Union elections at Amazon warehouses in Alabama and New York were too close to call as of Thursday evening, keeping open the potential for a historic turnaround in efforts to unionize workers at the e-commerce giant.
In Bessemer, Ala., workers cast 993 “no” votes to the union’s 875 “yes” votes. But before the counting started, both Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) were able to challenge ballots they thought might be problematic.
Those ballots — 416 — are likely to determine the final tally. But it could take weeks or months to reach a final determination as both sides litigate whether they should be included.
Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
“I feel like history’s already been made, any way it goes,” said Chris Smalls, interim president of the Amazon Labor Union on Staten Island.
If either warehouse votes yes, it would result in the first successful unionization effort at the nation’s second-largest private employer and generate major momentum for the labor movement there.
Labor experts say the tight vote is indicative of the current climate for workers, who are in high demand thanks to low unemployment amid rising inflation.
“I’m certain we would not have been here two years ago,” John Logan, chair of the labor and employment studies department at San Francisco State University, said of the close votes. “I think it shows that unions are having a ‘moment’ and may even mean that the labor landscape has fundamentally changed after two years of the pandemic.”
The vote in Bessemer, organized by the national RWDSU, is a redo election after the first attempt was overturned last year when federal regulators ruled that Amazon had improperly interfered. The union faced an uphill battle in the region, where jobs at Amazon are still among the best-paying in the industry. But it already had a more favorable outcome for the union than last year, when the vote count swung more than 2-to-1 against unionizing.
“This is just the beginning and we will continue to fight,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said at a news conference after the count. “Workers here have done something historic.”
Turnout was lower than last year, however. About 38 percent of eligible workers cast a vote this year, compared with a turnout of about 52 percent last year.
Appelbaum blamed the lower turnout in part on high turnover at Amazon warehouses, saying many workers cannot endure the conditions at the facilities.
The National Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing to discuss whether any of the challenged ballots should be opened. Both the union and Amazon also have the chance to file objections to the election’s process in the next several days, which could affect the outcome.
The NLRB ordered a revote in part because of Amazon’s efforts to get a U.S. Postal Service mailbox placed in front of the warehouse, which the union objected to, saying it could intimidate workers who thought the company might gain access to their ballots. The agency wrote that Amazon “essentially hijacked the process and gave a strong impression that it controlled the process.”
Amazon worker Jennifer Bates, one of the workers who first called for the union’s help to organize the Bessemer warehouse in 2020, said Thursday that she and others in Alabama were “shouting for victory” for fellow Amazon workers in New York.
On Staten Island, workers were organized by the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which was started by fired Amazon worker Smalls. The upstart union was faced with skepticism from some labor observers but touted its insider view of the company — most of its organizers are current and former employees.
To file for the vote, the ALU collected signatures from only about 30 percent of the Amazon workers, the required threshold campaigns need to meet in many cases. But labor organizers typically try to secure roughly 70 percent or more, based on the assumption they probably will lose votes because of turnover and union-suppression efforts.
So far, the union has received 1,518 yes votes for unionizing vs. 1,154 votes against it.
The Staten Island vote count will continue Friday morning.