Amazon Workers in NYC Vote to Unionize in Historic Labor Win
NEW YORK — Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, voted to unionize on Friday, marking the first successful U.S. organizing effort in the retail giant’s history and handing an unexpected win to a nascent group that fueled the union drive.
Warehouse workers cast 2,654 votes — or about 55% — in favor of a union, giving the fledgling Amazon Labor Union enough support to pull off a victory. According to the National Labor Relations Board, which is overseeing the process, 2,131 workers — or 45% — rejected the union bid.
Amazon and the ALU challenged 67 of the ballots, but they were insufficient to change the result. Federal labor officials said the results of the count won’t be verified until they process any objections — due by April 8 — that both parties may file.
For the independent group made up of ex- and current workers without official union backing, the victory was hard-fought. The retail giant is a deep-pocketed retailer. Organizations believed that workers could relate to their grassroots approach, despite the obstacles. They also believed it would help overcome past failures of established unions. They were right.
Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who has been leading the ALU in its fight on Staten Island, bounded out of the NLRB building in Brooklyn on Friday with other union organizers, pumping their fists and jumping, chanting “ALU.” They uncorked a bottle of Champagne, and Smalls hailed the victory as a call to arms for other Amazon workers across the sprawling company.
“I hope that everybody’s paying attention now because a lot of people doubted us,” he said.
Smalls is hopeful that New York’s success will encourage workers at other facilities in New York to organize their own campaign. Smalls’ group is likely to shift to Staten Island’s Amazon warehouse in the near future, as a separate election for a union will be held there in April. Organizers believe Friday’s win is going to make it easier for them to win there, too.
Amazon released a statement to its site Friday stating it was reviewing its options after the election.
“We’re disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” the post said. “We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”
While the details were not disclosed, the company indicated that it could challenge the election based in a March lawsuit brought by the NLRB. The suit sought to force Amazon into rehiring a terminated employee who participated in the union drive.
NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado responded to Amazon’s statement by noting that the independent agency has been authorized by Congress to enforce the National Labor Relations Act.
“All NLRB enforcement actions against Amazon have been consistent with that Congressional mandate,” she said.
Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University, said he doesn’t see how workers will benefit from a unionized Amazon facility and called the overall push to unionize companies misguided. He said that Amazon is a “highly disciplined and regimented” business willing to pay premium wages and good benefits, but it also demands tremendous output from its workers who work 10-hour shifts.
“Amazon is not going to change their culture because there is now a union in their midst,” Cohen said. ”“They might be forced to let people work eight hours but those people will make less money.”
Staten Island’s union efforts were successful, in contrast with the unsuccessful one in Bessemer, Alabama, by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The workers at the Amazon warehouse in that area seemed to reject a union bid, but outstanding challenged ballots may change the result. The vote was 993 to 875 in favor of the union. The next few days will see the start of a hearing to hear 416 challenging ballots.
These union campaigns occur at a moment of labor unrest in many businesses. For example, workers at over 140 Starbucks stores across the United States have requested union elections. Several of these have been successful.
But Amazon has long been considered a top prize for the labor movement given the company’s massive size and impact. Staten Island’s results reverberated to the White House.
“The president was glad to see workers ensure their voices are heard with respect to important workplace decisions,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Friday’s briefing about the vote. “He believes firmly that every worker in every state must have a free and fair choice to join a union and the right to bargain collectively with their employer.”
John Logan, San Francisco State University’s director of labor and economic studies, stated that the win by the union was an important tipping point after a two-year-old pandemic has changed the labor market.
“We knew that unions were having a moment, but this is much bigger,” Logan said “There is no bigger prize than organizing Amazon.”
He added that the ALU’s win defies traditional thinking that only national unions can take on big companies. Erin Hatton is a professor of sociology at the University of Buffalo, New York. However, the group could still be in trouble.
“Getting Amazon to the bargaining table will be another feat all together,” Hatton said. “Oftentimes the union will fizzle out because the company doesn’t come to the bargaining table in good faith as they’re obliged to do.”
Rebecca Givan of Rutgers University’s Labor Studies Department said that this victory was only the beginning of a long-term battle against Amazon.
“It’s clear Amazon will keep fighting, they’re not conceding that workers have a right to organize,” she said. “It looks like the legal questions they’ve raised this afternoon suggest they’re trying to undermine entire authority of NLRB.”
Amazon has made a strong comeback in both the Staten Island election and Bessemer election. Retail giant Amazon hosted mandatory meetings in which workers were warned that unions weren’t a good idea. Amazon also set up an anti union website and put English and Spanish banners throughout Staten Island. Amazon maintained a highly controversial U.S. Postal Service mailbox in Bessemer. Although Amazon made some adjustments, it was still retained. Postal Service mailbox that was key in the NLRB’s decision to invalidate last year’s vote.
Both labor fights faced unique challenges. Alabama, which is a right–to-work state, prohibits companies and unions from signing contracts that require employees to pay dues.
Alabama’s union landscape is very different to New York. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 22.2% of New York’s wage- and salary worker population was made up of union members in 2013. This is only behind Hawaii. That’s more than double the national average of 10.3%. In Alabama, it’s 5.9%.
Amazon employees in Staten Island want longer breaks and paid time off to injured workers. They also seek a $30 hourly wage, an increase from the minimum $18/hour offered by Amazon. The estimated average wage for the borough is $41 per hour, according to a similar U.S. Census Bureau analysis of Staten Island’s $85,381 median household income.
Tristan Dutchin began his career at the online retailer around a year back.
“I’m excited that we’re making history,” Dutchin said. “This will be a fantastic time for workers to be surrounded in a better, safer working environment.”
Tinea Greenaway voted no to unionization, but she said that she will reserve judgement for the moment.
“We can’t take back our votes,” she said. “I’ll give things a chance, but let’s see if they deliver on what they promised.”
This report was contributed by Mae Anderson, Associated Press writer in New York.
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