Amazon has gone 27 years without forming a union in the United States, but a grassroots effort at a New York warehouse could change that soon.
Based on the first day of public vote counting, Amazon workers at a facility in Staten Island appeared to be leaning toward forming a union with a newly-established organization called Amazon Labor Union (ALU).
By the end of the first day of public vote counting on Thursday, there were 1,518 votes in favor of unionization and 1,154 votes against it. On Friday morning, the count resumed. ALU is attempting to represent the facility’s 5,000 employees. It’s unclear how many employees voted in the end.
A separate do-over election held at a facility in Bessemer, Alabama, produced results that were too close to call. According to the tally, which was also conducted on Thursday, 875 workers at the facility voted in favor of joining a union, while 993 voted against it. Another 416 ballots, however, were challenged. In the coming weeks, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will hold a hearing to determine whether any of the challenged ballots will be opened and counted.
Both union efforts were motivated in part by increased national attention to racial justice issues and labor rights, as well as worker frustrations with Amazon’s treatment of workers during the pandemic. However, there are significant differences between the two. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an 85-year-old labor union that has organized tens of thousands of workers, was involved in the Alabama effort. The Staten Island campaign, on the other hand, is not affiliated with any existing labor union and is instead attempting to form its own, led by current and former warehouse workers.
Christian Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse worker who was fired two years ago after leading a walkout at the facility to protest pandemic-related health and safety concerns, is largely the face of the Staten Island effort.
Smalls previously stated in an interview that ALU is operating on “pennies compared to other campaigns,” with $100,000 raised through GoFundMe fundraising pages. He has sought to distinguish himself from the Bessemer organizing effort, claiming that having an independent union led by current and former facility employees “was working and resonated with the workers.”
Both union campaigns are taking place in two very different parts of the country. The RWDSU campaign took place in Alabama, a right-to-work state with low union membership. New York, on the other hand, has the country’s second-highest union membership. In Alabama, where the minimum wage is $7.25 versus $15 in New York City, Amazon’s starting wage for workers earning at least $15 an hour is treated differently.
“They’re enormously important elections. [Amazon] is a company that is not just retail, it is not just logistics, it cuts across almost every sector of the economy,” said John Logan, professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.
Logan credits the first RWDSU Bessemer drive, which was lauded by a slew of celebrities and politicians, with igniting “energy and enthusiasm among young people interested in organizing themselves” a year ago. Despite the fact that the election results favored Amazon, a rerun was ordered after the company was found to have interfered illegally.
Given current labor law and the company’s opposition to such efforts, labor experts have repeatedly stated that organizing Amazon employees is a difficult task. Anti-union campaigns at Amazon included signs inside warehouses, text messages, and meetings that employees were required to attend before election periods began.
Amazon has previously said its “employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union” and that it is focused on “working directly with our team to make Amazon a great place to work.”