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Amazon Staten Island Warehouse Workers Vote to Unionize…Is Alabama Next?

“We’re going to celebrate today but then we’re right back at it,” Christian Smalls said of Friday’s historic decision to unionize at Amazon’s Staten Island distribution center, with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) leader and one-time whistleblower telling Sourcing Journal his group plans to “get right back to the campaign trail.”

Smalls was pleased with the turnout after 2,654 JK8 employees voted in favor of the move, ahead of 2,131 in opposition. Roughly 8,325 workers at the Staten Island facility were eligible to vote on whether to become part of the ALU. More than 4,000 workers casting their ballot was “more than enough,” said Smalls, describing the “historical” moment for the modern labor movement.

The election result still needs to be formally certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The JFK8 workers will also need to ratify a contract to officially become union members.

“It’s official!! Amazon Labor Union is the first Amazon union in U.S. HISTORY!! POWER TO THE PEOPLE,” the new union’s Twitter account posted around noon on Friday.

The ALU didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

NLRB’s official tally would mark the first time an Amazon facility in the U.S. has successfully voted to unionize. Amazon is the second-largest employer in the U.S. with approximately 1.1 million worker, but has until now managed to fend off warehouse unionization attempts.

Amazon said it’s “disappointed” with the unionization vote.

“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,” an Amazon spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “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.”

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Alongside the New York unionization victory, workers in an Alabama warehouse now await their fate as to whether they will join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

On Friday morning, the NLRB said workers cast 1,868 votes in Bessemer, Ala. with 993 ballots for and 875 votes against the movement to unionize. However, another 416 ballots are being “challenged” by both Amazon and the RWDSU, while 59 have been voided, according to the NLRB. A challenged ballot means at least one party is concerned about its eligibility or other conflicts of interest.

The NLRB will set a hearing in the coming weeks to determine whether the challenged ballots will be opened and counted.

Having two facilities unionize at the same time would be a significant blow to Amazon, which has heavily invested in promoting its own benefits over those that unions offer. Over the past year, the e-commerce giant has tried to clean up its image, with executive chairman Jeff Bezos saying in his final shareholder letter as CEO that he prioritized making Amazon “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.”

In the wake of the Staten Island election results, other warehouses across the U.S. could also attempt to form a union.

On Thursday evening, Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, which represented the Bessemer employees seeking unionization, said the group will “hold Amazon accountable” regardless of the outcome.

“Every vote must be counted. 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,” Appelbaum said. “We will hold Amazon accountable, and we will be filing objections on their behavior. The tenacity and courage of these workers never wavered in this unnecessarily long process. Workers will have to wait just a little bit longer to ensure their voices are heard, and our union will be with them at every step to ensure their voices are heard under the law.”

Appelbaum is hoping that for Alabama, the second time is the charm. After a high-profile defeat nearly one year ago in Bessemer, when an overwhelming majority of workers voted against forming a union—1,798 opposing the union and 738 votes in favor—the RWDSU got another chance to organize another campaign when the NLRB ordered a do-over after determining that Amazon interfered in the first election.

The agency first recommended in August that the results should be thrown out due to Amazon’s interference with the “conditions necessary to conduct a fair election.” The controversy surrounded a mailbox installed in the warehouse parking lot, which gave the appearance that Amazon was involved in the collection of votes (and the election itself) instead of the NLRB. Amazon itself didn’t install the mailbox, but it did ask the U.S. Postal Service to install the unit.

“What we do know is that this moment is historic, and the workers in Bessemer, Ala., have inspired working people all over the country and all over the world to fight for change at their workplaces, including other organizing at Amazon around the country,” Appelbaum said. “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. This union election continues to show that the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is to join together in a union.”

Smalls emerged as ALU’s leader after Amazon fired the former JFK8 manager in 2020 claiming he violated social distancing rules in returning to work when he was supposed to be self-quarantining. Smalls argued he was terminated in retaliation for staging a walkout in the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic to call for stronger safety measures.

ALU organizer Chris Smalls celebrates with champagne after getting the voting results to unionize Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, N.Y., Friday, April 1, 2022, in Brooklyn, N.Y.
ALU organizer Chris Smalls celebrates with champagne after getting the voting results to unionize Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, N.Y., Friday, April 1, 2022, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP Photo

The rising union boss said he personally oversaw the electoral process and is “okay with the results.” “I was there every day at the tent making sure that there was no tampering with the boxes and making sure that [Amazon] couldn’t interfere like they did in Bessemer,” Smalls said.

Smalls will have another opportunity to organize a smaller Staten Island Amazon warehouse as well later this month, with the facility holding its own unionization vote on April 25.

“What these elections show is Amazon workers want a union,” Sean O’Brien,  general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said in a statement. “The workers in Bessemer and Staten Island don’t have to wait for the government or anyone else to tell them they have power. They’re taking a stand and Amazon can’t skirt the law indefinitely. The Teamsters are excited to continue this fight against Amazon: on the shop floor, at the bargaining table and on the streets.

Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.