By HALELUYA HADERO and ANNE D’INNOCENZIO – AP Business Writers
NEW YORK (AP) – Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, voted to form a union on Friday, marking the first successful U.S. organizational effort in the history of the retail giant and giving an unexpected win to an incipient group that sped off the union the driving force.
Warehouse workers cast 2,654 votes – or about 55% – for a union, giving the newly formed Amazon Labor Union enough support to win a victory. According to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees the process, 2,131 workers – or 45% – rejected the union bid.
The 67 ballot papers challenged by either Amazon or ALU were not enough to affect the result. Federal labor market officials said the results of the bill will not be verified until they address any objections – due by April 8 – that both parties can file.
The victory was an uphill battle for the independent group, made up of former and current workers who lacked official support from an established union and who were ousted by the deep retail giant. Despite obstacles, the organizers believed that their grassroots strategy was more related to workers and could help them overcome where established unions have failed in the past. They were right.
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Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who has led ALU in its fight on Staten Island, demarcated from the NLRB building in Brooklyn last Friday along with other union organizers, punched and jumped, chanting “ALU.” They picked up a bottle of champagne, and Smalls hailed the victory as a call to arms for other Amazon workers in the vast company.
“I hope everyone is paying attention now because many doubted us,” he said.
Smalls hopes the success in New York will encourage workers at other facilities to launch their own organizing campaigns. Even his group will soon shift its attention to a nearby Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, where a separate union election is scheduled for late April. The organizers believe that Friday’s win will make it easier for them to win there as well.
Amazon published a statement on its corporate website last Friday in which they said they were evaluating their options after the election.
“We are disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe it is best for our employees to have a direct relationship with the company,” the post states. “We are evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence of the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and the US Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”
The company did not develop, but it signaled that it could challenge the election based on a lawsuit filed in March by the NLRB, which sought to force Amazon to reinstate a laid-off employee involved in the union.
Amazon has long argued that workers do not need a union because the company already provides good wages as well as benefits such as health care, 401 (k) plans and a prepaid college education program to help workers’ careers grow.
The successful union effort on Staten Island was in contrast to the one launched in Bessemer, Alabama of the more established retail, wholesale and department store association. Workers at an Amazon warehouse there seemed to have rejected a union bid but outstanding challenged votes can change the outcome. The votes were 993 against 875 against the union. A hearing to examine 416 questioned ballot papers is expected to begin within 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 around the country have called for union elections, and several of them have already been successful.
But Amazon has long been considered a top prize for the labor movement given the company’s enormous size and impact.
“We are clearly in a different moment after two years of the pandemic. Something has changed in the work landscape,” said John Logan, director of work and employment studies at San Francisco State University. “It’s a potential turning point. We knew the unions had a “moment, but this is much bigger. There is no greater price than organizing Amazon.”
Logan said he did not think any of the unions – the national or independent workers’ group – would have a chance with Amazon, but he is even more shocked that a small union would win given its limited resources. The group had also applied for a union election after receiving support from about 30% of the plant’s workforce, a much lower proportion than unions usually strive for.
Logan said that ALU’s profits defy traditional thinking that only national unions can take on large companies.
But the group may still have a battle ahead of it, according to Erin Hatton, a sociology professor at the University of Buffalo in New York.
“Getting Amazon to the negotiating table will be another achievement together,” Hatton said. “Often the union will exhale because the company does not come to the negotiating table in good faith as they are obliged to do.
Amazon has pulled back hard ahead of both Staten Island and Bessemer elections. The retail giant held mandatory meetings, where workers were told that unions are a bad idea. The company also launched an anti-union website aimed at workers, placing English and Spanish posters throughout the Staten Island facility, urging them to reject the union. In Bessemer, Amazon has made some changes but still kept one controversial mailbox in the US Postal Service that was the key to the NLRB’s decision to annul last year’s vote.
Both labor battles faced unique challenges. Alabama, for example, is a state with the right to work that prohibits a company and a union from signing a contract that requires workers to pay dues to the union that represents them.
The union landscape in Alabama is also very different from New York. Last year, union members accounted for 22.2% of New York wage workers, ranked only after Hawaii, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is more than twice as much as the national average of 10.3%. In Alabama, it is 5.9%.
The mostly black workforce at the Amazon plant, which opened in 2020, reflects the Bessemer population of more than 70% of the black population, according to the latest data from the US census.
Union workers say they want better working conditions, longer breaks and higher wages. Regular full-time employees at the Bessemer facility earn at least $ 15.80 an hour, higher than the estimated $ 14.55 per hour on average in the city. That figure is based on an analysis of the US Census Bureau’s annual median household income for Bessemer of $ 30,284, which may include more than one worker.
The ALU said it did not have a demographic breakdown of warehouse workers in Staten Island and Amazon declined to provide the information to the Associated Press, citing the union vote. Internal records leaked to The New York Times from 2019 showed that more than 60% of the plant’s hourly employees were black or Latino, while most managers were white or Asian.
Amazon workers there are looking for longer breaks, paid leave 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 the state’s median household income of $ 85,381.
Associated Press staff writers Mae Anderson and Bobby Caina Calvan in New York contributed to this report.
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