The growing labor organizing efforts at Amazon were dealt a blow on Monday when workers voted by a wide margin to reject joining a union at a warehouse on Staten Island, just weeks after the union won a landmark victory at a larger facility nearby.
Employees cast 380 votes to be represented by the union and 618 against, according to the National Labor Relations Board. About 1,600 workers at the warehouse were eligible to vote.
For Amazon, the overwhelming win may temper fears among executives that unionization could take off across its work force. The company, which has raised wages and spent millions of dollars on anti-union campaigns, depends on a steady stream of hourly workers.
The result was a setback for the upstart Amazon Labor Union, which last month scored an against-all-odds win at the larger, nearby Amazon warehouse. The loss also points to the possible limits of an uptick in worker interest in unionizing at Amazon and beyond.
Over the six months ending in March, filings for union elections increased nearly 60 percent over the same period one year earlier. That trend has included companies that often hire more-educated workers into nonprofessional jobs, like Starbucks and the outdoor equipment chain REI. But labor experts and organizers say it can be harder to unionize workers who are less economically secure, since they may be more susceptible to pressure from an employer and more reluctant to risk getting involved in a union campaign.
While the union campaign that succeeded at the larger Amazon warehouse last month included a large fraction of full-time workers, a higher proportion of workers at the smaller facility are part-time. Many say they can’t get enough hours to pay their bills. But some workers said before the vote that they were skeptical the union could deliver on goals it had laid out, such as a $30-per-hour wage.
Amazon says that its flexible part-time scheduling is attractive for many workers and that its average starting wage is above $18 an hour.
The employees whose votes were counted on Monday work at LDJ5. It is one of a cluster of warehouses on Staten Island that Amazon opened in the past several years to serve customers in the critical market of New York City, making it the largest private employer in the borough.
“We’re glad that our team at LDJ5 were able to have their voices heard,” Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing to work directly together as we strive to make every day better for our employees.”
Speaking to supporters outside the labor board’s office in Brooklyn where the votes were tallied, Derrick Palmer, who co-founded the union, said the union would keep pushing. “There’s no way we’re going to stop or let this bring us down,” he said. “It’s going to do the complete opposite. We’re going to go 10 times harder.”
A year ago, workers at the largest facility, which Amazon calls JFK8, began trying to form an independent union, without deep ties to organized labor, to represent the thousands of employees at the massive fulfillment center who pick and pack items into boxes for individual orders. Workers voted in favor of unionizing by a margin of almost 11 percentage points, though Amazon is challenging the outcome.
That union, the Amazon Labor Union, began targeting a smaller, second building nearby, LDJ5, where workers take packed boxes and sort them by the customer’s location before they head to an even smaller delivery depot or to a carrier.
Workers at both buildings share some concerns about pay and high turnover at Amazon. A New York Times investigation in June revealed attrition of about 150 percent a year even before the pandemic upgraded work.
The union at JFK8 started as a scrappy effort by two best friends that was supported via GoFundMe appeals. But after its victory in April at JFK8, the union became an international sensation, and its leaders tried to use their win to build momentum.
The leaders, Christian Smalls and Mr. Palmer, met with the heads of major labor unions, who vowed resources and support. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, rallied in front of LDJ5 on April 24, the day before voting began.
At JFK8, workers often have 10 hour shifts, if not longer, four days a week, but at LDJ5, many work part-time. The lack of full-time work has become a common grievance, particularly since the location on Staten Island often requires long commutes.
But part-time workers are typically harder to organize because they interact less and have lower overall investment in their workplace. At Amazon, part-time employees do not get health care, but they do have access to other benefits, like 401(k) matching, that are not typically similar at other part-time jobs.
Micheal Aguilar, an employee at the facility who was active in supporting the union, said that several co-workers he got to know personally confided that they had voted no.
“Some of them are young — I don’t think they even know what a union is,” Mr. Aguilar said, adding: “I believe they thought Amazon was just a steppingstone, and then collect money from this place and then go into their own careers. They didn’t understand why they would want it if it’s just temporary to them.”
The union pressed for the vote despite the fact that many of its top officials and organizers work at JFK8 rather than the smaller facility, giving the group a weaker presence inside. Organizers tried to counter this in the weeks before the voting by regularly spending a few hours talking to workers outside LDJ5 after their shifts, but they conceded they did not have the same relationship with workers there.
Amazon has objected to the JFK8 results, challenging not only the union’s tactics but the independence of the labor board. On Friday, an official at the agency granted a hearing on all 25 of Amazon’s objects, saying they “could be grounds for overturning the election.”
Last year, when a different union objected to its loss at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, the union was granted a hearing on more than 20 of its objects on similar grounds. After that hearing, the labor agency found two of the union’s concerns were widespread enough to impact the outcome of the election and warrant throwing out the results. The outcome of a revote at that facility is up in the air pending 400 challenged ballots, with the union trailing slightly after an initial count.
Within LDJ5, Amazon stepped up and tweaked its anti-unionization campaign. Ofori Agboka, the vice president responsible for human resources in Amazon’s operations globally, visited the building. He is not known to have visited JFK8 around the election there.
Organizers said that for much of the campaign at JFK8, Amazon had tried to paint the union as a “third party” that would come between workers and management. But that message fell flat, because the organizers were current and former workers. At LDJ5, the company instead sought to raise doubts about the Amazon Labor Union’s intentions and motives, sometimes by citing lines from the union’s constitution.
For example, the constitution says workers can be removed from the group if they interfere in the conduct of union business or don’t behave properly at meetings. Union officials say the company has misleadingly cited such provisions to stir up concerns among workers that the union might abandon them. Amazon did not comment.
Gene Bruskin, a longtime labor organizer who advised the Amazon Labor Union in the two Staten Island elections, said that a win would have produced “a huge wind at their backs,” but that on some level the task facing the Amazon union remained the same either way: to successfully negotiate a contract with Amazon that improves compensation and working conditions.
“It would be better with a second unit, but in some ways it wouldn’t change,” Mr. Bruskin added. “What it’s going to take to convince Amazon to bargain a contract between 8,000 or 9,500 workers is not that different.”