Amazon workers in Staten Island vote to unionize

This was an organizing campaign that few expected to have a chance. A handful of workers at Amazon’s massive Staten Island warehouse, o...


This was an organizing campaign that few expected to have a chance. A handful of workers at Amazon’s massive Staten Island warehouse, operating without the support of national labor organizations, have hired one of the most powerful companies in the world.

And, one way or another, they won.

Workers at the plant voted overwhelmingly to form a union, results showed Friday, in one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation.

Employees cast 2,654 votes to be represented by the Amazon Labor Union and 2,131 against, giving the union a victory of more than 10 percentage points, according to the National Labor Relations Board. More than 8,300 workers at the warehouse, which is Amazon’s only fulfillment center in New York, were eligible to vote.

The victory in Staten Island comes at a perilous time for unions in the United States, which saw the proportion of unionized workers fall last year to 10.3%, the lowest rate in decades, despite strong demand of workers, pockets of succeeded work activity and growing public approval.

Reviews – including some labor officials — say mainstream unions haven’t spent enough money or been imaginative enough to mount campaigns and have often bet on the wrong fights. Some point to sneaky corruption scandals.

The labor victory at Amazon, the first at the company in the United States after years of worker activism there, offers a huge opportunity to change that trajectory and build on recent victories. Many labor leaders see Amazon as an existential threat to labor standards because it touches many sectors and frequently dominates them.

But the victory of a little-known independent union with little connection to existing groups seems to raise as many questions for the labor movement as it answers: in particular, if there is something fundamentally broken with the union model traditional bureaucracy that can only be solved by replacing it with local organizations like the one on Staten Island.

Amazon is likely to aggressively contest the union’s victory. An unsigned statement on its corporate blog said: “We are disappointed with the Staten Island election result because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees. “

The Staten Island result followed what seems likely to be a small loss by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in a large Amazon warehouse in Alabama. The vote is close enough that the results won’t be known for several weeks as disputed ballots are disputed.

The surprising strength of unions in both places most likely means Amazon will face years of pressure at other company facilities from labor groups and progressive activists working with them. . Like a recent string of union victories at Starbucks showedvictories in one place can encourage others.

Amazon has been hiring voraciously over the past two years and now has 1.6 million employees worldwide. But it has been plagued by high turnover, and the pandemic has given employees a growing sense of empowerment 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 it to be emblematic of the hardships — including inadvertent layoffs and skyrocketing attrition — on workers caused by Amazon’s employment model.

“The pandemic has fundamentally changed the landscape of work” by giving workers more leverage with their employers, said John Logan, professor of social studies at San Francisco State University. “It’s just a question of whether unions can take advantage of the opportunity that transformation has presented.”

Standing outside the NLRB’s office in Brooklyn, where the ballots were counted, Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee who founded the union, popped a bottle of champagne in front of a crowd of supporters and reporters. “To the first Amazon syndicate in American history,” he clapped.

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

In this case, the NLRB asked a judge to force Amazon to quickly rectify “gross unfair labor practices,” he said, when Amazon fired a worker who got involved with the union. Amazon argued in court that the labor board abandoned “the neutrality of its office” by filing the injunction just before the election.

Amazon would have to prove that any allegations of undue influence undermined the so-called laboratory conditions necessary for a fair election, said Wilma B. Liebman, chair of the NLRB under President Barack Obama.

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

The short-term question facing the labor movement and other progressive groups is how much they will help Amazon’s new union weather potential challenges to the outcome and negotiate a first contract, such as providing legal resources and talent.

“The company is going to appeal, hang around – it’s going to be an ongoing fight,” said Gene Bruskin, a longtime organizer who helped win one of Labour’s last victories on this scale, during a Smithfield Meat Processing Plant in 2008, and informally advised Staten Island workers. “The labor movement needs to figure out how to support them.

Sean O’Brien, the new president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has 1.3 million members, said in an interview Thursday that the union is willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to organize Amazon and work with various other unions and progressive groups.

“We have a lot of union partners,” said Mr. O’Brien. “We have community groups. It will be a grand coalition.

A culture of fear created by intense productivity surveillance that was documented by The Times at JFK8 has been a key motivating factor for the organizing drive, which began in earnest nearly a year ago. The Amazon facility offered a lifeline to laid-off workers during the pandemic, but burned staff and had such poor communication and technology that workers were inadvertently laid off or lost their benefits.

For some employees, the stress of working in the warehouse during the Covid outbreaks was a drastic experience that drove them into action. Mr. Smalls, the president of the Amazon Labor Union, noted he became alarmed in March 2020 after meeting a colleague who was clearly ill. He begged the management to close the establishment for two weeks. The company fired him after he helped lead a walkout on security conditions at the end of March this year.

Amazon said at the time that it had taken “extreme measures” to keep workers safe, including deep cleaning and social distancing. He said he fired Mr Smalls for breaking social distancing guidelines and attending the walkout even though he had been placed in quarantine.

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

While organizing in Alabama included high-level tactics, with progressive supporters like Senator Bernie Sanders visiting the area, JFK8 organizers benefited from being insiders.

For months, they sat at the bus stop outside the warehouse, grilling meat on barbecue grills and, at one point, even handing out cooking pot. (Retail workers said they were crippled by Covid when they were first elected in Alabama.)

They also filed numerous unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB when they believed Amazon violated their rights. The employment agency found merit in several of the cases, some of which Amazon settled in a national agreement to allow workers to have more access to organize themselves on the spot.

Sometimes the Amazon Labor Union has stumbled. The labor board determined this fall that the fledgling union, which spent months collecting signatures from workers demanding a vote, had did not demonstrate sufficient support justify an election. But the organizers kept trying, and by the end of January they were finally together enough signatures.

Amazon raised its minimum wage by $15 an hour in advertising and other public relations efforts. The company also waged a massive campaign against the union, sending text messages to employees and forcing participation in anti-union meetings. He spent $4.3 million in anti-union consultants nationwide last year, according to annual disclosures filed Thursday with the Department of Labor.

In February, Mr. Smalls was stopped at the facility after managers said he was trespassing while delivering food to co-workers and called the police. Two current employees were also arrested in the incident, which appeared to galvanize interest in the union.

The difference in results in Bessemer and Staten Island may reflect a difference in receptiveness to unions in the two states – about 6% of workers in Alabama are unionized, compared to 22% in New York – as well as the difference between a dispatch postal election and a conduct in person.

But it may also suggest the benefits of organizing through an independent worker-led union. In Alabama, union officials and professional organizers were still barred from the facility under the settlement with the labor board. But at the Staten Island site, more of the management and union organizers were current employees.

“What we were trying to say from the start is that having workers on the inside is the most powerful tool,” said Palmer, who earns $21.50 an hour. “People didn’t believe it, but you can’t beat workers who organize other workers.”

The Amazon Labor Union’s independence also seemed to undermine Amazon’s union-busting talking points, which made the union an intrusive “third party.”

On March 25, JFK8 workers began lining up outside a tent in the parking lot to vote. And during five days of voting, they voted to form what could become the first union in Amazon’s operations in the United States.

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

Jodi Kantor contributed report.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Amazon workers in Staten Island vote to unionize
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