Amazon workers on Staten Island vote to unionize

It was a union campaign that few expected to have a chance. A handful of workers at Amazon’s vast warehouse on Staten Island, operating without the support of national labor organizations, took on one of the world’s most powerful companies.

And somehow they won.

According to the results released Friday, workers at the factory voted by a wide margin to form a union, in one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation.

Workers cast 2,654 votes to be represented by Amazon Labor Union and 2,131 against, giving the union a more than 10 percentage point victory, according to the National Labor Relations Board. More than 8,300 employees at the warehouse, the only Amazon fulfillment center in New York City, were eligible to vote.

The Staten Island victory comes at a perilous time for unions in the United States, where the proportion of workers in unionized unions fell to 10.3 percent last year, the lowest rate in decades, despite strong demand for workers, and some successful labor activities. . and increasing public approval.

Critics – including some union officials – say traditional unions have not spent enough money or shown enough imagination in organizing campaigns and have often bet on the wrong fights. Some point to tacky corruption scandals.

Amazon’s union victory, the company’s first in the United States after years of workers’ activism there, presents a huge opportunity to change that trajectory and build on recent victories. Many union leaders view Amazon as an existential threat to labor standards because it affects and often dominates so many industries.

But the victory by a little-known, independent union with few links to existing groups seems to raise as many questions for the labor movement as it answers: not least, whether there is something fundamentally broken with the traditional bureaucratic union model that can be resolved. only by replacing it with grassroots organizations like the one on Staten Island.

Amazon is likely to aggressively contest the union’s victory. An unsigned statement on his company blog said, “We are disappointed with the results of the Staten Island election because we believe a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.”

The Staten Island outcome followed what appears to be a likely small loss by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union at a large Amazon warehouse in Alabama. The vote is so close that the results will not be known for several weeks as disputed ballots are litigated.

The surprising strength of unions in both locations most likely means Amazon will be under pressure for years to come from other business facilities of unions and progressive activists who work with them. As a recent series of union victories at Starbucks has shown, victories in one location can be an encouragement to others.

Amazon has been eager to hire for the past two years and now has 1.6 million employees worldwide. But it was plagued by high staff turnover and the pandemic gave workers a growing sense of power while fueling concerns about workplace safety. The Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, was the subject of a New York Times investigation last year, which found that it was symbolic of the stress — including accidental layoffs and skyrocketing attrition — for workers caused by Amazon’s employment model.

“The pandemic has fundamentally changed the job landscape” by giving workers more leverage over their employers, said John Logan, a professor of employment studies at San Francisco State University. “It’s just a matter of whether unions can capitalize on the opportunity that transformation has opened up.”

Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee who founded the union, stood outside the NLRB office in Brooklyn, where the ballots were being counted, a bottle of champagne in front of a crowd of supporters and press. “To the first Amazon union in American history,” he cheered.

Amazon said it was evaluating its options, including potentially filing an objection to “improper and undue influence” by the NLRB for suing Amazon in federal court last month.

In that case, the NLRB asked a judge to compel Amazon to quickly rectify “blatantly unfair labor practices,” as it said when Amazon fired an employee who became involved with the union. Amazon argued in court that the labor council waived “the neutrality of their office” by filing the order just before the election.

Amazon would have to prove that claims of undue influence undermine the so-called laboratory conditions necessary for fair elections, said Wilma B. Liebman, the NLRB chairman under President Barack Obama.

President Biden was “glad to see workers making sure their voices are heard” at the Amazon facility, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “He firmly believes that every worker in every state should have a free and fair choice to join a union,” she said.

The short-term question facing the labor movement and other progressive groups is to what extent they will help the new Amazon Labor Union withstand potential challenges to the outcome and negotiate an initial contract, for example by providing resources and legal talent.

“The company will appeal, drag it out — it’s going to be an ongoing battle,” said Gene Bruskin, a longtime organizer who helped achieve one of the last labor victories on this scale, at a Smithfield meat processing plant. in 2008 and informally informed the Staten Island workers. “The workers’ movement needs to figure out how to support them.”

Sean O’Brien, the new president of the 1.3 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said in an interview Thursday that the union was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Amazon’s union organization and partner with several other unions. and progressive groups.

“We have many partners in labor,” said Mr. O’Brien. ‘We have neighborhood groups. It will be a great coalition.”

A culture of fear created by intensive productivity monitoring, documented by The Times on JFK8, was a major driver of the union action, which began in earnest nearly a year ago. The Amazon facility provided a lifeline to laid-off workers during the pandemic, but burned through the workforce and had such poor communications and technology that workers were accidentally fired or lost benefits.

For some employees, the stress of working in the warehouse during Covid outbreaks was a radicalizing experience that prompted them to take action. Mr Smalls, the chairman of the Amazon Labor Union, said he became alarmed in March 2020 after meeting a colleague who was clearly ill. He begged management to close the facility for two weeks. The company fired him after he helped lead a strike over security conditions in late March of that year.

Amazon said at the time it had taken “extreme measures” to keep employees safe, including thorough cleaning and social distancing. It said it had fired Mr Smalls for violating social distancing guidelines and attending the strike, even though he had been quarantined.

After workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., overwhelmingly rejected the retail workers’ union in the first election last spring, Mr. Smalls and Derrick Palmer, an Amazon employee who is his friend, decided to form a new union, called Amazon Labor Union. †

While the Alabama organization involved high-profile tactics, with progressive supporters like Senator Bernie Sanders visiting the area, JFK8 organizers took advantage of being insiders.

For months, they’ve set up shop at the bus stop outside the warehouse, grilling meat on barbecues, and even handing out pot at one point. (The store employees said they were crippled by Covid during their first election in Alabama.)

They also filed numerous charges of unfair labor with the NLRB when they believed Amazon had violated their rights. The job center took credit in a number of the cases, some of which Amazon arranged in a nationwide agreement to give workers greater access to organize on the ground.

Sometimes the Amazon Labor Union stumbled. The Labor Council found this fall that the fledgling union, which spent months collecting signatures from workers asking for a vote, had shown insufficient support to justify an election. But the organizers kept trying and by the end of January they had finally collected enough signatures.

Amazon played up its $15-an-hour minimum wage on advertising and other public relations efforts. The company also ran a full-scale campaign against the union, texting employees and making anti-union meetings mandatory. It spent $4.3 million last year on anti-union advisers across the country, according to annual disclosures filed Thursday with the Department of Labor.

In February, Mr. Smalls was arrested at the facility after managers said he was trespassing while delivering food to colleagues and calling police. Two current employees were also arrested during the incident, which appeared to spark interest in the union.

The difference in results in Bessemer and Staten Island may reflect a difference in union receptivity in the two states — about 6 percent of workers in Alabama are union members, compared to 22 percent in New York — as well as the difference between a mail-in election and one held personally.

But it may also suggest the benefits of organizing through an independent worker-led union. In Alabama, union officials and professional organizers continued to be barred from the facility under the labor council settlement. But at the Staten Island location, a larger portion of the union leadership and organizers were current employees.

“What we’ve been trying to say all along is that having workers on the inside is the most powerful tool,” said Mr. Palmer, who earns $21.50 an hour. “People didn’t believe it, but you can’t beat workers organizing other workers.”

The Amazon Labor Union’s independence also seemed to undermine Amazon’s anti-union discussions, which portrayed the union as an intermediate “third party.”

On March 25, JFK8 workers began queuing in front of a tent in the parking lot to vote. And over five days of voting, they cast their votes for what could become the first union among Amazon’s operations in the United States.

Another election, also hosted by Amazon Labor Union at a neighboring Staten Island branch, is scheduled for late April.

Jodi Kantor contributed to reporting.

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