Amazon Union Gets Split Decision in NYC
Attempts to unionize Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN) workers at two large facilities in the Staten Island borough of New York City have produced mixed results, with workers at one voting for unionization and those at the other voting against. The latter results were announced on May 2, 2022. Meanwhile, Amazon is asking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to invalidate the vote in favor of the union, alleging various electoral irregularities.
The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) won by a vote of 2,654 (55%) in favor out of 4,785 ballots counted at the JFK8 warehouse. However, the union lost by a margin of 618 (62%) against out of 998 votes counted at the adjacent LDJ5 sorting facility. The former site employs more than 8,000 people, while the latter has approximately 1,633 eligible voters.
- After winning a vote to organize workers at an Amazon.com facility in Staten Island, New York, the same union lost a vote at an adjacent facility.
- Amazon had worked hard to dissuade workers from voting for the union.
- Amazon has appealed the former vote in favor of the union, alleging various irregularities.
- Despite the setback, unionization efforts at Amazon will continue.
- Final resolution of a disputed vote at an Alabama facility is pending.
Higher Stakes for Amazon
The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is a newly formed organization started by a local group of Amazon employees in Staten Island, New York, and led by a fired employee. After winning at JFK8, the ALU seemed to be riding high, and thus its decisive loss at LDJ5 represents a setback. “If it had won, things could have solidified for the union in a big way,” observes John Logan, a professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.
However, Logan believes that the stakes were much higher for Amazon. “A second defeat could have proved fatal to the company’s efforts to stop the organizing from spreading like wildfire, just as it has done at Starbucks [Corporation (SBUX)],” he noted. Nonetheless, Logan is certain that “the ALU’s organizing campaign will continue and that labor activism at Amazon will continue to spread across the country.”
Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, commented: “This one setback [for unionization] is not going to stall the momentum. But if Amazon can block three or four or five [organizing efforts] in a row, it will be a message to other Amazon workers, it is going to be really hard.”
Catalysts for Union Formation
The ALU grew out of tensions between Amazon and its employees on Staten Island over the company’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to existing grievances about working conditions. In particular, Amazon has drawn criticism in recent years for high employee turnover rates and on-the-job injuries. ALU President Christian Smalls was fired by Amazon at the start of the pandemic.
In a win for the ALU, an NLRB administrative law judge found that Amazon had violated labor law by firing JFK8 employee Gerald Bryson, an ALU organizer. Bryson, like Smalls, was fired by Amazon in March 2020 after protesting pandemic-related workplace safety precautions. Amazon has denied retaliating against Bryson, whom the judge ordered to be reinstated and paid lost wages, and the company plans to appeal.
Meanwhile, Amazon is ending its paid COVID-19 sick leave policy. Also, it now will notify workers of positive cases in its facilities only if required by law.
Part-Timers, Turnover, and Unionization
The ALU’s loss at the smaller LDJ5 facility may stem from the fact that it employs many part-time workers, according to union organizers. They can be harder to organize than full-time employees since they may have less interest in improving the workplace and be less likely to have strong relationships with co-workers, observes Kate Andrias, a professor of law at Columbia University and an expert in labor law.
Kent Wong noted that Amazon’s high staff turnover rate makes it hard to organize. Also, unlike individual Starbucks locations, which may have 15 to 20 workers, vastly more workers at each Amazon warehouse must be persuaded to form a union.
Amazon’s Efforts to Block Unionization
In the days leading to the election at LDJ5, Amazon held mandatory meetings to persuade its workers to reject the union effort, posted anti-union flyers, and launched a website urging workers to “vote NO.” About these meetings, Madeline Wesley, the ALU’s treasurer, said: “They’d stop production for five hours a day to get every single person into an all-hands-on-deck anti-union meeting with the general manager of the building. So they’re really scared of us.”
An attorney working for the ALU alleges that, after losing the earlier vote at JFK8, Amazon disciplined organizers for engaging in union activities and barred them from displaying a pro-union sign in the break room. The ALU also objects to the use of mandatory anti-union meetings, which are permitted by the NLRB but which its top prosecutor is trying to get outlawed.
Trying to Overturn the Pro-Union Vote
About the pro-union vote at JFK8, Amazon’s lawyers have accused the ALU of interfering with the election by giving workers marijuana, staging confrontations during Amazon’s anti-union meetings, and polling workers in advance of the vote, which is not allowed by the NLRB. ALU President Christian Smalls calls these allegations “ridiculous.”
Amazon argues in a filing with the NLRB that the JFK8 vote was tainted not just by ALU organizers, but also by the NLRB regional office in Brooklyn that oversaw the election. Amazon wants a new election, which ALU supporters see as an effort to delay contract negotiations and slow the organizing momentum. A separate NLRB regional office in the southwest will hold a hearing later in May 2022 about Amazon’s objections.
Disputed Union Vote in Alabama
The outcome of a separate union election at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, is still undecided. It hinges on 416 outstanding challenged ballots. Hearings to review those ballots are expected to begin in the upcoming weeks.