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. The organizers faced an uphill battle against the country’s second largest private employer, which has made every effort to keep the unions out.
Votes were still tabulated, but union supporters secured a large enough lead to give the fledgling Amazon union enough support to claim a victory. The votes, either invalidated or challenged by either Amazon or the ALU, did not appear to be enough to affect the outcome.
More than 8,300 eligible employees cast their votes. Amazon provides the list of eligible workers to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees the process. Organizers say a high turnover rate may have shrunk that pool since the scheduled election.
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.
Now Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, 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.
John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said the vote numbers in New York were “shocking”. The nascent Amazon Labor Union, which is leading the Staten Island prosecution, has no support from an established union and is driven by former and current warehouse workers.
“I don’t think a lot of people thought the Amazon union had much of a chance of winning,” Logan said. “And I think we’ll probably see more of these[approaches]in the future.”
After a crushing defeat last year in Bessemer when a majority of workers voted against forming a union, the retail, wholesale and department store union got a second chance to organize another campaign when the NLRB ordered a realignment after it found that Amazon had spoiled the union first choice.
Although RWDSU is currently lagging behind in the last election, Logan said the early results are nonetheless noteworthy as the union has made great efforts to narrow its lead from last year.
RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said Thursday that the union would object to Amazon’s handling of the Bessemer election, but declined to elaborate. He also took the opportunity to crack down on current labor laws, which he believes are anti-union and pro-company rigged.
“It shouldn’t be that difficult to form a union in the United States,” he said.
Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who has led the ALU in their fight on Staten Island, continued to hope for a win Thursday.
“To be the leader on day one and to be a few hundred ahead of a trillion-dollar company is the best feeling in the world,” Smalls said after Thursday’s count concluded.
Amazon pushed back a lot in the run-up to both 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 still kept it, which was pivotal 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 employment counselors, which organizers say the retailer regularly solicits to persuade 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.
A spokesman for Amazon said the company is investing in wages and benefits like health care, 401(k) plans and a prepaid tuition program to help advance workers’ careers.
“As a company, we do not believe that unions are the best answer for our employees,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement. “Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”
Associated Press contributors Tali Arbel and Bobby Caina Calvan in New York contributed to this report.
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https://time.com/6163782/amazon-workers-nyc-vote-to-unionize/ Amazon Workers in NYC Win Historic Union Formation Vote