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Amazon's First Union Warehouse Signals Growing Worker Demands

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce, Amazon, earned wage access, online marketplaces, direct to consumer, unions, labor and employment, supply chain, cybersecurity, privacy, stalkerware, hacking. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
6 min read

Workers in Amazon warehouses have pushed for additional rest-and-recovery time and for less grueling quotas.

Getty Images

What's happening

Two Amazon union elections defied expectations last week, part of increased labor activity across the US.

Why it matters

The labor organization comes as companies face a difficult recruiting environment because of the Great Resignation, the wave of workers leaving jobs as a result of the pandemic.

What's next

Another election in Staten Island, New York will decide whether the new Amazon Labor Union represents workers at two Amazon warehouses.

Two union votes at Amazon warehouses ended in different results last week, adding momentum to a growing trend of labor organizing. A vote in Staten Island, New York, produced the first unionized Amazon workplace in the US. A separate vote that rejected unionizing in Alabama was less conclusive, with enough challenged votes remaining uncounted to potentially change the outcome. 

The counts took place two years after workers in Staten Island first walked off the workplace demanding better COVID-19 protections. One of the workers who helped plan the walkout, Chris Smalls, was fired, and a leaked memo from Amazon's top leadership later derided him as "not smart or articulate." Smalls went on to co-found the Amazon Labor Union, the group that on Friday won the right to represent the Staten Island workers.

The tallies also took place one year after workers at the Bessemer, Alabama, facility voted not to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. After the defeat, the union alleged that Amazon had interfered with that vote. Federal officials ordered a new election, finding that a mailbox installed by Amazon looked like a voting booth and could've given workers the false impression that Amazon itself was running the election.

The earlier Bessemer election kicked off a year of increased labor organization across the country. An additional Staten Island facility is seeking to unionize. Workers at more than 150 US Starbucks stores have requested union elections, and nine of the coffee chain's stores have voted to join Workers United. On Friday, workers at a New York City Starbucks store became the latest to vote to unionize. Separately, Google Fiber contractors in Missouri signed on in March with the Alphabet Workers Union, the umbrella union representing employees of Google's parent company. A New York City REI store also organized last month, voting to join the RWDSU as the company's first unionized retail outlet.

The burst in labor activity comes as corporate employees and hourly workers find themselves with renewed leverage because of the Great Resignation, the wave of workers leaving jobs as a result of the pandemic. To combat the loss of workers to other jobs or early retirement, employers have rolled out higher wages and better benefits. These improvements, however, haven't satisfied Amazon organizers, who're demanding better break policies and a reduction in physically demanding quotas that critics blame for the e-commerce giant's high injury rates.

Amazon said Friday it was "disappointed" in the result in Staten Island and said it would consider objecting to the election based on actions taken by the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency charged with running union elections and enforcing labor law. 

The company also reiterated the same stance it has taken on unions since the organizing drives began in 2020. "We believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees," the company said in a statement.

Many of the ongoing labor efforts were brewing before the original Bessemer election. But it was the first public manifestation of growing worker discontent and helped accelerate the activity, says Andrew MacDonald, a labor lawyer at Fox Rothschild who advises employers.

"The fact that it failed almost didn't seem to matter," MacDonald said. "People were still talking about it."

With a union win in New York and a much closer election in Alabama, that buzz is growing.

How many Amazon warehouses have considered joining a union?

Workers at three Amazon locations have formally petitioned for union elections with the federal government. In addition to the two warehouses whose votes were counted last week, workers at a second Staten Island warehouse will vote on unionizing in late April. 

Vote-by-mail ballots for a redo election went out to Amazon workers in Alabama in February. Workers at the first Staten Island warehouse voted in person at their workplace over six consecutive days in March. 

The company has fought organizing efforts with mandatory meetings run by paid persuaders who detail potential downsides of joining a union. Amazon also sends messages to workers' phones and places signs throughout warehouses, urging workers to vote no.

Amazon says the meetings are for the benefit of employees. "If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site which is why we host regular informational sessions and provide employees the opportunity to ask questions and learn about what this could mean for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon," said spokesperson Kelly Nantel in a statement.

Workers from Staten Island have said they've been removed from meetings for pushing back on claims Amazon's representatives made in the meetings. A prosecutor at the National Labor Relations Board has alleged that a consultant described union organizers as "thugs" to employees.

What complaints do pro-union Amazon workers have?

The Alabama and New York workers have overlapping concerns, but the union pushes have different origins. 

In Bessemer, workers started talking about unionizing in 2020 after sharing complaints over the grueling pace of work and lack of adequate rest time. Amazon has been the subject of multiple lawsuits over locating break rooms and restrooms too far apart, requiring workers to use a chunk of their downtime walking to them. Regulators in Washington State recently said Amazon's quota practices are directly responsible for causing high rates of musculoskeletal injuries.

In Staten Island, workers demanded better COVID-19 protections in early 2020, when the pandemic threw Amazon's staffing levels and the supply chain into chaos. After the company fired or disciplined employees who planned walkouts, workers created the Amazon Labor Union.

Did Amazon's 2021 union election set off an organizing boom?

The unionizing efforts at Amazon signaled a sea change, labor experts say. 

That Amazon's union election came first is no surprise, given long-standing criticisms of its warehouse working conditions. Over the past year, the company has publicly dedicated itself to becoming the world's best employer, but it hadn't tried to cultivate that image until recently.

Starbucks and REI are different, says Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University. Both companies have made being a great workplace a part of their brands. Taken altogether, the union efforts show that workers everywhere want more, Kalyanam says.

"There's something that's gone out of tilt in the past two years in terms of employee expectations," he said. "People really reevaluated what work means to them."

How unlikely were last week's results?

The odds were against the unions.

In Bessemer, the RWDSU lost by a wide margin during the 2021 election. High turnover means the union had to spend time winning over new workers unfamiliar with the issues, says MacDonald, the employer-side labor lawyer. Still, the union fared much better this year, coming within striking distance of victory after having lost by a margin of more than 2-to-1 in 2021.

In Staten Island, labor experts didn't expect a victory because union organizers didn't demonstrate they had support from more than half of workers, a threshold unions typically try to reach before filing a petition for an election. Organizers expect to lose some support before an election, so they usually shoot for a margin above 50% at the start, says Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. Labor law requires a show of support from 30% of workers to qualify for a vote.

After winning on Friday, the union said the unorthodox move was strategic. Convincing 30% of workers to sign a petition was faster and less resource-intensive than trying to get 50%. Filing quickly also avoided losing supporters to the high rates of turnover seen in Amazon's warehouse workforce.

What other labor activism is taking place at Amazon locations?

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters said in 2021 that organizing Amazon workers is its top priority. The union hasn't filed any petitions for elections so far. 

Separately, two groups of Amazon workers are making demands to Amazon management without going through a formal union election. Amazonians United is a labor group operating in locations including Chicago, Sacramento and New York. The group has demanded raises and paid sick time. It also asked the company not to reinstate its pre-pandemic ban on bringing personal phones to work, so employees' families can reach them during emergencies. 

In Seattle, workers at an Amazon Fresh grocery store have declared themselves a union, calling themselves Amazon Workers United. The group hasn't sought a formal NLRB union election, but it has demanded better pay and benefits, a new uniform policy and more training around diversity and sexual harassment.