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Labor groups close in on Amazon in 2 tight union elections

People arrive for work at the Amazon distribution center at the New York City borough of Staten Island on Oct. 25, 2021.
Craig Ruttle
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AP
People arrive for work at the Amazon distribution center at the New York City borough of Staten Island on Oct. 25, 2021.

NEW YORK — Labor organizers always knew it would be tough to convince Amazon workers to unionize. But a surprisingly strong early showing in a New York election and a still-uncertain outcome in an Alabama election are giving them hope.

In Staten Island, New York, 1,518 warehouse workers have so far voted "yes" to forming a union while 1,154 have voted "no," according to an early tally Thursday evening by the National Labor Relations Board, which is overseeing both elections. Ballots will continue to be counted Friday morning.

Meanwhile, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, appear to have rejected a union bid but outstanding challenged ballots could change the outcome. The votes were 993-to-875 against the union. A hearing to review 416 challenged ballots is expected to begin in the next few days.

If a majority of Amazon workers ultimately votes yes in either Staten Island or Bessemer, it would mark the first successful U.S. organizing effort in the company's history. Organizers have faced an uphill battle against the nation's second-largest private employer, which is making every effort to keep unions out.

John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said the early vote counts in New York have been "shocking." The nascent Amazon Labor Union, which is leading the charge on Staten Island, has no backing from an established union and is powered by former and current warehouse workers.

"I don't think that many people thought that the Amazon Labor Union had much of a chance of winning at all," Logan said. "And I think we're likely to see more of those (approaches) going forward."

After a crushing defeat last year in Bessemer, when a majority of workers voted against forming a union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union got a second chance to organize another campaign when the NLRB ordered a do-over after determining that Amazon tainted the first election.

Though RWDSU is currently lagging in the latest election, Logan said the early results were still remarkable because the union has made a good effort narrowing its margin from last year.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, said on Thursday that the union would be filing objections to how Amazon handled the election in Bessemer but declined to specify. He also took the opportunity to lash out at current labor laws, which he believes are rigged against unions and favor corporations.

"It should not be so difficult to organize a union in the United States," he said.

Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who has been leading the ALU in its fight on Staten Island, remains hopeful of victory.

"To be leading in Day One and be up a couple hundred against a trillion dollar company, this is the best feeling in the world," Smalls said after the conclusion of Thursday's counting.

While Smalls' attention has been focused on securing victory in New York, the efforts in Alabama also weighed heavily.

"I'm not too sure what's going in Alabama right now, but I know that the sky's the limit if you can organize any warehouse," he said, noting that the vote in Alabama could well end up differently. "I hope that they're successful. I don't know what's going on yet, but we know we show our support and solidarity with them."

Signs are posted outside the the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island borough of New York at a bus stop on March 16.
Haleluya Hadero / AP
/
AP
Signs are posted outside the the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island borough of New York at a bus stop on March 16.

Amazon has pushed back hard in the lead-up to both elections. The retail giant held mandatory meetings, where workers were told unions are a bad idea. The company also launched an anti-union website targeting workers and placed English and Spanish posters across the Staten Island facility urging them to reject the union. In Bessemer, Amazon has made some changes to but still kept a controversial U.S. Postal Service mailbox that was key in the NLRB's decision to invalidate last year's vote.

In a filing released on Thursday, Amazon disclosed it spent about $4.2 million last year on labor consultants, which organizers say the retailer routinely solicits to persuade workers not to unionize. It's unclear how much it spent on such services in 2022.

Both labor fights faced unique challenges. Alabama, for instance, is a right-to-work state that prohibits a company and a union from signing a contract that requires workers to pay dues to the union that represents them.

The mostly Black workforce at the Amazon facility, which opened in 2020, mirrors the Bessemer population of more than 70% Black residents, according to the latest U.S. Census data.

Pro-union workers say they want better working conditions, longer breaks and higher wages. Regular full-time employees at the Bessemer facility earn at least $15.80 an hour, higher than the estimated $14.55 per hour on average in the city. That figure is based on an analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau's annual median household income for Bessemer of $30,284, which could include more than one worker.

The ALU said they don't have a demographic breakdown of the warehouse workers on Staten Island and Amazon declined to provide the information to The Associated Press, citing the union vote. Internal records leaked to The New York Times from 2019 showed more than 60% of the hourly associates at the facility were Black or Latino, while most of managers were white or Asian.

Amazon workers there are seeking longer breaks, paid time off for injured employees and an hourly wage of $30, up from a minimum of just over $18 per hour offered by the company. The estimated average wage for the borough is $41 per hour, according to a similar U.S. Census Bureau analysis of Staten Island's $85,381 median household income.

A spokesperson for Amazon said the company invests in wages and benefits, such as health care, 401(k) plans and a prepaid college tuition program to help grow workers' careers.

"As a company, we don't think unions are the best answer for our employees," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work."

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