Workplace

Amazon workers in Staten Island have unionized in historic win

The union victory will not be officially approved until both parties get the chance to file objections with the National Labor Relations Board.

Amazon workers and 'community allies' attend a rally outside the office of BlackRock in Manhattan, to protest against Amazon's working conditions and company policies in New York on May 24, 2021.

Amazon workers in a Staten Island warehouse have successfully unionized for the first time.

Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Amazon workers have voted to unionize for the first time in the company's history in the United States, securing a sweeping and unexpected victory in a National Labor Relations Board election for a group of around 8,000 workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York.

Amazon Labor Union secured 2,654 "yes" votes to Amazon's 2,131 "no" votes. The union won the election with 55% of the vote, a lead of 523 votes. The union and Bloomberg both declared victory for unionization Friday morning.

Labor experts had not expected a victory in the election, which took place in-person at the facility last week. The union election victory will not be legally certified until both parties are given the chance to file objections with the National Labor Relations Board and the board reviews those objections. Amazon will face off with the Amazon Labor Union in a second election in another Staten Island facility next month.

Amazon has become a notoriously difficult place to unionize workers despite its status as the country's second-largest employer. The first serious attempt to do so since 2014 began in Bessemer, Alabama, in 2020, when the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union tried to secure a formal union in a warehouse there. The union lost its first election attempt by more than a two to one margin in favor of Amazon last year and appears on track to lose its second election in the coming weeks. The union trails by more than 100 votes with just over 400 contested ballots still uncounted, and it may be several more weeks before a hearing date is set for those ballots to be read.

Unlike the Bessemer fight, the union election in Staten Island is led by the Amazon Labor Union, which is a group of workers unaffiliated with any national union. Led by activists Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer, the group coalesced around worker activism and protests over safety conditions and retaliation in the warehouse facilities on Staten Island.

Despite the Alabama struggles, RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum praised Smalls' leadership and cheered signs of victory in Staten Island at a press conference after the vote counting ended in Bessemer yesterday. Appelbaum also credited New York City's long history as a union town as at least part of the reason the Staten Island workers have been so unexpectedly successful.

"That's the difference between New York City and Alabama. New York city is a union town," he said.

"Amazon is a corporation with massive essentially unlimited resources which it has deployed to stop workers from exercising their right to organize, and that nonetheless the workers have been able to do it. And they deserve enormous credit for that," Benjamin Sachs, a labor and industry professor at Harvard Law School, told Protocol immediately after the Staten Island victory was announced.

If Amazon does not successfully object to the election proceedings, the union will be certified by the NLRB and then have the right to collectively bargain with the company on behalf of JFK8 warehouse workers. Unions unaffiliated with any national group are rare, and national unions may try to absorb the Amazon Labor Union by offering their experience with collective bargaining on a first union contract.

Moving forward, the timeline for the election certification process and collective bargaining will depend heavily on Amazon's choices about how it wishes to deal with the union workers. "Companies have discretion to fight unionization and collective bargaining every step of the way, from the first signs of the organizing campaign through the end of the bargaining process," Sachs said.

Sachs likened today's union victory to the beginning of the movement to unionize autoworkers.

"It’s reminiscent of an earlier era where the bellwether employers in the country were automakers that had resisted unionization, and then the workers succeeded in building unions and really transformed the American economy," he said. "Today Amazon is a bellwether employer, and maybe this is the beginning of a trend toward increased unionization across Amazon and across lots of sectors in the economy."

Amazon released a statement following the vote tally, saying: "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. 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."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Derrick Palmer's name and misstated Benjamin Sachs' title. This story was updated on April 1, 2022.

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