BY HALELUYA HADERO, ANNE D’INNOCENZIO and BOBBY CAINA CALVAN
NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, on Friday voted to organize in a union in what marks the first successful US organizing effort in the history of the retail giant and an emerging group that has fueled the union movement unexpected victory.
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.
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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 and chanting “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.
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, saying it was evaluating its options after the election.
“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.”
The company did not elaborate, but did signal that it could contest the election over a lawsuit filed by the NLRB in March to force Amazon to reinstate a fired employee involved in the union campaign.
NLRB spokeswoman 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 this mandate from Congress,” she said.
Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University, said he doesn’t see how workers would benefit from a unionized Amazon facility and called the general push to unionize companies misguided. He said Amazon is a “highly disciplined and regimented” company that is willing to pay top-notch wages and good benefits, but it also demands tremendous performance from its workers, who work 10-hour shifts.
“Amazon is not going to change their culture because there is a union in their midst now,” Cohen said. “You might be forced to make people work eight hours, but those people will make less money.”
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 an Amazon warehouse there appeared to have turned down 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. The results in Staten Island echoed all the way to the White House.
“The President was pleased to see workers making sure their voices were heard in relation to important workplace decisions,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday while discussing the vote. “He firmly believes that every worker in every state must have a free and fair choice to join a union and the right to collectively bargain with their employer.”
John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said the union win is a potential turning point two years into a pandemic that has transformed the work landscape.
“We knew unions were having a moment, but this is a lot bigger,” Logan said. “There is no greater prize than Amazon’s organization.”
He added that the ALU’s victory went against traditional thinking that only national unions can take on big companies. But the group may still have a fight ahead, according to Erin Hatton, a sociology professor at the University of Buffalo in New York.
“Bringing Amazon to the negotiating table will be another accomplishment overall,” Hatton said. “Often the union fizzles out because the company does not come to the negotiating table in good faith, as required.”
Rebecca Givan, a professor of ergonomics at Rutgers University, said the win was just the first step in what will likely be a protracted battle against Amazon.
“It is clear that Amazon will continue to fight, they do not recognize that workers have the right to organize,” she said. “It looks like the legal issues they raised this afternoon suggest they are trying to undermine the overall authority of the NLRB.”
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. 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.
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%.
Amazon workers in Staten Island are demanding longer breaks, paid time off for injured workers, and a $30 hourly wage, versus a minimum offered by the company of just over $18 an hour. 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.
Ross Harrison, who voted to organize on Staten Island, hoped the union could improve things in the workplace, but wasn’t sure if it would have a bigger impact.
“Life is much bigger than a union,” Harrison said as he reported for his shift on Friday. “Amazon is a great job and the union is a great opportunity for the people who look forward to it.”
Tinea Greenaway voted against unionizing but said she would reserve her judgment for now.
“We cannot take back our votes,” she said. “I’ll give things a chance, but let’s see if they keep what they promised.”
Associated Press contributor Mae Anderson in New York contributed to this report.
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