Staten Island Amazon union clinches historic win

Associated Press/Mark Lennihan

Workers at one of Amazon’s New York City facilities have voted to be represented by a union, a historic first at the nation’s second largest private employer.

After the two-day ballot count, workers at the Staten Island warehouse known as JFK8 voted by a 2,654-2,131 margin to be represented by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), an independent organization led by current and former workers. The amount of challenged ballots, 66, is not enough to sway the result.

The union can now move toward collectively bargaining for a contract for the first time at an American Amazon facility.

The genesis of the unionization campaign came at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when several employees at the warehouse walked off the job to protest Amazon’s safety measures.

A year later, led by a worker named Christian Smalls, who was fired amid the protests, the independent ALU was formed. The group failed in its first shot in petitioning for a union vote at JFK8 after falling short of the 30 percent expressed support required by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) but was successful the second time after submitting hundreds of additional signed cards.

Workers who supported the union said they did so because of insufficient pay, lack of advancement opportunities and unsafe working conditions at the warehouse.

One employee, who has been working as a “water spider” shepherding boxes between packers and stowers at JFK8 for nearly three years, told The Hill that he has frequently spoken to upper management about potential fixes to dangerous parts of the job that have caused him injuries but has been ignored.

“The building is now, like, completely different from how it originally was, and it’s definitely leaning more towards productivity versus actual safety,” Will, who like most other workers interviewed for this report asked for his last name not be used for fear of retribution, said. “I’ve witnessed, like, so many people getting hurt in just like really unnecessary ways.” 

Voting for the union provided the opportunity to have his concerns voiced by a group with more power to hold Amazon responsible, he said.

Serious injuries also abound at the warehouse. Sam was hit in the back of the head by a box that fell from a raised conveyor belt at JFK8 in December, suffering a concussion that he is still seeing a neurologist for. 

Amazon, he says, gave him $400 and no back pay for the two weeks he was advised to rest at home. Sam’s car was repossessed right after the injury, and he was only able to retrieve it recently.

The problem of workplace safety extends beyond the JFK8 facility. A report released last year found that the rate of serious injury at all American Amazon facilities was nearly double the rate of other warehouses between 2017 and 2020.

Justine Medina, an ALU organizer and JFK8 employee, told The Hill that making the warehouse safer is a priority in bargaining.

Sam also expressed concern about the level of surveillance in the workplace, especially of workers like him who have publicly supported the union.

“This signifies working-class power and the potential for working class revolution,” Brett Daniels, a JFK8 worker and ALU organizer, said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said following the union victory that President Biden “was glad to see workers ensure their voices are heard with respect to important workplace decisions.”

“He believes firmly that every worker in every state must have a free and fair choice to join a union and the right to bargain collectively with their employer. The Amazon workers in Staten Island made their choice to organize a grassroots union and bargain for better jobs and a better life,” she continued.

Ballots from an election at a second Amazon facility, in Bessemer, Ala, were also counted this week

The count wrapped Thursday evening with 993 workers having voted against being represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) compared to 875 who had voted “yes.”

However, 416 votes out of the total 2,343 received by the NLRB were not counted Thursday because they are contested by either the union or Amazon. Another 59 ballots were voided. Both parties will meet in the next few weeks to determine which contested ballots should be counted.

The uncertain result is still a big win for the RWDSU, which was beaten by a more than 2-1 margin in a prior election at same warehouse that was ultimately invalidated by the NLRB.

Amazon invested significant resources into defeating the union elections, plastering the inside of both facilities with “vote no” posters and hiring high-priced consulting firms to win over individual employees.

The company paid roughly $4.3 million to anti-union consultants in 2020, according to documents filed with the Department of Labor Thursday night, showcasing the importance of the Staten Island election and others like it.

The company held mandatory forums with workers, dubbed captive audience meetings by some, led by management-level employees daily in the run up to the elections at both sites. Both the ALU and RWDSU filed unfair labor practice charges related to the meetings, which have not yet been resolved.

“We’re disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” Amazon said in a statement. “We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”

The ALU will have another crack at unionizing a warehouse when workers at the neighboring LDJ5 facility vote next month.

Maddie Wesley, the ALU’s treasurer and an LDJ5 worker, told The Hill that the win at JFK8 is likely to energize her warehouse, which has roughly 1,600 employees.

“If we went into our election with a loss it was going to be much more difficult,” she said.

The ALU has been in touch with workers at facilities outside of New York, as well, and is hopeful that the result in Staten Island will spur campaigns elsewhere.

Updated at 4:21 p.m.

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