For the first time in Amazon’s 27-year history, a group of U.S.-based workers have voted to unionize.
Out of 4,785 ballots counted, 2,654 workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, voted to join the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which was formed independently by current and former employees of the tech giant.
The election is a major setback for the nation’s second-largest employer, which has invested heavily in thwarting union efforts in recent years.
It is also a landmark victory for organized labor in the U.S., and comes at a moment when more Americans say they approve of unions than at any other time since 1965. Amazon employs roughly 1 million workers across the country and 1.6 million globally, according to its most recent earnings report.
The National Labor Relations Board said that 67 ballots were still being contested. But that is not enough to change the outcome of the vote.
“I’m happy to share this experience with the workers I organized with since Day One,” Christopher Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, said Thursday evening. Smalls was fired from Amazon in 2020 at the height of the first Covid wave in New York, after he helped organize a strike at the same Staten Island facility, called JFK8, demanding better health and safety protections.
Smalls and his colleagues spent months stationed outside JFK8, hosting barbecues and encouraging Amazon workers to sign union authorization cards. The organizers said they were inspired by another labor organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where the outcome of a repeat union election being counted this week is still unclear.
As of Thursday evening, 38 percent of the mail-in ballots counted in Bessemer were in favor of joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, while 43 percent were against it. 416 of the total 2,284 ballots were still being challenged by either Amazon or the union. It may take days or weeks before the election is officially decided.
“This is just the beginning and we will continue to fight,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU, during a video conference with reporters Thursday. “We believe that every valid vote must be counted and every objection heard.”
Regardless of the final outcome, RWDSU has already fared much better in Bessemer than it did last April during the first union election at the warehouse, when it lost by a margin of more than 2-to-1. The National Labor Relations Board later ordered a new vote, after it found Amazon had violated labor law by interfering with the process.
Only 39 percent of the more than 6,100 eligible workers at the Bessemer warehouse participated in the election, RWDSU said, down from 52 percent last year. Appelbaum noted that the annual turnover rate at Amazon is estimated to be around 150 percent, meaning many workers who participated in the last election may no longer work for the tech giant.
In response to the union elections, Amazon spokesperson Richard Rocha said, “We’re disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees. We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”
A well-resourced campaign
Amazon poured extensive resources into fighting both union campaigns. The company has spent more than $4.2 million on labor consultants since March 2021, according to a Department of Labor filing first reported by The New York Times. On a website created for workers at JFK8, Amazon painted the union as inexperienced and said it doesn’t “believe the ALU will add value to our relationship or how we work together.”
Amazon also held dozens of “captive audience” meetings in both Staten Island and Bessemer, which workers said the company used to go over anti-union talking points.
“They say that the human relations people are the ones who are coming to educate their employees. But I’ve been in those meetings,” Jennifer Bates, a union organizer at the Bessemer facility, told reporters Thursday. “Those meetings are not education meetings. Those meetings are designed to manipulate and intimidate employees.”
Amazon’s labor practices have caught the attention of Democratic lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee, who announced Thursday that they were opening an investigation into the company’s safety policies regarding natural disasters. Last year, six Amazon workers were killed during a tornado in Illinois.
Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the company planned to respond to the lawmakers “in due course,” and was currently focused on supporting its employees and the families of those who died in the tornado.
Amazon has previously said that it already offers competitive benefits and wages that start at $18 an hour on average, and respects the right of employees to decide whether to join a union. In December, as part of a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, Amazon agreed to make it easier for workers to engage in labor organizing at its warehouses.
A second Amazon facility in Staten Island, called LDJ5, will begin voting whether to join the ALU later this month. All three elections are part of a wider national labor organizing movement occurring at a number of U.S. companies, including Starbucks and the outdoor retailer REI. But overall union membership still declined last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The organizing campaigns at Amazon’s U.S. facilities have also been a source of inspiration for the company’s international workers, some of which are already unionized. Employees in Japan and parts of Europe have cited the American efforts in their own campaigns.
“I got emotional a few days ago because I actually thought about how, even if things didn’t move as fast in our area, across the country, nationally and internationally, people have gotten the courage because of what we stood up and did in Bessemer,” said Bates. “I’m ecstatic that everyone is making a move and they’re encouraged to fight back.”