What Can We Learn from TikTok, Free Weed, and an Amazon Union Campaign?

The result of the Amazon union campaign in Staten Island, NY, shocked business leaders and labor union leaders alike. Why? It wasn't so much that employees voted to unionize. It was because they succeeded on their own through grassroots employee engagement. Though this approach to unionizing has been growing over the last couple of years as worker independent unions formed, this particular Amazon workers union did it without the backing of a major national labor union. Led by a fired Amazon worker who seemed to instinctively know how to engage coworkers, the union's success has business leaders wondering if they need to change their strategies for developing positive employee relations to stay union-free.  

How does a company build community in its workforce? Does your company need to be on TikTok? How can you give younger employees a voice they feel has real value? How do you develop employee advocates for staying union-free? These questions and more reflect the huge paradigm shift taking place in which issues like pay and benefits are no longer necessarily at the top of employee needs and are being replaced with issues like the desire of employees to have a say in how companies are run and a deep desire to feel a sense of belonging.  

Learning from Amazon and Starbucks 

Twice, the Amazon union vote at the Amazon distribution center in Bessemer, Alabama, went against unionizing, but it triggered a discussion again on whether the federal laws favor the employer so much that it's difficult for employees to overcome employer actions. While the second Amazon union vote is being challenged, another very different type of Amazon union campaign was taking place at the Amazon Fulfillment Center on Staten Island, New York.  

The Bessemer Amazon union campaign was held in a mostly traditional organizing manner because it was backed by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Organizers stood outside the Amazon Fulfillment Center to hand out flyers, served coffee to volunteers, spoke to the media to spread their message, rented billboards, and hurled frequent grievances at Amazon's management. 

The Amazon Staten Island Fulfillment Center in New York City union organizing campaign was by the employees and for the employees. The independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) ran this union organizing campaign without a major labor union supporting the effort, and to say it was different is an understatement. The ALU won its first election, and the labor unions are taking notice because the strategy was unique. A 5-minute video on More Perfect Union posted on Twitter succinctly explains the strategy that convinced employees to vote for a union. Following are the main points presented in the video. 

It begins with "how Amazon employees beat the odds & won their first union." Chris Smalls, President of the ALU and a fired Amazon worker, was the fiery, passionate leader who led the effort to win the Amazon union campaign vote.  

  • Employees said Amazon lied to the public about things they were doing during COVID-19 concerning employee safety, like providing protective items, so employees were forced to use makeshift PPE they contrived. 
  • Chris Smalls broke his quarantine to lead a walkout over health and safety, and Amazon fired him for violating company policy. 
  • A couple of weeks later, a leaked Amazon memo indicated plans to smear Smalls, calling him "not smart or articulate." 
  • Amazon calls Smalls the face of the unionizing effort, which he did not intend to be. 
  • Energized by Amazon's actions, Smalls and others began traveling around and protested in front of every mansion and penthouse owned by Jeff Bezos they could locate online. 
  • A group of workers went to Alabama during the union organizing campaign in Bessemer and decided there were things they could do better. 
  • Smalls leveraged the Amazon loss in Alabama as the start of something big despite the union loss ("sparked a fuse") 
  • The VP of ALU said the most important lesson learned from their success in Staten Island was to be more interactive with workers and to give them what they needed to live their lives. 
  • Was consistently out there every day recruiting employees 
  • Spent 11 months inside, outside the building, and at the bus stop to earn the trust of the workers by building relationships; raising money; creating GoFundMe accounts for people that were fired, homeless (some workers were living in their cars), living in shelters, and needing help paying bills like cable bills and phone bills; feeding workers free meals at 20+ BBQs, and giving out free weed. 
  • Gave out books and literature to anyone who would accept the material, encouraging community members to stop as they passed by 
  • Using social media like TikTok to connect via video on @amazonlaborunion and @moreperfectunion 
  • Explained to employees their employee rights, including the fact they could not be fired for signing a union card 
  • Offered legal representation if they needed it 

"We did whatever it took to connect with those workers. To make their lives a little bit easier. A little bit less stressful," says Smalls. When employees got off the bus, ALU was right there, offering a "light at the end of the tunnel." At night, they would light bonfires and cook smores. An organizer said she joined ALU because the Amazon workers union answered all her questions about unions and erased her doubts and concerns. 

Like in Bessemer, Amazon implemented an aggressive corporate campaign to convince workers to vote against unionizing. Amazon held captive audience meetings, but this time, members of the Amazon workers union would stand up to show workers how strong the union was and how they didn't fear management. It was a show of defiance not usually seen at captive audience meetings. One organizer said that Amazon tells the employee they are supposed to be one team and one family, yet Amazon had employees like Smalls and others arrested for trespassing. Smalls said Amazon called them a "bunch of thugs" and tried to spread racist rumors. 

Smalls says this effort is "the catalyst for the revolution." The advice the Amazon workers union at Staten Island gives to workers in other Amazon facilities is to start organizing from the bottom up in their facility and go from there. What really shocked people was that the ALU did this on their own without national labor union support. Instead, Smalls and other ALU officers focused on connecting with people in any way they could. They identified people's needs and met them. 

Since the Amazon union campaign win in Staten Island, Smalls says employees at more than 100 U.S.-based Amazon facilities have contacted him about unionizing. He made plans to hold a national call with employees and to visit some facilities in person. Once again, the heart of Smalls' strategy is to build relationships.  

Starbucks is another example of the execution of a new organizing model. In December 2021, two stores in Buffalo voted to unionize. Then a third store voted to unionize in Mesa, Arizona, in February 2022. Now, more than 100 Starbucks stores in more than 25 states have filed for union elections. The Starbucks employees formed a union called Workers United, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. Employee-led grassroots union drives are growing in number, but employees are not simply interested in more pay. 

starbucks union campaign

Facing Inequalities in Work and Life

As the 18-year-old Starbucks barista Hope Liepe in New York explained to Recode, "We want to be able to sit down with Starbucks, with the higher-up executives, and make a plan so that we, as employees, feel as valued as they say that we are." Starbucks is perceived as having progressive values, which attracts young workers. Its younger workers grew up amid social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and with technology. The workers across stores talk to each other on Zoom, social media, and Discord and share videos about unions on TikTok. The Arizona Starbucks union campaign used Twitter. Virtual union organizing is common today. 

But here is the important message in Recode's article. "Whether on video calls, chat rooms, or social media, these workers seem to land on a common theme: They're all facing the same inequalities in work and life. The immense unfairness of the world we live in was top of mind for the young people who spoke to Recode. They've come into adulthood at a time of heightened inequality in everything from access to broadband to income."  

Isaiah Thomas echoed this message in a Wired article discussing the Amazon union campaign by saying, "The first thing I'd like to see change is the basic recognition of us being human, and not just a means to make them more money and get as many packages out the door as possible," says Isaiah Thomas, one of the workers at BHM1. 

One of the things the Amazon organizers learned by visiting the Bessemer organizing effort was that the company painted the labor union as an outside group interfering with the workforce rather than a group driven by workers. It became the heart of the ALU's strategy: organize independently because it's more difficult for an employer to fight employees than it is to fight a national labor union. As an ALU worker-organizer explained in Wired, the ALU used Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook to post images of the camaraderie of employees and the willingness of employees to fight for unionization. They called out "union busters" by name, posted videos of what they thought were labor law violations, shut down anti-union meetings, and leaked management statements they didn't like. They also posted pictures of ALU members with celebrities and politicians.  

Lessons Learned from Starbucks and Amazon Union Campaign

The ALU was not taken seriously at first because they had no source of funding, no experience unionizing, and no labor union backing. That was a mistake and reflected a lack of understanding of how the younger generations connect with each other and what they want from employers. It's not only about pay and benefits for millennials and Gen Z. It's about: 

  • Community 
  • Having each other's back 
  • Making life easier and more equitable 
  • Having a voice in how the company is run 
  • Working for managers that follow through on the values they espouse publicly 

Creating employee committees that have a real voice and are not formed as a type of tokenism.

Amazon used captive audience meetings, which younger employees have come to resent and the NLRB General Counsel doesn't like. The direction of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is to eliminate captive audiences and other mandatory meetings per a memo by General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo. Her premise is that the captive audience meetings in which employees are required to listen to their employer talk about statutory labor rights violates Section 7 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Employees have a protected right to refrain from listening, according to Abruzzo. However, the reason captive audience meetings were precedent is because they gave employers the opportunity to talk with employees about the reasons they should not vote for a union. These meetings are the only way employers are assured their employees hear the employer's perspective on unionizing.   

The NLRB is clearly pro-union now. A 93-page NLRB brief that includes banning captive audience meetings overturns case law in many areas. For example, it eliminates secret-ballot elections because it requires an employer to bargain with the union unless it can prove good-faith doubt of a union's majority status. This could lead to employees demanding employers bargain with them even if a secret ballot election is not held.  

Organizational Culture and the Human Connection 

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, announced the company plans to invest $9.5 billion in offices and data centers around the U.S. He writes in a blog, "It might seem counterintuitive to step up our investment in physical offices even as we embrace more flexibility in how we work. Yet we believe it's more important than ever to invest in our campuses and that doing so will make for better products, a greater quality of life for our employees, and stronger communities." What he was saying was that bringing people together delivers advantages for the company, its employees, and local communities. Pichai wants to bring people together in a supportive workspace. 

It's becoming clearer post-pandemic that flexible work schedules, web-based meetings, telephone conversations, and video conferencing can't fully replace face-to-face human interaction. Personal communication involves more than just speaking words. It also includes nonverbal cues like gestures, facial expressions, and posture, especially important in a diverse workforce. Many of the communication cues are missed when strictly using technology for work.  

Also, as Liz Campbell at EY Lane4 points out: Organizational culture can increase employee engagement, and work space is a major element because it increases collaboration, enhances relationships among employees, and assists with training and development opportunities. 

  • Work space breaks down silos as people share ideas and collaborate. 
  • Going to work helps employees separate work and home lives because they physically leave it. 
  • Work space in an office or other facility is set up for working as comfortably as possible and to maintain general well-being, while home office space may not be. 
  • It is easier to build and maintain networks when working in the office, enabling employees to connect with a variety of coworkers they may not meet if working remotely. 

Gallup defines the workplace value proposition as the "organizational culture, benefits and interactions employees experience when working on-site," and goes on to say that "pointing to "job requirements" as the primary reason employees must return to the office will not work…. leaders must create a compelling environment that gives employees a reason to return to their workplace and sell them on the benefits of being together in a shared physical space." The four Cs of the workplace value proposition are connection, collaboration, creativity, and culture. 

As your leaders strive to understand what employees expect from the workplace, they need a new perspective. The employees could be returning from working remotely during the pandemic or worked through the pandemic in the workplace, or want to continue a hybrid work arrangement. They may be white-collar workers, graduate students, warehouse workers, restaurant or hospitality workers, healthcare workers, customer representatives, or any other type of employee.  

They all have a common need: People today crave community.  

need for community amazon union campaign

Recognizing Employees Need for a Supportive Culture 

Smalls at Amazon and the workers at Starbucks leveraged this need for a community to unionize at large companies that have stayed union-free up to this point, despite their endless source of funding to fight unionization. Employees want a workplace with a supportive culture, equality, a sense of belonging, and the right to have input into management decisions. They want opportunities to collaborate and share ideas, no matter their position in the company and no matter their work schedule and location. Frontline workers have, for the most part, been approached as workers who are replaceable, and the current labor shortage has even changed that perspective among employers. To improve retention and stay union-free, your leaders should develop positive employee relations with all employees, and building community is one strategy. 

Notice the Amazon employees said management claimed they were one team and one family, yet workers didn't feel that way. The idea was that management would convince employees they are like family members who are supportive of each other. The reality for many employees is a sense of isolation or loneliness rather than connection. Cigna's study on loneliness in the workplace found workers are lonely when they: 

  • Have poor relationships with coworkers  
  • Have a poor work-life balance 
  • Don't feel like they can be their true selves at work 
  • Believe technology is used as a replacement for in-person interactions 
  • Belong to the younger generations because they feel lonelier than Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation members 

Here are a few statistics to give you an idea of the depth of loneliness that employees are experiencing. 

  • 42% of Gen Z say they often feel abandoned by coworkers vs. 18 percent of Baby Boomers 
  • 54% of Gen Zers say they feel emotionally distant from coworkers vs. 28 percent of Baby Boomers 
  • 55% of Gen Zers feel disconnected from others at work vs. 27% of Baby Boomers 
  • 54% of Gen Zers believe they must hide their true selves at work compared to 47% of millennials and 26 percent of Baby Boomers 
  • 64% of employees in their positions for less than six months report a lack of companionship 

To complicate matters, 83 percent say their relationships with coworkers are excellent, very good, or good, yet 35 percent say they feel a sense of emptiness, and 37 percent feel a disconnection from others. But 44.2% of people who believe they are getting the right amount of in-person interaction at work are less lonely. When comparing in-person employees to remote, virtual, and home office workers, 54 percent of those working out of the office reported their relationships with others are not meaningful compared to 45 percent of in-office workers. Hispanic and African-American employees feel abandoned when under pressure at work and alienated from coworkers. 

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Feelings of loneliness and disconnection impact work performance, and it's because these employees are less engaged in the workplace. A Wharton Ideas Lab study also found that coworkers perceive lonely people as less approachable, so they are often not included.  

Taking Action NOW to Build Community at Work  

Frankly, as the Amazon union campaign demonstrated, it's not nearly as easy to stay union-free today as employees form independent unions, and the federal government is doing everything it can to make it easier for employees to unionize. Still, the message is that your organization needs a new approach to stay union-free in recognition of the different needs of younger employees and their feeling of empowerment.  

Your leaders need to understand how to build a community to develop positive employee relations. That is not as simple as increasing employee wages, which both Amazon and Starbucks have done, approving flexible scheduling, or giving more benefits. Building community at work takes savvy, skilled leadership with excellent communication and relationship skills. Community is about relationship building based on organizational values put into action. It is about developing a shared purpose, holding each other accountable for business success, and having a sense of belonging. Following are some of the steps your organization can take to build community in the workplace and avoid organizing attempts and petitions for election. 

  • First, be realistic about your organization's culture because too many senior leaders believe an inclusive culture exists when it doesn't. Culture is an idea, and community is culture brought to life. 
  • Make it easy for people to connect through meetings, events, and technologies like intranets and social media
  • Develop employee committees with "teeth," so to speak, meaning members communicate with each other and communicate with your leaders. They have honest and real input into problem-solving, addressing employee needs, and management decision-making. Employees give feedback to and receive feedback from leadership. 
  • Make critical documents, like HR policies and procedures, transparently available for all employees so they can openly discuss them and provide feedback
  • Provide employee training and other learning experiences that include letting coworkers share their knowledge and skills. 
  • Develop collaborative opportunities for training and development, team projects, innovation, and problem-solving. 
  • Establish a communication system that encourages employees to share ideas, ask coworkers questions or input information, problem-solve together, provide and get feedback from management, etc. 
  • Conduct engagement activities that include all employees, like work-sponsored contests. 
  • Set up chat rooms that promote communication among employees about topics of interest, both work, and non-work. 

Building Necessary Leadership Skills

Leadership qualities and behaviors have a lot to do with how successfully your company engages employees. They need to:  

You can Look to IRI Consultants to help you create a playbook for building that sense of belonging and community that includes goals and action steps for three months, six months, and one year. The change in leadership perspective - needed to move from believing increasing pay and benefits versus creating a workplace of community determines the ability to stay union-free - is not always easy. This is because it does begin with a change in perspective. Anyone who has addressed unconscious bias understands how difficult it is to change people's perspectives because they become ingrained in thinking and behaviors. 

IRI Consultants assists companies across industries with what they need to build community (participation, relationship building, empathy, etc.) and can provide support for the development of an effective employee communication plan and other deliverables, including social media and the development of employee advisory groups

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