Amazon unionisation news great start for beleaguered workers

Hooray for the news that Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island have voted to unionise.

It is a story which anyone who has ever bought anything on Amazon or felt pressured not to join a union should care about.

Our union movement, which has often seemed reluctant to pursue hard-to-engage workers, could take note of the folksy grassroots way this small wannabe union gained traction with workers.

It is news with hope at a time when we are bombarded with the miserable. There is a long way to go before workers benefit from unionisation, but it is a start.

Better still, it is not a story about a rich man who pretends for a living assaulting another man supposedly in defence of his wife (women are all shrinking violets y’know and need men behaving boorishly in their honour).

Am I the only person fed up to the back teeth with seeing that footage on television?

It was not a good look for the National Party when it and some of its MPs briefly shared memes critical of the Labour Party based on this hideous event.

So infantile and pointless. Leader Christopher Luxon quickly shut down the memes but why does anyone in the party believe making memes, particularly ones indicative of Year 10 thinking, is ever good use of their time?

The party image was not helped later in the week when a Christchurch young Nat was exposed as being the ‘‘anonymous’’ harasser of women politicians. Deputy leader Nicola Willis was keen for us to see him as a bad apple bobbing in a sea of civility, although one wonders how she might necessarily know that.

Still, hopefully something has been learnt from the silence of the then leader Todd Muller after the emergence of the infamous 2012 regional party conference image of Claire Curran on a toilet seat with MP Michael Woodhouse posing beside it.

Everybody needs to be alert to the impact of their own behaviour and to call out friends and family who may feel moved to abuse politicians, officials, and anyone in the public eye, both online and in person.

If we cannot get a grip on this, then public office risks becoming the preserve of the insensitive which is hardly desirable. But I am digressing from the David and Goliath union story. It has hardly been an overnight sensation.

Concern about conditions at Amazon warehouses are nothing new.

In 2011 Allentown newspaper The Morning Call alerted readers to the appalling conditions, including in summer, when it said Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat heat stressed workers. Those who could not recover quickly enough and return to work were sent home or taken to hospitals.

The installation of air conditioning followed, but other issues remained. Poor conditions almost seemed to be celebrated. Writing about her brief Amazon worker experience, Nomadland author Jessica Bruder referred to a poster proclaiming ‘‘Prepare to be Sore!’’.

There were wall-mounted free generic pain relief dispensers, and a trainer joked it was a good day if you didn’t have to take more than two painkillers the night before.

It seemed workers were treated as disposable because there would always be more desperate poor people ready to replace them.

Amazon, first founded in 1994, and now with 1.1 million employees, has been notoriously anti-union, spending big to fight union moves using some questionable tactics (last year it’s reported to have forked out more than US$4 million on anti-union consultants).

But the giant retailer reckoned without former warehouse supervisor Chris Smalls, sacked after he led a small protest in March 2020, concerned about the safety of working conditions and the lack of transparency around Covid-19.

Attempts by Amazon to denigrate Mr Smalls by saying he was not smart or articulate backfired and had the effect of raising his profile.

His sacking was later ruled illegal.

Last year, he and a friend from the warehouse Derrick Palmer set about attracting workers to their cause, starting with ‘‘two tables, two chairs and a tent’’, according to Mr Smalls.

These two young Black men, with no affiliation to a national labour organisation, eventually raised $120,000 for their fledgling Amazon Labour Union. They made TikTok videos to reach workers and wooed those leaving early shifts by building bonfires to warm them at the bus stop and providing home cooking and pastoral care.

Their persistence was rewarded last week when a majority of workers voting at Staten Island warehouse JFK8, regarded as one of the company’s signature warehouses, opted for unionism.

The decision has been described as reflecting an era of rising worker power. Downtrodden workers everywhere will be hoping it’s not a flash in the pan, but more like a virus spreading their way.

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