Amazon workers at a Staten Island warehouse facility voted in favor of forming a union Friday, notching a momentous victory a growing U.S. labor movement.
The first-of-its-kind union paves the way for other efforts throughout Amazon and represents a major blow for the company, which has fought tooth-and-nail to suffocate unionization efforts. Amazon may now have to worry about what was once a small union spark spreading into a company-wide wildfire.
Workers in the JFK8 fulfillment center voted 2,654-2,131 to form a union Friday morning, according to a National Labor Relations Board vote count. Amazon has until April 8 to appeal the Staten Island results. Nearly 1,000 miles to the south, workers in a Bessemer, Alabama warehouse ended voting on Thursday evening 993-875 against forming a union, though more than 400 challenged ballots could swing the outcome in the union’s favor.
Gizmodo spoke with Amazon Labor Union (ALU) organizer Tristian Martinez, who has been working with the union since the 2020 walk out. Martinez said he and other workers heard of the vote count while they were on the job. The news quickly spread through the building, with texts and calls pouring in. “Everybody knew within minutes,” he said. Of course, not everyone was thrilled.
“I could see the looks on the managers’ faces. Some of them were giving me dirty looks. I could just see the look of defeat and anger on some of them,” he said.
But there was no shortage of smiles amongst the workers. Martinez said he was personally so overcome with excitement that he had to get up and leave. “I wanted to run around the whole building just telling everyone!”
In response to a request for comment from Gizmodo, Amazon said it’s “evaluating our options,” which could include filling objections based on claims of “inappropriate and undue influence” from the NLRB.
“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,” Amazon said.
Martinez said Friday’s vote was an unexpected and welcome surprise. Staten Island’s Amazon Labor Union is unaffiliated with any national labor organizations, unlike the proposed union in Alabama.
“Honestly I expected it [the vote] to be a little closer,” Martinez said. “I could not have imagined that we would do something that other unions have been trying to do for years and have failed to. I can honestly say I’m so proud to be a part of that.”
“Welp there you go,” Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls wrote on Twitter immediately following the vote. “We worked had fun and made History…welcome the 1st union in America for Amazon.”
The Staten Island vote represents a major victory both for Amazon workers and for the U.S. labor movement as a whole. Amazon is the second-largest U.S. employer second only to Walmart. Put another way, one in every 169 U.S. workers is employed there. None of those workers were unionized until now. Though other Amazon sites have tried and failed to unionize, Staten Island has set an important precedent other warehouses could follow. Amazon has spent years trying to stamp out that possibility.
The Staten Island victory earned immediate praise from advocates and corporate accountability groups like the American Economic Liberties Project.
“Today’s vote to unionize is a massive victory for workers at Amazon warehouses and for the entire working class” AELP Executive Director Sarah Miller siad in an emailed statement to Gizmodo. Miller predicted a “wave of similar campaigns that is now likely to sweep the country.”
That hope expressed by Miller of similar pro-worker campaigns taking off is bolstered by recent data. Recent polling suggests Amazon workers likely have the majority of Americans on their side: 77% of registered voters surveyed in a February Politico/Morning Consult poll said they support employee rights to collective bargaining.
Even if the Bessemer, Alabama vote doesn’t go the union’s way, the pro-union side still made significant, mostly unexpected gains that points to growing union sympathies. When workers at the Alabama warehouse last voted on unionizing in 2021, the results ended in a landslide loss, with workers voting 1,798-738 against the union. Workers were granted a re-vote after the National Labor Relations Board concluded the company had violated U.S. labor laws following allegations from workers that the company went to obsessive lengths to dissuade them from voting for the union. Just 39% of eligible workers voted this time around, down from 55% last year, according to CNBC.
“Workers at Amazon endured a needlessly long and aggressive fight to unionize their workplace, with Amazon doing everything it could to spread misinformation and deceit,” said Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union President Stuart Appelbaum. RWDSU is representing workers at the Bessemer Amazon warehouse.
Amazon has a long, bordering on absurd record when it comes to union-busting tactics, and this time around was no exception. Reporting this week from CNBC revealed Amazon employed Global Strategy Group, a consulting firm with ties to the Democratic Party, to create anti-union materials like flyers and videos featuring Amazon managers and executives. Both the videos and flyers used phrases like “Unpack it: Get the facts about union,” and “One team, working together.”
That’s more of the same for Amazon, and now we have the receipts to prove it. According to new US Department of Labor fillings spotted by HuffPo, Amazon reportedly paid anti-union consultants around $4.3 million just in 2021. That’s an exceptionally large sum, according to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, which found that few firms ever surpass $1 million in anti-union spending.
Staten Island workers bore the brunt of anti-union efforts. Just last week, a report in The City cited multiple Staten Island Amazon employees who claimed they were required to sit in mandatory meetings with staff to dissuade them from unionizing. Months earlier, the NLRB had filed a complaint against Amazon claiming company consultants illegally threatened workers at the facility and referred to union organizers as “thugs.”
Martinez, the ALU Organizer, said he didn’t see the reported intimidation first-hand during the vote but expressed concerns that managers may have made some workers feel like they were required to vote (they are not). That, he speculated, could create a situation where some workers who otherwise would have abstained from voting chose to vote no instead in order to avoid Amazon’s wrath.
“This fight is the spark of the 21st century labor movement, and we know it will forever transform how Americans view unions in this country,” Appelbaum said.
In Staten Island, Martinez said he hopes Friday’s results will assuage concerns from critics who diminished ALU for its supposed lack of experience.
“With our inexperience, we organized one warehouse and have another election already on the way,” he said. “We have more drive than any other union because we are the workers. We have worked in that warehouse, we have worked for Jeff Bezos. Every union in the country started from somewhere.”