Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The first Amazon workers union in the US wins the vote in New York City

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In one of the greatest workers’ victories in modern American labor history, a majority of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, voted to join a worker-led union that didn’t even exist a year ago. The election results mark the first time a majority of workers at an Amazon facility in the US have voted to join a union.

Workers at the Staten Island warehouse known as JFK8 voted for Amazon Labor Union or ALU representation. The union received 2,654 votes, while 2,131 voted against. Another 67 ballots were contested by Amazon or the union, but the margin of victory was greater than the number of ballots contested, so the results are final. Amazon has five business days to file any objections.

The win comes despite Amazon’s long history of unionization in the 28 years since Jeff Bezos founded the company in 1994 as an online book seller. Since then, Amazon leaders have spent a lot of time and money pushing back this union movement and others. Perhaps just as stunning, the union’s victory comes in this particular union’s first-ever organizing move, which was founded last year by former warehouse worker Chris Smalls, who was fired by Amazon after he died in the early days of the Covid19 pandemic. The success of this grassroots approach could serve as a model for future organizational efforts within Amazon and beyond. The union victory also means Amazon employees will be the last to have success organizing high-profile US companies, including Starbucks and REI.

Votes were also counted this week for a new election at a separate Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, after a National Labor Relations Board official ruled Amazon illegally meddled in the facility’s first elections held in 2021. . The union in question, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, follows with just over 100 votes, but the outcome is still up in the air as Amazon and the union jointly contested more than 400 additional ballots. Those should be examined — and possibly counted — at a hearing before a final result is confirmed in the coming weeks or months. In the first vote, workers overwhelmingly voted in favor of Amazon.

The new Amazon union will now face another monumental challenge in negotiating a contract, known as a collective bargaining agreement, with Amazon. ALU leaders have said their main goals are to increase hourly wages for all workers to a minimum of $30 an hour; Amazon says the average starting hourly wage for warehouse workers in the US is $18. The union has also said it will push for longer breaks for employees and the elimination of mandatory overtime hours outside of a few peak weeks for online shopping.

Amazon Labor Union members celebrate in Brooklyn, New York, on April 1 after an update on voting results to unify the Staten Island Amazon warehouse.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

ALU literature also said its leaders want workers to have union representation at disciplinary meetings to guard against unfair layoffs. The skyrocketing staff turnover at Amazon is at least partly due to employees quitting or being laid off for not being able to keep up with the demanding work pace. As Amazon has added robots to its warehouses over the past decade, employees in some positions have seen their performance goals increase so much that they must collect or store 300 to 400 items per hour in 10-hour shifts. Amazon was recently charged with a “deliberate” violation of Washington state labor laws after a state ergonomics expert found that the pace and nature of the work Amazon requires “create”[s] a serious risk of work-related back, shoulder, wrist and knee injuries

From the start, a union victory at an Amazon facility seemed unlikely. Amazon, the second largest private sector employer with more than 1.1 million employees, is notoriously anti-union and has allocated significant resources to fight union efforts. Amazon revealed in a recent filing from the Department of Labor that: it spent about $4 million on labor consultants last year† During the recent union actions in Staten Island and Bessemer, Amazon and its hired firms created anti-union Web sites, held mandatory shift meetings to highlight the disadvantages of unions, and regularly texted workers with anti-union messages and encouraged to vote “No”.

Amazon has also made technology investments to detect and counter the threat of unionization. Going back further, in Amazon’s early days, the company began tracking the potential for unionization in each of its warehouses, building a heat map in Excel to identify “hot spots” in its fulfillment network that could be most susceptible to union activity, according to a former senior HR manager.

Amazon also had history on its side. Prior to the union actions in Staten Island and Bessemer, the only other union vote in a U.S. Amazon facility ended in early 2014. settlement agreement with the National Labor Relations Board that suggests the company may have violated labor laws while resisting the drive. Amazon has also been helped by the fact that it has offered pay-and-benefit packages at times better than some major non-union competitors.

The efforts of the unions within Amazon have also been thwarted by the extreme staff turnover in the company’s warehouse network. A report from the New York Times last year revealed that: Amazon processes 3 percent of its warehouse staff every week, or 150 percent in a single year. Some Amazon workers in Europe, where organized labor is more common, are members of unions.

The union effort in Staten Island began with what has long looked like a series of bad miscalculations by Amazon executives. In March 2020, ALU founder Chris Smalls, then an Amazon warehouse supervisor, led a small protest outside the facility to raise awareness about what he believes were unsafe working conditions and a lack of management transparency during the onset of Covid-19. crisis.

That same day, Amazon officials fired Smalls, sparking a series of events that eventually catalyzed the worker’s efforts and pushed his story further into the limelight. Shortly after Smalls’ resignation, the firm’s top white attorney David Zapolsky, in a board meeting attended by Jeff Bezos, called the former employee, who is black, “not smart or articulate” and encouraged colleagues to give him the focal point. of the trade union efforts in dealing with the press. Then, after Zapolsky’s notes from this meeting leaked to the press and corporate employees began protesting and questioning Amazon’s actions on an internal company listserv, the company fired three key corporate activists, and began limiting employees’ ability to communicate on large email listservs.

Amazon had said it fired Smalls for violating social distancing policies while on paid quarantine leave, but New York Attorney General Letitia James later ruled Amazon’s firing of Smalls was illegal. A year after the resignation, in April 2021, Smalls founded the Amazon Labor Union with some colleagues. Most recently, Amazon called the police on Smalls in February of this year when he showed up to deliver food to warehouse workers. New York Police Department arrested him and charged him with trespassingand said that Smalls had ignored several requests to vacate the property.

The Amazon Labor Union victory is likely to breathe new life into organizing efforts in more Amazon facilities across the country. Another election is already scheduled for late April at a separate Amazon facility on Staten Island, where employees will vote on whether to be represented by Smalls and ALU.

In addition, workers interested in organizing at other major employers with strong histories of union elimination may view the shocking turn of events at Amazon as the catalyst for renewed efforts within their own companies. And in the American labor community, major incumbent unions can think about what they can learn from the Amazon Labor Union’s worker-for-worker grassroots strategy, which has succeeded when large incumbent unions like the RWDSU have so far failed to do so. .


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