Sweat The Small Stuff: How The Union Finally Succeeded At Amazon

Tammy Kim of The New Yorker described it as “potentially one of the biggest labor victories since the 1930’s.” She was talking about the historic JFK8 Amazon workers vote to unionize on April 1st of this year, 2022.

First a quick note to say that this is neither an indictment of Amazon as a company nor an endorsement of unions in general. But as an attorney who specialized in labor and employment law and a negotiation expert, I can hardly resist commenting on and analyzing a historic labor negotiation that has unfolded before our very eyes – the first for Amazon outside of Europe, and one that is totally independent / unaffiliated with a national union.

Chris Smalls, former rapper and Amazon warehouse worker, was the trailblazer. How did he do it going up against the country’s second largest employer? A company that spent a budget of $4.3 million on its ant-union consultants last year compared to the JFK8 warehouse budget of $120,000; and after an effort to unionize the Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama failed just last year? And not just in Bessemer. Since the nineteen-nineties, several well-established unions have tried and failed to organize at Amazon: the Communications Workers of America, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

And what does a historic, national, labor event like this have to do with you and everyday negotiation (setting aside the obvious for a moment, which is an assumption that many of us avail ourselves of Amazon shopping and quick fulfillment of orders)?

Well, let’s examine a few elements of how Mr. Smalls accomplished something so monumental – using strategies that we have already discussed in previous blogs:

First, for our podcast listeners (Pactum Factum: The Superpower Of Everyday Negotiation), recall the chocolate negotiations from Episode 2 and round 3: asymmetry. In the JFK8 Amazon union drive, we have classic asymmetry in power, in precedent, and financial resources.

So, Smalls started with FRIENDS. He and a few other co-workers had been fired from the JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island after the first Covid breakout, allegedly due to failure to observe social distancing rules. By partnering with a good friends who were similarly situated to Smalls (having been terminated or disciplined by Amazon), Smalls may have started small, but he started smart by finding allies. Namely: Derrick Palmer, Jordan Flowers, and Gerald Bryson.

Second, I direct you to Episode 3 and my admonition to never underestimate anyone. Amazon’s chief counsel made the mistake of describing Mr. Smalls as “not smart, or articulate,” in an email mistakenly sent to more than 1,000 people. This backfired big time and contributed to Smalls rising to be the very “face” of the organizing effort.

Third, Smalls made it easy on people. He went to them. He and his cohorts met workers at bus stops, the ferry stop and outside the warehouse

Fourth (and this really should be first, also harkening back to Episode 2 and previous blogs): rapport, rapport, rapport! He started with small gatherings, bonfires, brought homemade baked Ziti (that’s a type of pasta). Sidenote: the breaking of bread is actually incredibly important in negotiation because it generates group oxytocin, which is the bonding hormone.

5th: empathy and relationships. Also in Episode 2, we discussed analyzing which of the Richard Shell categories of negotiation yours falls into. This one was heavy in the relationship category. Smalls and fellow organizers worked from within the organization. One of the main reasons the Bessemer effort failed is because it was an effort from the outside by a large labor union. The workers felt like the union didn’t know or understand them. Smalls focused on bonding and relationships.

6th: LISTENING (Episode 7 and Episode 8). Frustrated warehouse workers were worried about safety, rising infection rates of Covid, and other working conditions including bathroom breaks. They felt that the company ignored their concerns. Smalls and his team listened to them as well as reasons why some workers didn’t trust unions from a previous job, which earned them trust and validity for the cause.

7th: they PLANNED. They analyzed the parties / the players. They set up a GoFundMe campaign; visited the Bessemer warehouse to learn from the 2021 union drive; interviewed other previous organizers; examined past practice and how to challenge standards and norms that Amazon had utilized as its past playbook. They even leveraged third parties as a voice of authority and validity: that is, A coalition of New York City officials and residents who chased out Amazon in 2019, when the company tried to install a secondary headquarters in Queens and avail itself of more than three billion dollars in public subsidies; and in 2021, the state’s attorney general lawsuit against Amazon over health and safety violations. Contrast this to Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville’s expressing his distaste for the Bessemer union.

They set high, specific, justifiable goals (also Episode 3): for example, the labor board requires 30% of the eligible workforce to sign cards to authorize a union, and they set a goal of 40%.

Organizers put in the TIME to research and analyze INTERESTS (again, Episode 3): they made thousands of phone calls. Immigrant members of the organizing effort used WhatsApp to garner support in French, Arabic, and Spanish.

And then, they initially failed. The labor board rejected the initial application as failing to demonstrate sufficient signatures – due to payroll data submitted by Amazon that called into question the validity of some of the signatures that had signed cards.

So they continued building rapport and making it easy for workers to get informed and join the movement: with TikTok videos, s’mores and get-togethers complete with Marvin Gaye music. And more empathy (never gets old!) – including setting up a funding campaign for a fired Amazon worker who became homeless.

They also lawyered up, joining with an attorney who represented the organizers free of charge.

The result was no slam dunk. Many Amazon workers were satisfied with Amazon, grateful for the hourly wage and the benefits, fine with the status quo or suspicious of unions and/or not wanting to pay union dues. The final tally was 2,654 in favor to 2,131 against unionizing.

But just look at how starting slowly, using empathy, planning, listening, rapport, assessing power v. leverage, researching standards and how to challenge them – steadily flourished to make a large scale difference. That’s why the small stuff matters. If you commit to these habits in little ways with your communication and actions everyday, it all adds up.

By Lucia Kanter St. Amour, Pactum Factum Principal

“Spidey Sense” in Negotiation – Interoception Meets Planning

Are you the sort of person who makes a list before going to the grocery store and then only buys the items on the list while in the store? Or do you skip the list, grab some produce and staples like milk and eggs, and then browse the frozen and prepared foods sections for weekly dinner ideas? If you’re anything like me, you do both: plan something of a menu for the week and list ingredients for those recipes, but stay open to something that inspires you as you wind the shopping cart form aisle to aisle (“Oooooh. Pomegranate seeds would be nice to toss in our salads this week.”) This strikes me as a winning combination of planning and flexibility, which translates well to other facets of life: travel, parenting, group projects. It’s no different in negotiation. We covered planning in some detail in a prior issue and emphasized how important it is. It’s easy to become disoriented, emotional, confused or simply tired while in the throes of negotiating. Having that plan to anchor and re-focus you is key. And it’s that anchor that provides you the freedom and comfort to be flexible and follow your instincts in the moment. I don’t mean to convey a mixed message.

These days, we are bombarded by catchy psudo-psychology marketing phrases that encourage us to “have a growth mindset; lean in; do something that scares you everyday; get out of your comfort zone” which some interpret as skipping the stodgy planning and “just going with your gut.” At this point you may be saying, “I’m confused: should I take it easy or take it to the limit one more time?

I’m saying that the planning stage is what actually allows you to pay attention to your “gut” instincts in the negotiation and feel confident about them.

What I’m really talking about is interoception, which is defined as the internal state of the body – both conscious and unconscious. You might even call it your “Spidey Sense.” Interoception encompasses visceral signaling projected to the brain via neuropathways and typically manifests in the cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal systems. In 2021 the NY Times Journalist Ezra Klein took a deep dive into this subject matter in an interview with science writer Annie Murhpy Paul about her new book, “The Extended Mind.” He sums up the conceit of the book as about:

“recognizing that we have the intuitive metaphor of our minds, . . . an analytical machine, a computer of sorts. And we’ve taken this broken metaphor of the mind and then built schools and workplaces and society on top of it, built the environment on top of it. And the result is that our work and school lives are littered with these productivity paradoxes. . . . It has radical implications not just for how we think about ourselves but for policy, for architecture, for our social lives, for schooling, for the economy.”

In his interview with Paul they discuss the problem with the long-standing and all too dominant analogy of our brain as a computer when, actually, it is a living organism that has evolved over time in many contexts – and mostly outside – must be understood on its own terms. Cognitive processing is just part of the information our brains supply us, while much more “thinking” is emanating from within the body and unconsciously. They talked about a study by the psychologist Antonio Damasio, which monitored the body receiving some of these unconscious processes in a pattern recognition card game that was actually fixed and how, at some point along the way, the study participants sensed which deck was “bad” and instinctively stopped drawing from it. Other studies of Wall Street traders identified those who seem to make more money when they’re more interoceptively attuned, that is better at reading their own body signals. When our nervous system is aroused, it’s feeding us information. Ignoring these sensations as simply “fear” or “anxiety” or inconsistent with “leaning in” or a “growth mindset” is no different than dismissing evidence consciously driven by the executive functioning of the brain.

So don’t dismiss it! Here at Pactum Factum we have cautioned for many years against hailing rational analysis and logical reasoning as the best or only method of making decisions or engaging with others – in negotiation, in conflict, or in the vagaries of everyday interactions. Those who can harness the powers of the mind and the body, and reference them at appropriate moments – – well, they are next level everyday superheroes. And that can be you!

If you know you’ve prepared well for a negotiation, despite all the multi-layered dynamics tumbling toward you during that negotiation, enjoy the confidence of your preparation and trust your interoception. At the very least, hit the pause button to allow yourself time to reflect. In very few circumstances do you need to be rushed into a decision. Urgency is commonly manufactured as a pressure tactic. Don’t fall for it. How many times have you been casually browsing for an item on-line and you come upon a website where, coincidentally, everything is 20% until the end of . . . that day! Oh – how lucky you happened across this website at this serendipitous moment. You had just been casually looking, but now you’d better go ahead and complete the purchase before that deal ends! You have likely been drawn into a classic sales ploy of creating scarcity of time (“Act now! This offer won’t last.”) Well, maybe and maybe not. If that coupon vanishes tomorrow, another will probably appear soon enough.

I’m going to close out this issue with a bedtime story. I promised we’d discuss art, literature, culture, music, history, and how it all relates to you honing your negotiation skills as an everyday superpower . . .

Show of hands how many of you have read (and/or read to your children) Margaret Wise Brown’s famous children’s book, Goodnight Moon?

I thought so.

Turns out, Margaret Wise Brown was way ahead of her time in understanding interoception. Goodnight Moon did not first appear on a public library shelf until 1972 – twenty-five years after it was first published. Why? Well, she was a prolific children’s author at a time when the expected format of children’s literature was to conform to a structured story arc with a morality message – that or a fantastical fairy tale. With Goodnight Moon, Brown soundly rejected this structure and adopted an altogether radical approach. She was fortunate enough to fall in with a dedicated group of avant-garde experimental writers in New York who would audition their draft stories with groups of children. Employing some unconventional brainstorming techniques, she observed that young children connected with an experience that engaged the senses and that included objects and characters they could relate to (not fantasy – this came in a later phase of childhood). And they didn’t care about plot. So: small animals (a bunny, a mouse), everyday objects (a comb, a brush, a lamp). These familiar objects and animals, combined with the flat, saturated, primary-hued Matisse-like illustrations of Clement Hurd, and a studied focus on the sound of the rhythmic, repetitive (almost hypnotic) words all contributed to a experience that felt just plain good in children’s bodies. It felt comforting, safe – like a cozy blankie. And it was absolutely radical at the time – you might even say seductive.

What does this have to do with negotiation or your life? Well, as I’ve preached before – – it’s all connected. We are all connected. You may be (necessarily) focused on the negotiations unfolding in your everyday life. But at the same time, throughout the centuries and continuing now, people are engaged in broader negotiations with society: challenging the status quo, asking, “does this framework still work? Is there some other approach?” Margaret Wise Brown defied many societal rules and expectations as an individual, and certainly norms in the publishing business in the 1930’s through 1950’s. Author of over a hundred manuscripts of children’s stories, she typically worked on each for a couple of years while researching and testing language on children, before she considered them complete (ah . . . interoception meets planning . . .) The different schools of thought surrounding the appropriate content of children’s literature was a stand-off that lasted decades. Hard to imagine, now that we accept Goodnight Moon – translated into at least a dozen languages – as a mainstay of a child’s bookshelf.

As I draw this issue to a close, I encourage you to sharpen your everyday negotiating superpower through planning, tuning in to your spidey-sense, and gazing beyond your own back yard to the larger negotiations we are witnessing right now as society evolves. It’s actually terribly exciting. And if all that stimulation makes it hard to fall asleep, I can recommend a good bedtime story . . .

Here’s the full Ezra Klein / Annie Murphy Paul interview

Lucia Kanter St. Amour, Pactum Factum Principal