Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, voted to organize on Friday in what marks the first successful US organizing effort in the history of the retail giant and an unexpected victory for a rising group that has fueled the union movement.
Warehouse workers cast 2,654 votes – or about 55% – for a union, giving the fledgling Amazon union enough support to claim a victory. According to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees the process, 2,131 workers — or 45% — turned down the union’s offer.
The 67 votes contested by either Amazon or ALU were not enough to affect the outcome. Federal labor officials said the census results will not be reviewed until they have processed any objections – which are due by April 8 – that either party might file.
Victory was an uphill battle for the independent group, made up of former and current workers who lacked the official backing of an established union and were outmatched by the well-funded retail giant. Despite obstacles, organizers believed their grassroots approach would be more transparent for workers and could help them overcome where mainstream unions have failed in the past. You were right.
Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon worker who has led the ALU in its fight on Staten Island, jumped out of the NLRB building in Brooklyn with fellow union organizers on Friday, pumping her fists and jumping while shouting “ALU.” They uncorked a bottle of champagne, and Smalls hailed the victory as a call to arms for other Amazon workers throughout the sprawling facility.
“I hope that everyone is careful now because a lot of people have doubted us,” he said.
Mr. Smalls hopes the success in New York will encourage workers in other facilities to start their own organizing campaigns. Even his group will soon turn its attention to a neighboring Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, where a separate union election is scheduled to be held in late April. Organizers believe Friday’s win will make it easier for them to win there as well.
Amazon released a statement on its company website on Friday that it was evaluating its options after the election and signaled it might not accept the results.
“We are disappointed with the outcome of the Staten Island election because we believe a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” the post reads. “We are reviewing our options, including filing objections based on the NLRB’s undue and improper influence that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) have experienced in this election.”
Amazon has long argued that workers don’t need a union because the company already offers good wages, as well as benefits like health care, 401(k) plans, and a prepaid tuition program to advance workers’ careers.
The successful union effort on Staten Island contrasted with that started in Bessemer, Alabama by the more established retail, wholesale and department store union. Workers at the warehouse there appear to have rejected a union bid, but pending contested ballots could change the outcome. The votes were 993 to 875 against the union. A hearing to review 416 contested ballots is expected to begin in the next few days.
The union campaigns come at a time of widespread labor unrest in many companies. For example, workers at more than 140 Starbucks locations across the country have called for union elections, some of which have already been successful.
But Amazon has long been considered a top prize for the labor movement, given the company’s massive size and influence.
“After two years of the pandemic, we are clearly in a different moment. Something has changed in the work landscape,” said John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. “This is a potential turning point. We knew unions were having a moment, but this is a much bigger one. There is no greater prize than Amazon’s organization.”
Mr Logan said he didn’t think any union – national or independent – would stand a chance at Amazon, but he was even more shocked that a small union would be victorious given its limited resources. The group had also applied for a union election after garnering support from about 30% of the facility’s workforce, a much lower percentage than unions typically seek.
Logan believes they won in part because Amazon employees felt the organizers were authentic. And it helps that they are in a worker-friendly state, he said, adding that the grass-roots union victory goes against traditional thinking that only national unions can take on big companies. Alabama, on the other hand, is a right-to-work state that prohibits a company and a union from signing an agreement that requires workers to pay dues to the union that represents them.
However, according to Erin Sutton, a sociology professor at the University of Buffalo in New York, the ALU may still have a fight ahead.
“All in all, bringing Amazon to the negotiating table will be another tour de force,” Mr. Sutton said. “Often the union fizzles out because the company does not come to the negotiating table in good faith, as required.
Amazon pushed back hard in the run-up to both Staten Island and Bessemer elections. The retail giant held mandatory meetings where workers were told unions were a bad idea. The company also set up an anti-union website aimed at workers and placed posters in English and Spanish throughout the Staten Island plant urging them to refuse the union. In Bessemer, Amazon made some changes to a controversial US Postal Service mailbox, but it was still retained, which was instrumental in the NLRB’s decision to void last year’s vote.
In a filing released Thursday, Amazon said it spent about $4.2 million last year on labor counselors, which organizers say the retailer routinely solicits to convince workers not to unionize. It’s unclear how much it spent on such services in 2022.
Both labor disputes faced unique challenges. Alabama, for example, is a right-to-work state that prohibits a company and a union from signing an agreement that requires workers to pay dues to the union that represents them.
The union landscape in Alabama is also very different from New York. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, union members made up 22.2% of wage earners in New York last year, ranking only behind Hawaii. This is more than double the national average of 10.3%. In Alabama, it’s 5.9%.
The predominantly black workforce at the Amazon facility, which opened in 2020, reflects the Bessemer population of more than 70% black residents, according to the latest U.S. census data.
Union-friendly workers want better working conditions, longer breaks and higher wages. Regular, full-time employees at the Bessemer facility make at least $15.80 an hour, more than the estimated $14.55 an hour for the city average. This figure is based on a US Census Bureau analysis of the annual median household income for Bessemer of $30,284, which could include more than one worker.
The ALU said it didn’t have a demographic breakdown of Staten Island warehouse workers, and Amazon declined to provide The Associated Press with the information, citing the union’s vote. Internal records leaked to The New York Times in 2019 showed that more than 60% of the facility’s hourly staff were Black or Latino, while most managers were White or Asian.
Amazon employees there are targeting longer breaks, paid time off for injured employees, and a $30 hourly wage, versus a minimum of just over $18 an hour that the company offers. The estimated median wage for the county is $41 an hour, according to a similar US Census Bureau analysis of the median Staten Island household income of $85,381.