Workers at Amazon’s massive warehouse on Staten Island voted by a wide margin to form a union, according to results released Friday, in a landmark win for a campaign targeting the country’s second-largest employer and one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation.
Employees cast 2,654 votes to be represented by Amazon Labor Union and 2,131 against, giving the union a win by more than 10 percentage points, according to the National Labor Relations Board. More than 8,300 workers at the building, the only Amazon fulfillment center in New York City, were eligible to vote.
The win on Staten Island could herald a new era for labor unions in the United States, which saw the portion of workers in unions drop last year to 10.3 percent, the lowest rate in decades, despite widespread labor shortages and pockets of successful labor activity.
No union victory is bigger than the first win in the US at Amazon, which many union leaders regard as an existential threat to labor standards across the economy because it touches so many industries and frequently dominates them.
The Staten Island outcome came on the heels of what is trending toward a narrow loss by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union at a large Amazon warehouse in Alabama in a campaign. The vote is close enough that the results will not be known for several weeks as contested ballots are litigated.
The surprising strength shown by unions in both locations most likely means that Amazon will face years of labor pressure from independent worker groups, large unions targeting the company, and environmental and other progressive activists working with them. As a recent string of union victories at Starbucks has shown, wins at one location can provide encouragement at others.
Amazon hired voraciously over the past two years and now has 1.6 million employees globally. But it has been plagued by high turnover, and the pandemic gave employees a growing sense of power while fueling worries about workplace safety. The Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, was the subject of a New York Times investigation last year, which found that it was emblematic of the stresses in Amazon’s employment model.
“The pandemic has fundamentally changed the labor landscape,” said John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University. “It’s just a question of whether unions can take advantage of the opportunity that transformation has opened up.”
Amazon did not immediately comment on the outcome. The company can in principle challenge the vote on grounds that the union’s conduct was improper.
Standing outside the NLRB office in Brooklyn where the ballots were tallied, Christian Smalls, a former Amazon employee who started the union, popped a bottle of Champagne before a crowd of supporters and press. “To the first Amazon union in American history,” he cheered.
Derrick Palmer, who packs boxes at the warehouse and cofounded the union, said he expected other facilities to follow Staten Island. “This will be the first union,” he said, “but moving forward, that will motivate other workers to get on board with us.”
One question facing the labor movement and other progressive groups is the extent to which they will help the Amazon Labor Union, an upstart, independent group, withstand potential challenges to the result and negotiate a first contract, such as by providing resources and legal talent.
Sean O’Brien, the new president of the 1.3 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said Thursday that the union was prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars unionizing Amazon and to collaborate with a variety of other unions and progressive groups.
For some employees, the stress of working at the warehouse during COVID-19 outbreaks was a radicalizing experience to take action. Smalls said he became alarmed in March 2020 after encountering a co-worker who was clearly ill. Fearing an outbreak, he pleaded with management to close the facility for two weeks. The company fired him after he helped lead a walkout over safety conditions in late March of that year.
Amazon said at the time that it had taken “extreme measures” to keep workers safe, including deep cleaning and social distancing. It said it fired Smalls for violating social distancing guidelines and attending the walkout even though he had been placed in a quarantine.
The difference in outcomes in Bessemer and Staten Island may reflect a difference in receptiveness toward unions in the two states — roughly 6 percent of workers in Alabama are union members, versus 22 percent in New York — as well as the difference between a mail-in election and one conducted in person.