It was a union campaign that few expected to get a chance at. A handful of employees at Amazon’s massive warehouse on Staten Island, operating without the support of national labor organizations, welcomed one of the most powerful companies in the world.
And somehow they won.
Workers at the plant voted by a wide margin to form a union, according to results published on 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 the only Amazon fulfillment center in New York City, were eligible to vote.
The victory on Staten Island comes at a dangerous time for unions in the United States, where the proportion of workers in unions fell last year to 10.3 percent, the lowest rate in decades, despite high demand for workers, pockets of successful work activity and increasing public approval.
Critics – including some workers – say that traditional unions have not spent enough money or shown enough imagination in organizing campaigns, and that they have often bet on the wrong struggles. Some point to tacky corruption scandals.
The union victory at Amazon, the first in the company in the US after many years of labor activism there, provides a huge opportunity to change that trajectory and build on the recent victories. Many union leaders see Amazon as an existential threat to labor standards because it affects so many industries and often dominates them.
But the victory of a little-known, independent trade union with few ties 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 trade union model that can solved 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 the company’s blog said, “We are disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe it is best for our employees to have a direct relationship with the company.”
The State Island result followed what appears to be a narrow loss to the retail, wholesale and department store union at a large Amazon warehouse in Alabama. The vote is close enough that the results will not be known for several weeks as controversial ballots are sued.
The surprising strength that unions show in both places most likely means that Amazon will face years of pressure on other business facilities from workgroups and progressive activists working with them. As a recent series of union victories at Starbucks have shown, victories in one place can provide encouragement in others.
Amazon has been hiring ferociously for the past two years and now has 1.6 million employees globally. But it has been plagued by high turnover, and the pandemic gave employees a growing sense of power, while at the same time raising concerns about safety in the workplace. The Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, was the subject of a New York Times study last year that found it was symbolic of the strain – including unintentional layoffs and soaring attrition – on workers caused by Amazon’s hiring model.
“The pandemic has fundamentally changed the work landscape” by giving workers more leverage with their employers, “said John Logan, a professor of work studies at San Francisco State University. “It’s just a question of whether unions can take advantage of the opportunity that the transformation has opened up.”
Standing outside the NLRB office in Brooklyn, where the ballots were counted, Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee who started the union, jumped a bottle of champagne in front of a crowd of supporters and the press. “To the first Amazon union in American history,” he cheered.
Amazon said it was evaluating its options, including potential objections to “inappropriate and unnecessary influence” from the NLRB to sue Amazon in a federal court last month.
In that case, the NLRB asked a judge to force Amazon to quickly correct “flagrantly unfair work practices,” which it said took place when Amazon fired a worker involved in the union. Amazon claimed in court that the works council abandoned “the neutrality of their office” by filing the injunction just before the election.
Amazon would have to prove that any allegation of undue influence undermined the so-called laboratory conditions necessary for a fair election, said Wilma B. Liebman, president of the NLRB under President Barack Obama.
President Biden was “happy to see workers ensure their voices are heard” at the Amazon facility, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “He is convinced that every worker in every state should have a free and fair choice to join a trade union,” she said.
The short-term question facing the labor movement and other progressive groups is to what extent they will help the emerging Amazon Labor Union meet potential challenges for the outcome and negotiate an initial contract, such as by providing resources and legal talent .
“The company will appeal, pull it out – it’s going to be an ongoing battle,” said Gene Bruskin, a longtime organizer who helped mark one of the workforce’s last victories on this scale, at a Smithfield meat processing plant in 2008, and has informally advised the Staten Island workers. “The trade union movement needs to figure out how to support them.”
Sean O’Brien, the new president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters with 1.3 million members, said in an interview Thursday that the union was prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on uniting Amazon and collaborating with a number of other unions and progressive groups.
“We have a lot of work partners,” Mr. O’Brien. “We have community groups. It will be a great coalition.”
A culture of fear created by intense productivity monitoring, which was documented by The Times on JFK8, has been a key motivator for the union effort, which really started almost a year ago. The Amazon facility offered a lifeline to laid-off workers during the pandemic, but burned through staff and had such poor communication 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 made them act. Mr. Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, said he was alerted in March 2020 after encountering a colleague who was clearly ill. He begged the management to close the plant for two weeks. The company fired him after he helped lead a work stoppage over security conditions at the end of March of the same year.
Amazon said at the time that it had taken “extreme measures” to keep workers safe, including deep cleaning and social distance. It said it had fired Mr. Smalls for violating the guidelines on social distance and participating in the strike, even though he had been quarantined.
After workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., Overwhelmingly rejected the retail workers’ union in its first election last spring, Mr. Smalls and Derrick Palmer, an Amazon employee who is his friend, to form a new union, called the Amazon Labor Union.
While the organization in Alabama included high-profile tactics, with progressive supporters like Senator Bernie Sanders visiting the area, organizers at JFK8 took advantage of being insiders.
For months, they set up shop at the bus stop outside the warehouse, grilled meat at barbecues and at one point even fainted the pot. (The retailers said they were hampered by Covid during their first election in Alabama.)
They also filed several allegations of unfair labor practice with the NLRB, claiming that Amazon had violated their rights. The labor agency found justification in several of the cases, some of which Amazon settled in a nationwide agreement to give workers more access to organize on-site.
At times, Amazon’s Labor Union stumbled. The Labor Council ruled in the fall that the start-up union, which spent months collecting signatures from workers requesting a vote, had not shown sufficient support to justify an election. But the organizers kept trying, and by the end of January, they had finally collected enough signatures.
Amazon increased its minimum wage by $ 15 per hour in advertising and other public relations efforts. The company also waged a full-throated campaign against the union, texting employees and mandating attendance at anti-union meetings. It spent $ 4.3 million on anti-union consultants across the country last year, according to annual revelations filed Thursday with the Labor Department.
In February, Mr. Smalls was arrested at the facility after managers said he had violated while providing food to colleagues and calling police. Two current employees were also arrested during the incident, which appeared to arouse interest in the union.
The difference in results in Bessemer and Staten Island may reflect a difference in susceptibility to unions in the two states – about 6 percent of Alabama workers are union members, versus 22 percent in New York – as well as the difference between a mail-in election and a held in person.
But it can also suggest the benefits of organizing through an independent, worker-led union. In Alabama, union officials and professional organizers were still excluded from the facility during the settlement with the Labor Board. But at the Staten Island site, a larger portion of the union leadership and organizers were current employees.
“What we were constantly trying to say is that having workers inside is the most powerful tool,” said Mr. Palm trees earning $ 21.50 an hour. “People did not believe it, but you can not beat workers who organize other workers.”
The independence of Amazon’s Labor Union also seemed to undermine Amazon’s anti-union rhetoric, which constituted the union as a mutual “third party.”
On March 25, the workers at JFK8 began to line up outside a tent in the parking lot to vote. And over five voting days, they cast their vote to form what could become the first union at Amazon’s operations in the United States.
Another election, also hosted by Amazon Labor Union at a nearby Staten Island facility, is scheduled for late April.
Jodi Kantor contributed with reporting.