Amazon Union loses vote at Second Staten Island Warehouse
Increasing union organizing efforts at Amazon took a hit Monday when workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted by a large majority not to join a union, just weeks after the union won a landmark victory at a larger facility nearby had achieved.
According to the National Labor Relations Board, workers cast 380 votes for union representation and 618 against. Around 1,600 camp employees were entitled to vote.
For Amazon, the overwhelming victory could assuage executives’ fears that unionization may be gaining momentum across the workforce. The company, which has raised wages and spent millions of dollars on anti-union campaigns, relies on a steady stream of hourly workers.
The result was a setback for upstart Amazon Labor Union, which against the odds clinched a victory at the larger Amazon warehouse nearby last month. The loss also points to the potential limits of increasing worker interest in unionizing at Amazon and beyond.
In the six months to March, union election registrations rose nearly 60 percent from the same period a year earlier. This trend includes companies that often hire better-educated workers for nonprofessional jobs, like Starbucks and outdoor gear chain REI. However, labor experts and organizers say it may be more difficult to unionize workers who are less economically secure, as they may be more vulnerable to pressure from an employer and less willing to take the risk of engaging in a union campaign.
While the union campaign that was successful at the larger Amazon warehouse last month included a large proportion of full-time workers, a larger proportion of workers at the smaller facility work part-time. Many say they don’t have enough hours to pay their bills. But some workers said before the vote they were skeptical the union could meet targets it had set, such as a $30 hourly wage.
Amazon says its flexible, part-time work schedule appeals to many workers and that its average starting wage is over $18 an hour.
The employees whose votes were counted on Monday work at LDJ5. It’s part of a cluster of Staten Island warehouses that Amazon has opened in recent years to serve customers in New York City’s critical market, making it the largest private employer in the borough.
“We’re glad our team at LDJ5 was able to make their voices heard,” Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said in a statement. “We look forward to further direct cooperation to make every day better for our employees.”
Speaking to supporters outside the Brooklyn Labor Department office where the votes were being tallied, Derrick Palmer, co-founder of the union, said the union would keep pushing. “There’s no way we’re going to stop or let it get us down,” he said. “It will do the complete opposite. We will go ten times harder.”
A year ago, workers at Amazon’s largest facility, which Amazon calls JFK8, began trying to form an independent union with no deep ties to organized labor to represent the thousands of workers at the massive fulfillment center who pick items for individuals and ship them in Cartons pack orders. Workers voted to organize by a majority of almost 11 percentage points, although Amazon has contested the result.
That union, the Amazon Labor Union, began targeting a smaller, second building nearby, LDJ5, where workers receive packed boxes and sort them by customer’s location before sending them to an even smaller delivery depot or to a trucking company walk.
Workers in both buildings share some concerns about pay and high turnover at Amazon. A survey by the New York Times in June found a turnover of about 150 percent per year, even before the pandemic turned work upside down.
The union at JFK8 began as a frantic effort by two best friends, supported by GoFundMe appeals. But after its April victory at JFK8, the union became an international sensation, and its leaders sought to use its victory to gain momentum.
The chairmen, Christian Smalls and Mr. Palmer, met with the heads of the major unions, who pledged resources and support. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, gathered in front of LDJ5 on April 24, the day before voting began.
At JFK8, workers often work 10-hour shifts, if not longer, four days a week, but at LDJ5 many work part-time. The lack of full-time work has become a common grievance, especially since the Staten Island location often requires long commutes.
But part-time workers tend to be harder to organize because they interact less and invest less in their workplace overall. At Amazon, part-time workers do not receive healthcare, but they do have access to other benefits, such as
Micheal Aguilar, an employee at the facility who has been active in supporting the union, said several colleagues he met personally confided that they had voted no.
“Some of them are young – I don’t think they even know what a union is,” Mr Aguilar said, adding: “I think they thought Amazon was just a stepping stone, then they collect money from that place and then they leave.” into their own careers. They didn’t understand why they would want it if it’s just temporary for them.”
The union pushed for the vote even though many of its top officials and organizers work at JFK8 rather than the smaller facility, giving the group a weaker presence inside. Organizers attempted to counteract this in the weeks leading up to the vote by regularly speaking to workers outside of LDJ5 for a few hours after their shift, but acknowledged they did not have the same relationship with workers there.
Amazon has protested the JFK8 findings, questioning not only the union’s tactics but also the independence of the labor agency. On Friday, an agency official granted a hearing on all of Amazon’s 25 objections, saying they “could be grounds for the election to be overturned.”
When another union objected to its loss at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama last year, the union was granted a hearing on more than 20 of its objections for similar reasons. After this hearing, the employment agency determined that two of the union’s concerns were widespread enough to affect the outcome of the election and warranted discarding the results. The result of a vote at this facility is up in the air in anticipation of 400 contested ballots, with the union slightly behind according to an initial count.
Within LDJ5, Amazon stepped up and streamlined its anti-union campaign. Ofori Agboka, the vice president responsible for Amazon’s global human resources department, visited the building. He is not known to have visited JFK8 around the elections there.
Organizers said that for much of the campaign at JFK8, Amazon tried to portray the union as a “third party” that would step in between workers and management. But that message fell on empty because the organizers were current and former workers. At LDJ5, the company instead attempted to cast doubt on the Amazon labor union’s intentions and motives, sometimes by quoting lines from the union’s charter.
For example, the constitution states that workers can be removed from the group if they interfere in the conduct of union business or behave improperly at meetings. Union officials say the company misleadingly quoted such provisions to stoke workers’ concerns that the union might let them down. Amazon did not comment.
Gene Bruskin, a longtime union organizer who advised the Amazon Union in the two Staten Island elections, said a win would have generated “a huge tailwind,” but that the task facing the Amazon Union is, in a way, challenging remained the same Either way: successfully negotiated a contract with Amazon that improves pay and working conditions.
“It would be better with a second unit, but in a way it wouldn’t change,” added Mr. Bruskin. “What it takes to convince Amazon to negotiate a contract between 8,000 or 9,500 workers isn’t much different.”
Coral Murphy Marcos contributed reporting.