For Black Americans, unionization continues to offer the hope of better working conditions

Menka Sandrasagren

On 1 April 2022, in a historic vote, over 2,500 Amazon workers at the JFK8 site in Staten Island voted to create the first Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in American history. The election was won by over 500 votes, giving the union the largest mandate of any Amazon union world-wide. This was the culmination of a journey that began on 30 March 2020, two years earlier, when the giant multinational company fired assistant manager Chris Smalls for organizing a walkout in protest of the company’s inadequate health and safety response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Amazon denied the firing was unlawful, claiming that Smalls had violated social distancing guidelines. In the wake of his dismissal, Smalls led a union drive to advocate for better working conditions and higher pay for Amazon workers. In December 2021, the New York Attorney General, Letitia James, who previously had described the firing as ‘disgraceful’, filed a motion for an injunction, forcing Amazon to re-hire Smalls. 

Smalls’ experience of firings and union-busting, as a Black man, is not a unique one. Not only has the United States (US) been a breeding ground for union-busting for over a century, but this trend also follows the long history of systemic disenfranchisement of Black American communities in the wider gig economy. Having been disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, many Black Americans have been forced to work in unsafe conditions, oftentimes as essential workers. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center in August 2021 on the racial and ethnic composition of the gig workforce in America showed clear disparities of racial representation among ethnic minorities, with 20 per cent of Black American and 30 per cent of Hispanic American adults having worked at some point in the gig economy, compared to 12 per cent of the white adult population. 

Besides being disproportionately represented in the gig economy, Black and other minority workers also experience greater insecurity. In the same Pew Research Center study, the proportion of non-white workers surveyed who reported feeling unsafe frequently at work (15 per cent) was almost double that among white workers (8 per cent). Noticeably, one of the major disparities identified in the research related to concerns around Covid-19: among those surveyed who had worked in the gig economy in the previous 12 months, 20 per cent of non-white respondents claimed to have been very concerned about contracting Covid-19 at work, compared to 7 per cent of white workers. These statistics mirror an uncomfortable truth about the treatment of Black Americans in the gig economy workforce that was evident long before the outbreak of Covid-19. Though working conditions for minorities in the US have clearly declined during the pandemic, this is merely the continuation of a decades-old trend.

In one study, the proportion of non-white workers surveyed who reported feeling unsafe frequently at work was almost double that among white workers.

One reason Black Americans have felt the impact of declining working conditions so harshly is the steady erosion of unionization in the US in recent years. Historically, they benefited hugely from the intersection between the labour rights movement and the civil rights movement. In 1963, the labour movement mobilized 40,000 union members for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a critical moment in the history of the civil rights movement. It was also the death of two sanitation workers on 1 February 1968 that led many labour rights organizers to join larger civil rights protests in Memphis. These sanitation workers ultimately achieved unionization through Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a Memphis labour union branch that remains active to this day. 

In the ensuing years, Black workers have been the most represented of any group in union membership, a situation that persists to this day despite decreasing unionization rates overall and sharp gender disparities between male and female workers. While almost a third (31.7 per cent) of Black workers were represented by a union in 1983, the proportion steadily declined to just 14.2 per cent by 2015. This attrition has only continued in recent years, with official data for 2021 showing that unionization rates had dropped further, to 12.9 per cent among Black workers (14.0 per cent among men compared to 11.9 per cent among women) – still higher than the proportion of white workers (11.6 per cent) represented by a union, but a precipitous decline from the levels witnessed forty years before. 

Black workers have therefore lost out disproportionately from decades of union-busting and declining working conditions, with many of the gains from the civil rights movement now seemingly eroding. Nevertheless, Chris Smalls’ and the union organizers’ historic win shows the strong ties still present today between labour rights and the rights of Black people in America. Despite Amazon spending an estimated US$59 million on fighting its workers’ unionization efforts, further union drives are anticipated in Amazon sites across the US. With around 950,000 US employees, it is estimated that 1 in every 153 American workers is employed by the huge multinational company. Consequently, the future path of Amazon’s employment policies is in many ways a litmus test for the future of work in the country more generally, particularly for Black and other minority workers. Given their treatment to date – according to the ALU, Amazon has been involved in ‘various methods of worker surveillance, infiltration, threats and retaliation against organizers, illegally confiscating organizers’ materials, and prohibiting workers from exercising their right to organize in the workplace’ – this is profoundly troubling. 

For this reason, the ALU has compiled a list of eight immediate changes to policies regarding health and safety, pay, promotions, overtime, working conditions, transportation, work breaks and union-busting. It is clear that these demands will not be met without a fight: between May 2021 and February 2022, the ALU has filed 18 Unfair Labor Practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. In the words of Chris Smalls, ‘When Covid-19 came to play, Amazon failed us’: now Amazon employees, predominantly from a minority background, are seeking to advocate for their rights and change their working conditions for the better. Following their recent victory, organizers ran another campaign at another nearby Amazon site on Staten Island on Labour Day. Whilst this election was not successful for the ALU, they remain determined to continue their fight for better working conditions. In the words of Chris Smalls ‘Nothing changes. We organize! Do not be discouraged or sad. Be upset and talk to your co-workers.’

Photo: Amazon Labour Union (ALU) organizer Christian Smalls speaks at an Amazon facility during a rally in Staten Island, New York City, United States. April 24, 2022. Credit: Reuters/Andrew Kelly

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