Vote count begins in Amazon union drive

by Haleluya Hadero & Anne D'innocenzio THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Vote counting has begun for two separate union elections for Amazon warehouse workers, the outcome of which will determine whether organized labour will finally break through the company’s fortress or suffer yet another loss.

An independent group formed by former and current Amazon workers is trying to organize a company warehouse in Staten Island, New York. Meanwhile in Bessemer, Alabama, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is in the midst of a re-do election to unionize workers there.

If a majority votes yes at either location, it would mark the first successful U.S. organizing effort in Amazon history. Organizers face an uphill battle against the nation’s second-largest private employer, which is making every effort to keep unions out.

The vote count began simultaneously for both elections Thursday afternoon. It is unclear when the results would be revealed. Counting could potentially carry into Friday.

Voter turnout

The RWDSU said the Bessemer election had a turnout rate of about 39 percent, with only 2,375 of the nearly 6,100 eligible workers voting through mail-in ballots. Amazon provides the list of eligible workers to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees the process.

In New York, the nascent Amazon Labor Union has led the charge to form a union along with Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who now leads the fledging group. Turnout for the in-person election was unclear but Smalls was hopeful of victory.

“We don’t want to get overconfident and think that we’ve already won,” he said, adding that his group hadn’t planned any immediate celebrations. A small group of Amazon workers have planned to gather at an art gallery in Brooklyn to watch the vote count remotely.

“This has been a long journey for me, and I’m just happy to really see that we were able to get to this point,” Smalls said.

The warehouse in Staten Island employs more than 8,300 workers, who pack and ship supplies to customers based mostly in the Northeast. A labor win is considered an uphill battle. But organizers believe their grassroots approach is more relatable to workers and could help them overcome where established unions have failed in the past.

First election scrapped

After a crushing defeat last year, when a majority of workers voted against forming a union, RWDSU is hoping for a different outcome in the Bessemer election, in which mail-in ballots were sent to 6,100 workers in early February. Federal labour officials scrapped the results of the first election there and ordered a re-do after ruling Amazon tainted the election process.

Meanwhile, Amazon has pushed back hard. 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

New York is more labour-friendly than Alabama, 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. But some experts believe that won’t make much of a difference in the outcome of the Staten Island election, citing federal labour laws that favor employers, and Amazon’s anti-union stance.

“The employer is the same, and that’s the key thing,” said ​​Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labour and labour movements at the City University of New York. “Amazon is resisting this with everything it’s got.”

Long commute

The mostly Black workforce at the Alabama facility, which opened in 2020, mirrors the Bessemer population of more than 70 percent Black residents, according to the latest U.S. Census data. There’s little public transportation, so many of the Amazon workers drive to the facility from as far away as metro Montgomery, nearly 100 miles to the south.

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 US$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 in 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 percent of the hourly associates at the facility were Black or Latino, while most of managers were white or Asian. But it’s unclear how the facility’s high turnover rate may have shifted things.

Amazon workers often travel from across the New York metro area by subway and then take a 40-minute long public bus ride to get to the warehouse. At a nearby bus stop, organizers have put up signs encouraging workers to vote in favor of the union. “WE’RE NOT MACHINES WE’RE HUMAN BEINGS,” one reads, a nod to worker complaints about long shifts and the company’s “time off task” tool that dings employees for taking too many breaks.

Working conditions

Among other things, Staten Island workers 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. 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.”

In Staten Island, warehouse workers like 22-year-old Elijah Ramos said they planned to vote against the union, doubting the ALU can get Amazon to agree to higher wages and other benefits. Ramos said he believes organizers don’t have enough experience to represent him.

Although he thinks a union could bring good things, Ramos said it also might constantly butt heads with the company and create more complications.

“It’s better to deal with what we have now than to deal with something where we don’t know what they’re going to do,” he said.