Services & Software

Amazon Union Scores Unexpected Win in New York Election, a First in the US

In a six-day election, warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, voted to join the Amazon Labor Union.

Amazon Labor Union organizer Chris Smalls at an Amazon facility in Staten Island, New York. The union became the first to win an election at a US Amazon facility on Friday.
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In a first for the Amazon's US facilities, warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, have voted in favor of joining a union. The union's win, if certified by the federal labor board, adds momentum to an organizing movement that's been gaining steam around the country.

The tally of 2,654 yes votes to 2,131 no votes came after six days of in-person voting at the warehouse and an intense campaign. In the leadup to the vote, the union filed complaints to the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Amazon engaged in unfair labor practices.

The Amazon Labor Union, a new group that was formed by current and former Amazon workers, emerged from workers' efforts to demand better COVID-19 protections in 2020. The group eventually began an organizing bid after some workers involved in planning walkouts were disciplined or fired. That included fired worker Chris Smalls, who caught the attention of Amazon's top leadership. In a memo that was later leaked, Amazon's general counsel, David Zapolsky, said the company should try to make him the face of the movement because he's "not smart or articulate." 

In a tweet Friday, Smalls said Amazon got what it hoped for. "Amazon wanted to make me the face of the whole unionizing efforts against them.... welp there you go!" he wrote, addressing the comments to Zapolsky and Jeff Bezos.

Separately, a vote on unionization at an Amazon facility in Alabama failed on Thursday, though the result could be affected when hundreds of challenged ballots are resolved.

Amazon said in a statement that it's disappointed with the results of the Staten Island vote: "We believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees."

The statement went on to say that Amazon would evaluate its options for filing objections to the election based on "inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB." Amazon didn't respond to a follow-up question from CNET about what that alleged influence involved.

"The NLRB is an independent federal agency that Congress has charged with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act," said NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado in a statement. "All NLRB enforcement actions against Amazon have been consistent with that Congressional mandate."

At a briefing with reporters, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden "was glad to see workers ensure their voices are heard with respect to important workplace decisions." She added, "He believes 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."

Supporters of organizing a union at an Amazon Staten Island warehouse stand in front of a large, puppet-like effigy of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Supporters of organizing a union at an Amazon Staten Island warehouse rally in front of a National Labor Relations Board field office last year, with an effigy of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

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The Staten Island victory defied predictions of labor experts, who noted before the election that the union only secured support from 30% of workers when they formally requested a union election. Amazon expressed skepticism that the workers' group had even achieved that benchmark but agreed to move ahead with the election. ALU also won in the face of Amazon's extensive campaign urging workers to vote no, including mandatory meetings with consultants describing downsides to unions and messages sent to phones and posted around work spaces.

"It's very, very difficult to win in any circumstances, and especially against an employer with unlimited resources," said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor relations at Rutgers University.

A new union strategy

Connor Spence, vice president of membership at ALU, said turning in signatures from just over 30% of workers was a strategic move. By the time organizers got 50% of signatures, many of the people who signed on would likely have stopped working at the facility because turnover is so high. Instead, the union's team of about 20 core organizers worked to file for an election as quickly as possible and focus on the existing group of workers while they were still employed at the warehouse.

"That's the only strategy that will work at Amazon," Spence said, adding it was especially true for a union with limited resources.

A single unionized warehouse is unlikely to have an effect on customer experience or Amazon's bottom line. Still, it could inspire further organizing, said Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester, which is one reason for Amazon's aggressive approach. 

"It's been something that Amazon has been advocating against for a long time," she said.

The company is also facing higher labor and logistics costs at a time of rising wages, after having spent the pandemic growing its capacities with new facilities that need staffing. 

Amazon has said it thinks unions will get in the way of communication between managers and workers, slowing things down. The company spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants in 2021, according to a report Thursday from HuffPost. It's not known how much the company has spent so far this year fighting organizing drives at Staten Island as well as in Bessemer, Alabama, where a separate union drive culminated in a vote that was also counted Thursday. 

In the Alabama election, workers voted not to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. However, the results can't be finalized until more than 400 challenged ballots are resolved. 

ALU secured an early lead when counting began Thursday at the NLRB office in Brooklyn, New York, widening to more than 300 votes by the end of the day. Counting resumed Friday morning. A separate warehouse in Staten Island has also petitioned for a union vote.

Spence, ALU's vice president of membership, said the union is still getting used to the feeling of victory. 

Still, he said, "Failure was never an option."