level of support, then the employer, if it’s a rational actor, is not going to bargain.”
Duff says that if unions are to take advantage of this moment, they will need to prepare for long, tough battles ahead.
“I think labor has to have a long game,” says Duff. “What’s essential is for labor consciousness, to return to workers to understand the situation. We are in an incredible moment right now, but we need to take a five-to-10-year view.”
In Campbellsville, the workers are preparing for a long fight. They have already begun to win changes, including to a company policy that required workers to buy expensive shoes from an Amazon-owned company, Zappos. Now, workers are free to buy less expensive shoes from other companies.
Workers also have begun studying groups like Amazonians Unite, a nationwide network of Amazon workers fighting for change on the shop floor without union support. Littrell says workers in Campbellsville are preparing for the possibility of having to fight on the shop floor for years with or without a union contract.
“The long-term vision is that maybe one of these days we’ll get a union. And we’ll certainly keep organizing under the pretext of getting a union,” Littrell says. “But we have to focus on short-term goals, medium-term goals, and the overall purpose is to achieve that solidarity, and to fight.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 3:10 p.m. PDT on July 24, 2022 to correct the location of an Amazon work site. It is in Albany, New York, not Albany, Kentucky. Read our corrections policy here.
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter, who covered the drug war in Brasil, spent years covering unions in the South & founded Payday Report with his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired from POLITICO for union organizing in 2016. He can be reached at [email protected]