Amazon workers on Staten Island voted to form a union

It was a union-organized campaign that very few people expected. A handful of employees at Amazon’s huge warehouse on Staten Island, working without the support of the National Labor Organization, took over one of the most powerful companies in the world.

And, somehow, they won.

In one of the biggest victories for a generation of organized labor, the benefits workers voted by a wide margin to form a union, according to results released on Friday.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, employees voted 2,654 votes to represent the Amazon Labor Union and 2,131 votes against it, winning the union by more than 10 percentage points. More than 8,300 workers at the warehouse, the only Amazon perfection center in New York City, were eligible to vote.

The victory at Staten Island comes at a dangerous moment for U.S. labor unions, which saw workers’ share in unions fall to 10.3 percent last year, the lowest rate in decades, despite high labor demand, pockets of successful labor activity and growing public approval.

Critics – including some labor officials – have said that traditional unions have not spent enough money or imagined enough to organize campaigns, and that they often bet on the wrong fight. Some have pointed to tender corruption scandals.

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

But a little-known, independent union victory, with a few ties to existing groups, seems to raise many questions for the labor movement. Only replaces it with grassroots organizations like Staten Island

Amazon will aggressively compete for Union victory. An unsigned statement on its corporate blog said, “We are disappointed with the outcome of the Staten Island election because we believe that having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.”

The Staten Island result appears to be a narrow loss by the Union of Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores at a large Amazon warehouse in Alabama. The vote is close enough that the results will not be known for weeks as there is a competitive ballot litigation.

The amazing strength displayed by the unions in both places probably meant that Amazon would face year after year pressure from the working class and the progressive workers working with them on the benefits of other companies. As seen in the recent string of Union wins at Starbucks, a win in one place could inspire others.

Amazon has recruited relentlessly over the past two years and now has 1.6 million employees worldwide. But it has been plagued by high turnover, and the epidemic has given workers a growing sense of energy to raise concerns about workplace safety. The Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, was the subject of a New York Times investigation last year that found it to be a symbol of stress, including inadvertent firing on workers and sky-high attrition due to Amazon’s employment model.

“The epidemic has fundamentally changed the labor landscape,” said John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University. “It’s just a question of whether the unions can take advantage of the opportunity that transformation has opened up.”

Standing outside the NLRB office in Brooklyn, where the ballots were lengthened, Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee who started the union, popped a bottle of champagne in front of a crowd of supporters and the press. “In the first Amazon Union in American history,” he exclaimed.

Amazon said it was evaluating its options, including filing a lawsuit against Amazon in federal court last month, with NLRB objecting to “inappropriate and unwanted influence.”

In that case, the NLRB asked a judge to force Amazon to quickly amend “publicly unfair labor practices.” This happened when Amazon fired a worker who was involved with the union. Amazon argued in court that the Labor Board had abandoned “the neutrality of their office” by filing a ban just before the election.

Amazon must prove that any claims of unreasonable influence undermine the so-called laboratory conditions necessary for a fair election, said Wilma B. Liebman, chair of the NLRB under President Barack Obama.

White House Press Secretary Jane Sackie told reporters that President Biden was “delighted to see that the voice of the workers is being heard at the Amazon facility.” “He firmly believes that every worker in every state must have an independent and fair choice to join a union,” he said.

The near-term question facing the labor movement and other progressive groups is how much they will help the upstart Amazon labor union to address potential outcome challenges and negotiate the first agreement, such as resources and legal talent.

“The company will appeal, pull it off – it’s going to be an ongoing battle,” said Jean Bruskin, a longtime organizer who helped identify one of the last labor victories on this scale at the Smithfield Meat Processing Plant in 2008 and informally advises Staten Island workers. “The labor movement needs to find out how to support them.”

Sean O’Brien, the new president of the 1.3 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamster, said in an interview Thursday that the union was willing to spend millions of dollars to bring Amazon together and collaborate with various other unions and progressives. Group

“We have a lot of partners in our work,” said Mr. O’Brien. “We have community groups. It’s going to be a big alliance. “

The culture of fear created by intense productivity monitoring, as documented by The Times in JFK8, is a key inspiration for the consolidation drive that began sincerely almost a year ago. The Amazon facility offered a lifeline to laid-off workers during the epidemic but was burned by the workers and had such poor communication and technology that workers were inadvertently fired or lost benefits.

For some employees, the stress of working in a warehouse during the Kovid outbreak was a radicalizing experience that led them to take action. Mr Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, said he was apprehensive in March 2020 after he was confronted by a colleague who was clearly ill. He requested the management to close the facility for two weeks. He was fired by the company in late March after leading a walkout over the security situation.

Amazon said at the time that it had taken “extreme measures” to keep workers safe, including deep cleanliness and social distance. It said it fired Mr Small for violating social distance guidelines and for joining walkouts even though he had been placed in quarantine.

After Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., 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. .

Organizing in Alabama with progressive supporters like Senator Barney Sanders involved a high-profile strategy, the organizers of JFK8 benefited from being internal.

For months, they’ve set up shop at the bus stop outside the warehouse, grilled meat at barbecues, and at one point even taken out pots. (Retail workers say they were harmed by Covid during their initial election in Alabama.)

They filed numerous complaints with the NLRB about unfair labor practices when they believed Amazon had violated their rights. The labor agency has found qualifications in a number of areas, some of which Amazon has agreed to in a nationwide agreement to allow more access to organize workers on the site.

Sometimes the Amazon workers’ union stumbles. The Labor Board determined this fall that neonatal unions, which had spent months collecting signatures from workers to request a vote, had not shown sufficient support for the election. But the organizers kept trying and by the end of January they had finally collected enough signatures.

Amazon has raised its minimum wage by 15 an hour for advertising and other public relations efforts. The organization runs a full-throated campaign against the union, sending text messages to employees and forcing them to attend anti-union meetings. It spent $ 4.3 million last year on anti-union consultants nationwide, according to an annual release filed with the Department of Labor on Thursday.

In February, Mr. Smalls was arrested at the facility when managers said he was intruding while delivering food to colleagues and called police. Two current employees were also arrested at the time of the incident, which aroused interest in the union.

The difference in results between Bessemer and Staten Island may reflect the difference in acceptance between the two state unions – about 6 percent of Alabama trade union members, 22 percent in New York – as well as the difference between a mail-in selection and a privately conducted one.

But it can also suggest the benefits of being organized through an independent, worker-led union. In Alabama, union officials and professional organizers were still barred from benefits under an agreement with the Labor Board. But on the Staten Island site, a large portion of the union leadership and organizers were current employees.

“What we’ve always been trying to say is that having the staff inside is the most powerful tool,” said Mr. Palmer, who earns 21.50 an hour. “People don’t believe it, but you can’t kill other organized workers.”

The independence of the Amazon Labor Union has also undermined Amazon’s anti-union rhetoric, throwing the union into an interconnected “third party.”

On March 25, JFK8 workers began queuing outside a tent in the parking lot to cast their ballots. And over the course of five voting days, they have cast their ballots for a formation that could be the first union in Amazon’s activities in the United States.

Another election, brought by the Amazon Labor Union to the neighboring Staten Island facility, is scheduled for the end of April.

Jodi Kantar Contributing Reporting.

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