In one of the biggest worker victories in modern US labor history, a majority of employees at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, voted to join a union run by workers who neither It didn’t even exist a year ago. The election results mark the first time a majority of workers at an Amazon facility in the US have voted to join a union.
Warehouse workers on Staten Island, known as JFK8, voted to be represented by the Amazon Labor Union, or ALU. The union captured 2,654 votes, while 2,131 voted against. other 67 Amazon or the union contested the ballots, but the margin of victory was greater than the number of contested ballots, so the results are final. Amazon has five business days to file objections and said in a statement that it is considering doing just that.
“We are disappointed with the outcome of the Staten Island election because we believe that having a direct relationship with the company is in the best interest of our employees,” the statement added.
The victory comes despite Amazon’s long history of cracking down on unions in the 28 years since Jeff Bezos founded the company in 1994 as an online book seller. Since then, Amazon leaders have spent a considerable amount of time and money to roll back this union campaign and others. Perhaps just as surprisingly, the union’s victory comes during the first organizing drive of this particular union, which was created last year by former warehouse worker Chris Smalls, who was fired by Amazon after he led a protest outside the warehouse. warehouse in the early days of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The success of this grassroots approach could serve as a model for future organizing efforts within Amazon and beyond. The union’s victory also means Amazon workers are the latest to succeed in organizing within high-profile US corporations, including Starbucks and REI.
This week, votes for a new election were also counted at a separate Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, after a National Labor Relations Board official ruled that Amazon illegally interfered with the facility’s first election held in 2021. The union in question, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union, trails by just over 100 votes, but the result is still up in the air because Amazon and the union contested more than 400 additional votes combined. Those must be examined in a hearing, and potentially counted, before a final outcome is confirmed in the coming weeks or months. On the first ballot, workers had voted overwhelmingly for Amazon.
Amazon’s new union will now take on another monumental challenge in trying to negotiate a contract, known as a collective bargaining agreement, with Amazon. ALU leaders have said their main goals include raising hourly wages for all workers to a minimum of $30 an hour; Amazon says the average hourly starting wage for U.S. warehouse employees is $18. The union has also said it will push for longer breaks for workers and eliminate mandatory overtime outside of a few peak weeks to online shopping.
ALU literature also said that its leaders want workers to have union representation present during disciplinary meetings to protect themselves against unfair dismissal. Amazon’s sky-high worker attrition rates are due, at least in part, to employees quitting or being fired for not being able to keep up with the demanding pace of work. As Amazon has added robots to its warehouses over the past decade, workers in some roles have seen their performance goals increase to the point where they must pick or put away 300 to 400 items per hour in 10-hour shifts. Amazon was recently cited for an “willful” violation of Washington state labor laws after a state ergonomics expert determined that the pace and nature of work Amazon requires “to create[s] a serious risk of work-related back, shoulder, wrist, and knee injuries.
From the start, a union victory at an Amazon facility seemed unlikely. Amazon, the nation’s second-largest private-sector employer with more than 1.1 million employees, is notoriously anti-union and has allocated significant resources to fight unionization efforts. Amazon revealed in a recent Labor Department filing that it spent about $4 million on labor consultants last year. During recent union drives in Staten Island and Bessemer, Amazon and the companies it has hired created anti-union websites, called for mandatory meetings during workers’ shifts to emphasize the disadvantages of unions, and frequently texted workers with messages anti-union and encouraged them to vote no.
Amazon has also made investments in technology to track and counter the threat of unionization. Going back further, in Amazon’s early years, the company began tracking the potential for unionization in each of its warehouses, creating an Excel heat map to identify “hot spots” in its fulfillment network that might be most susceptible. to union activity, according to a former senior human resources manager.
Amazon also had history on its side. Prior to the union drives in Staten Island and Bessemer, the only other union vote at an Amazon facility in the US ended with a small group of mechanics and equipment technicians voting against unionizing at a Delaware warehouse earlier in the day. 2014. (Amazon later had to post a notice to facility employees as part of a settlement agreement with the National Labor Relations Board that suggests the company may have violated labor laws by opposing the campaign.) they have been better than some big non-union competitors.
Union efforts within Amazon have also been hampered by extreme staff turnover in the company’s warehouse network. A New York Times report last year revealed that Amazon turns over 3 percent of its warehouse staff each week, or 150 percent in a single year. Some Amazon employees in Europe, where organized labor is more common, belong to unions.
The union efforts on Staten Island began with what has long seemed like a series of miscalculations by Amazon executives. In March 2020, ALU founder Chris Smalls, then a warehouse supervisor at Amazon, led a small protest outside the facility to raise awareness of what he felt were unsafe working conditions and management’s lack of transparency. during the start of Covid-19. crisis.
That same day, Amazon officials fired Smalls, setting off a chain of events that ultimately catalyzed the worker’s efforts and gave his story more prominence. Shortly after Smalls’ firing, the company’s top attorney, David Zapolsky, who is white, in an executive meeting attended by Jeff Bezos, referred to the former employee, who is black, as “not smart or eloquent” and encouraged his colleagues to make him the focal point of the union’s efforts in dealing with the press. Then, after Zapolsky’s notes from this meeting were leaked to the press and corporate employees began protesting and questioning Amazon’s actions on an internal company listserver, the company fired three key corporate activists and began to restrict the ability of employees to communicate on large mailing list servers.
@Amazon They wanted to make me the face of all union efforts against them…. well there you have it! @Jeff Bezos @DavidZapolsky CONGRATULATIONS @amazonlabor We work we have fun and we made history ‼️✊ #ALU #ALUfortheWin welcomes the 1st syndicate in America for Amazon
—Christian Smalls (@Shut_downAmazon) April 1, 2022
Amazon had said it fired Smalls because he violated social distancing policies while on paid quarantine leave, but New York Attorney General Letitia James later ruled that Amazon’s firing Smalls was illegal. A year after the firing, in April 2021, Smalls and several colleagues founded the Amazon Labor Union. Most recently, Amazon called the police on Smalls in February of this year when he showed up to deliver food to warehouse workers. The New York Police Department arrested him and charged him with trespassing, saying Smalls had ignored multiple requests to vacate the property.
The victory of the Amazon Workers Union will likely spark organizing efforts at more Amazon facilities across the country. Another election is already scheduled for late April at a separate Amazon facility on Staten Island, where workers will vote on whether they too want to be represented by Smalls and the ALU.
Beyond that, workers interested in organizing at other large employers with strong histories of union busting may see the shocking turn of events at Amazon as the catalyst for renewed efforts within their own company. And in the US labor community, large established unions can reflect on what they can learn from Amazon Labor Union’s worker-by-worker grassroots strategy, which has succeeded when large established unions like the RWDSU have so far they have not done it.