Amazon workers in NYC vote to unionize in historic labor win

Amazon workers in NYC vote to unionize in historic labor win

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

April 2, 2022, 2: 29 AM

7 min read

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.

The 67 ballots that were challenged by either Amazon or the ALU were not enough to sway the outcome. Federal labor officials stated that the results of the count will not be verified until they have processed any objections, due by April 8.

The victory was a difficult one for the independent group of former and current workers, who had no official backing from a union and were outgunned in the face by the well-funded retail giant. Organizers believed that their grassroots approach was more accessible to workers and could help them overcome past failures of established unions. They were right.

Chris Smalls was a fired Amazon employee who had been leading the ALU’s fight on Staten Island. On Friday, they rushed out of the NLRB Building in Brooklyn with other union organizers. They pumped their fists and jumped, chanting “ALU,” and Smalls hailed the win as a call for arms for all other Amazon workers. He said that a lot people doubted us and that he hoped everyone would pay attention.

Smalls hoped that the success in New York would inspire workers at other facilities to start their own organizing campaigns. His group will soon turn their attention to the Staten Island Amazon warehouse, where they will hold a separate union election in late April. The organizers believe that Friday’s win will make it easier to win there.

Amazon posted a statement Friday on its website stating that it was reviewing its options after the election.

“We are disappointed by the outcome of Staten Island’s election. However, we believe that having a direct relationship to the company is best for employees.” The post stated. “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.”

The company did not elaborate but it signaled it might challenge the election based on a lawsuit filed in March by the NLRB, which sought to force Amazon to reinstate a fired employee who was involved in the union drive. Kayla Blado, spokesperson for NLRB, responded to Amazon’s statement by pointing out that the independent agency was authorized by Congress to enforce National Labor Relations Act.

“All NLRB enforcement activities against Amazon have been consistent in accordance with that Congressional mandate,” she stated.

Mark Cohen is the director of retail studies at Columbia University. He said that he doesn’t see how workers would benefit from a unionized Amazon facility. He also called the 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. Cohen stated that

“Amazon will not change their culture simply because there is a union within their ranks. “”They might be forced to let people work eight hours but those people will make less money.”

The successful union effort on Staten Island stood in contrast to the one launched in Bessemer, Alabama by the more established Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The workers at the Amazon warehouse in Seattle appeared to have rejected a union bid, but there are still outstanding challenged ballots that could alter the outcome. The votes were 993-to-875 against the union. A hearing to review 416 challenged ballots is expected to begin in the next few days. The union campaigns are occurring at a time when many corporations are experiencing labor unrest. Workers at more than 140 Starbucks locations around the country, for instance, have requested union elections and several of them have already been successful.

But Amazon is a major prize for the labor movement due to its enormous size and impact. The results of Staten Island were heard all the way to Washington.

“The president was pleased to see workers ensure that their voices are heard in respect of important workplace decisions,” Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said during Friday’s briefing. “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, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said the union win was a potential tipping point two years into a pandemic that has shifted the labor landscape.

“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. According to Erin Hatton (a sociology professor at University of Buffalo in New York), the group may still face a challenge.

“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, professor of labor studies at Rutgers University, said the victory is just the first step in a likely protracted battle against Amazon.

“It is clear that Amazon will continue fighting, but they are not conceding workers have the right to organize,” she stated. “It looks like the legal questions they’ve raised this afternoon suggest they’re trying to undermine entire authority of NLRB.”

Amazon has pushed back hard in the lead-up to both elections in Staten Island and Bessemer. The retail giant held mandatory meetings where workers were told that unions were a bad idea. The company also created an anti-union website for workers and posted English and Spanish posters throughout Staten Island. Amazon’s controversial U.S. mailbox was kept in Bessemer despite some changes. The NLRB invalidated last year’s vote by removing a mailbox from the Postal Service.

Both labor fights faced unique challenges. Alabama, for example, is a right to work state that prohibits companies and unions from signing contracts that require workers to pay dues. The union landscape in Alabama is very different from New York. Last year, union members accounted for 22.2% of wage and salary workers in New York, ranked only behind Hawaii, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than double the national average of 10.3%. It’s 5.9% in Alabama.

Amazon workers in Staten Island are seeking longer breaks, paid time off for injured employees and an hourly wage of $30, up from a minimum of just over $18 per hour offered by the company. 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 started working for the online retailer around a year ago. He is optimistic that the new union will improve his working conditions.

” I’m thrilled that we’re making historical strides,” Dutchin stated. “This will be a fantastic time for workers to be surrounded in a better, safer working environment.”

Tinea Greenaway voted against unionizing but said she would reserve judgment for now.

” We can’t take back votes,” she stated. “I’ll give things a chance, but let’s see if they deliver on what they promised.”

Associated Press staff writer Mae Anderson in New York contributed to this report.

ABC News

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