Workers voted Friday to unionize a Staten Island Amazon warehouse, a historic decision that marks the first successful U.S. organizing effort at the e-commerce giant and a major victory for the domestic labor movement.
But a small, upstart independent union led by a former employee of the Staten Island warehouse mounted the first successful campaign to unionize Amazon workers, breaking many of the traditional organizing rules and relying on workers‘ momentum.
The vote could start a cascading effect at other Amazon warehouses, labor experts say, encouraging others to consider unionizing. That could transform the way the e-commerce giant conducts business and prioritizes the treatment of workers.
The final vote tally announced Friday was 2,654 in favor of the union versus 2,131 opposed. The Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island will need to ratify a contract to become union members, the next step in an already lengthy process that former Amazon worker Chris Smalls began last year as leader of the Amazon Labor Union.
After the vote, Smalls strode out of the National Labor Relations Board office in Brooklyn in a bright red sweatsuit and red Yankees baseball cap, his uniform for much of the campaign. He and the leaders of the union collapsed in a scrum chanting “ALU,” and Smalls popped a bottle of champagne.
A separate union vote brought by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in Bessemer, Ala., was tallied Thursday. The union failed to secure the vote, but it was close enough that the number of contested ballots that are still pending could change the result. The final result won’t be determined for weeks or months.
It was the second time that workers there voted, after an Amazon win was overturned last year when federal regulators found the company had improperly interfered.
Smalls will have another chance to organize a smaller Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, which is holding a vote beginning April 25.
On Friday, Amazon released a statement saying it was “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.”
The company said it was considering filing objections to the Staten Island vote 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.” It didn’t provide further detail.
It linked to two letters from those organizations that were critical of an NLRB request to reinstate a fired Amazon employee.
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Kayla Blado defended the agency’s role in conducting the Staten Island election. “The NLRB is an independent federal agency that Congress has charged with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act,” Blado said in response to the Amazon statement. “All NLRB enforcement actions against Amazon have been consistent with that Congressional mandate.”
The victory at the e-commerce giant is a major turning point for U.S. labor, which has seen a handful of key wins for unionization since the beginning of the pandemic. America has entered a period of unusually tight labor markets that many economists believe has given workers newfound power to demand higher wages and conditions from their employers.
Federal data has shown an astounding number of job openings nationally — more than 11 million, as of February — while the number of Americans changing jobs has also hit records. Employers have also added a record 7 million jobs over the past year as the economy rebounds from the pandemic, accelerated by trillions of dollars in government spending and low interest rates.
The victory of the Amazon workers helps underscore that point for supporters of the hot economy unleashed by government policy.
“People aren’t really talking enough about how this is becoming something of a seller’s market, as far as labor is concerned. This is one of the best chances to raise the standards of living for the working class in a long time — and that’s part of what’s making these union drives possible,” said Robert Hockett, a public policy expert at Cornell University.
“We’re seeing a renewed battle between capital and labor — between shareholders and workers — in the coming years,” he said.
Amazon has proved an elusive target for organizing efforts for years. Rapid turnover at the warehouses and Amazon’s union busting make it difficult to win elections at the huge warehouses employing thousands of people.
But labor unions have been prioritizing efforts at the giant company, whose workforce and footprint expands each year. The company now has 1.1 million employees in the United States.
“We don’t want Amazon’s model to become the model for the future of work,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said. The union will fight on, he added at a news conference after the vote tally in Alabama on Thursday.
The Teamsters’ general president, Sean O’Brien, also said Thursday that the powerful union is making organizing Amazon workers one of its targets. The union, which represents many UPS drivers and warehouse workers, thinks it is well-positioned to represent similar jobs at Amazon.
“It’s the biggest threat to workers around the country, not just in the parcel delivery business,” he said in an interview.
The Amazon Labor Union’s success adds to new momentum for worker-led unionization. Several Starbucks locations across the country have formed unions in efforts that were nearly entirely worker-driven, and the movement is spreading through the coffee chain’s shops.
That kind of worker-fueled energy is probably what Amazon needs if the company will ever be unionized on a large scale, said John Logan, chair of the labor and employment studies department at San Francisco State University. Because Amazon has so many warehouses, often employing thousands of people each, and is building more every month, the unionization momentum would have to be massive to overtake Amazon’s growth and power.
Unionizing Amazon cannot just come from labor unions organizing one warehouse at a time, Logan said. It will take a spark that “sort of takes on a life of its own,” he said. He said the ALU ran the “campaign of the century.”
“There’s nothing exceptional about Staten Island to suggest that you can win at Amazon there but not somewhere else,” he said. “On the contrary, I would say that the fact that the ALU — which didn’t have a big union behind it and really ran a DIY campaign, so to speak — won at Amazon will send the message that, if the ALU can win at Staten Island there’s no reason to believe we can’t win here.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, the Amazon union drive poses both an opportunity and a challenge for White House officials who have made a priority of reversing the decades-long decline in American union density. President Biden has vowed to be America’s “most pro-union president,” but the fate of the labor movement under his administration remains unclear.
Despite the win on Friday and vocal support from some workers, unionizing Amazon nationwide would be a huge challenge. The company has spent years fending off efforts to organize its workers, and its depth of resources to fight votes and offer pay that sometimes edges out competitors makes it a formidable opponent to unions.
Overall, union membership rates declined in 2021, the first year of Biden’s presidency, falling to its 2019 rate. (That was partly because nonunion workers were the most likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic in 2020, and then recover them in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
White House officials say they have taken several key measures that have helped bolster workers’ bargaining power. Perhaps their most consequential move was the appointment of Jennifer Abruzzo, a labor advocate, as general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, as well as the appointment of other labor-friendly advocates to the NLRB. Abruzzo oversees about 500 attorneys at the NLRB and has set standards to ensure that the agency prosecutes companies that violate worker rights to collectively bargain.
Biden has also spoken out regularly about the importance of worker unions and criticized Kellogg’s over reports that it planned to replace striking workers. The White House routinely hosts labor leaders for meetings with the president and senior administration officials, and a White House task force led in part by Vice President Harris is preparing policies aimed at increasing union membership and worker power.
“Abruzzo’s appointment represents workers’ rights and the Biden White House at the finest — she makes a difference everyday by supporting collective bargaining. That’s been huge,” said Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America.
Faiz Shakir, who served as the manager of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) 2020 presidential campaign and has been pressing the White House privately to amplify its support for union drives, said Biden should invite the Starbucks or Amazon workers leading the union drive to the White House, much as he does routinely for the CEOs of leading corporations.
“There’s still a lot of room for the administration to speak up on behalf of Amazon workers, REI workers, Starbucks workers. All this administration has to do is say it sees these workers and applauds them — and they’re not doing it,” Shakir said.
The White House rejected that the administration had not welcomed labor advocates, pointing to a recent meeting of the president with dozens of top labor officials and organizers.
At Amazon, the company’s treatment of workers during the pandemic proved a tipping point. Many workers complained, especially in the early months of the pandemic, about unsafe working conditions and the spread of the coronavirus. These complaints were the impetus for the two unionization votes in Bessemer and Staten Island.
Amazon implemented increased precautions and on-site testing, but in the years since, some provisions to encourage workers, including a hazard pay bump, were discontinued.
“They removed the mask mandate March 1, they removed barriers months ago,” said Amazon worker and union organizer Brett Daniels, just before the final vote count was announced. “They don’t care about people’s lives and health and safety.”
Daniels, who gathered with other organizers and media outside the NLRB office in Brooklyn on Friday, said the vote could signal the “potential for a working class revolution.”
In Bessemer, Ala., workers contacted the RWDSU in 2020, similarly concerned about conditions at the large warehouse during the pandemic. Workers there rejected the union effort last year by a wide margin, but the NLRB overturned those results when it decided Amazon had improperly interfered in the election, leading to a redo election this year.
Smalls said he saw the past two years as an opportunity to organize Amazon. Smalls formed the independent Amazon Labor Union after he was fired from the company in early 2020. His campaign has the benefit of having an insider view of the workings of Amazon, he has said.
He was fired after complaining publicly about the coronavirus safety procedures at Amazon. At the time, he said he was fired in retaliation for his comments. The company said it terminated him after he ignored a request from his manager to stay home because of his contact with a worker who tested positive for the coronavirus.
He has proved a strong advocate for workers since, bringing on several current workers as union organizers and hosting rallies and events to call for worker rights. He has also rankled Amazon — and once, the company called the police to have him reported for trespassing on the warehouse grounds. (Smalls was arrested, and Amazon said at the time that he had been warned several times against trespassing.)
Smalls said Friday that he was motivated by Amazon executives who questioned his intelligence and suggested that making him the face of the campaign might turn workers against the union. The effort seems to have almost entirely backfired.
“They called us a bunch of thugs. They tried to spread racist rumors,” he said. “Tried to demonize our character but it didn’t work.”
In 2020, Amazon’s top legal executive suggested the company’s senior leaders fend off workplace safety criticism by trying to turn the focus on Smalls.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers,” Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky wrote in an email. In a statement at the time, Zapolsky called his comments in the leaked email “personal and emotional.”
Top Amazon executive sought to divert focus to fired worker amid workplace safety criticism, email shows
To file for the vote, the ALU collected signatures from about 30 percent of the Amazon workers, the required threshold campaigns need to meet in many cases. But labor organizers typically try to secure 70 percent or more, based on the assumption they will lose votes because of turnover and union busting.
Smalls’s strategy proved effective, however. There were 4,785 total valid votes cast, in addition to 67 ballots that were contested and 17 votes that were voided. In all, 8,325 workers were eligible to vote, making turnout more than 57 percent.
Smalls, who was in the room observing the vote, turned to the camera after the final vote count was read and held up his hands in celebration.
“I just think our campaign is really, really different from anything you’ve ever seen,” he told The Post last month.
Lerman reported from San Francisco, Jaffe and Betts reported from New York and Stein reported from Washington.