Amazon workers at New York warehouse vote to unionize

Amazon warehouse workers in the Staten Island borough of New York City voted to unionize on Friday, marking the first successful U.S. organizing effort in the online retail giant's history and handing an unexpected win to a nascent group that fuelled the union drive.

Warehouse workers at Staten Island facilities vote 55 per cent in favour of a union

Warehouse workers at an Amazon facility on Staten Island, a borough of New York City, voted to unionize Friday, the first such effort among the online retail giant's U.S. operations. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

Amazon warehouse workers in the Staten Island borough of New York City voted to unionize on Friday, marking the first successful U.S. organizing effort in the retail giant's history and handing an unexpected win to a nascent group that fuelled the union drive.

Warehouse workers cast 2,654 votes — or about 55 per cent — in favour of a union, giving the fledgling Amazon Labour Union enough support to pull off a victory. According to the National Labour Relations Board, which is overseeing the process, 2,131 workers — or 45 per cent — rejected the union bid.

The 67 ballots that were challenged by either Amazon or the ALU were not enough to sway the outcome. Federal labour officials said the results of the count won't be verified until they process any objections — due by April 8 — that both parties may file.

The victory was an uphill battle for the independent group, made up of former and current workers who lacked official backing from an established union and were out-gunned by the deep-pocketed retail giant. Despite obstacles, organizers believed their grassroots approach was more relatable to workers and could help them overcome where established unions have failed in the past. They were right.

'I hope that everybody's paying attention'

Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who has been leading the ALU in its fight on Staten Island, bounded out of the NLRB building in Brooklyn on Friday with other union organizers, pumping their fists and jumping, chanting "ALU." They uncorked a bottle of Champagne, and Smalls hailed the victory as a call to arms for other Amazon workers across the sprawling company.

"I hope that everybody's paying attention now because a lot of people doubted us," he said.

Smalls hopes the success in New York will embolden workers at other facilities to launch their own organizing campaigns. Even his group will soon shift their attention to a neighbouring Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, where a separate union election is scheduled to be held in late April. Organizers believe Friday's win is going to make it easier for them to win there, too.

Amazon posted a statement on its company website Friday saying that it was evaluating its options following the election.

"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," the post said. "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 company did not elaborate but it signaled it might challenge the election based on a lawsuit filed in March by the NLRB, which sought to force Amazon to reinstate a fired employee who was involved in the union drive.

'Amazon is not going to change their culture'

NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado responded to Amazon's statement by noting that the independent agency has been authorized by Congress to enforce the National Labour Relations Act.

"All NLRB enforcement actions against Amazon have been consistent with that Congressional mandate," she said.

Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University, said he doesn't see how workers will benefit from a unionized Amazon facility and called the overall push to unionize companies misguided. He said that Amazon is a "highly disciplined and regimented" business willing to pay premium wages and good benefits, but it also demands tremendous output from its workers who work 10-hour shifts.

Chris Smalls, who had been fired from the facility, led the unionization effort. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

"Amazon is not going to change their culture because there is now a union in their midst," Cohen said. ""They might be forced to let people work eight hours but those people will make less money."

The successful union effort on Staten Island stood in contrast to the one launched in Bessemer, Ala., by the more established Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Workers at an Amazon warehouse there appeared 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.

The union campaigns come at a time of widespread labour unrest at many corporations. Workers at more than 140 Starbucks locations around the country, for instance, have requested union elections and several of them have already been successful.

But Amazon has long been considered a top prize for the labour movement given the company's massive size and impact. The results in Staten Island reverberated all the way to the White House.

"The president was glad to see workers ensure their voices are heard with respect to important workplace decisions," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Friday's briefing about the vote. "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."