Amazon workers vote to form first US union in New York in historic win

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Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, have voted to unionise, the first US facility to do so in the ecommerce group’s 28-year history.

The grassroots Amazon Labor Union won the vote by a margin of 2,654 votes to 2,131. Turnout was 58 per cent.

“We worked, had fun and made history,” tweeted ALU president Christian Smalls, who could be seen punching the air during the count, which was streamed over Zoom. “Welcome the 1st union in America for Amazon.”

Workers at the warehouse, known as JFK8, in the New York borough of Staten Island, had voted in person over a five-day period that ended on Wednesday.

Their overwhelming decision to back organised labour will galvanise the worker movement in the US, and send shockwaves through Amazon, America’s second-largest employer after Walmart.

Until now, the retailer had managed to fend off every attempt by workers in its home country to organise, often through controversial techniques such as mandatory “captive audience” meetings held during work hours.

Amazon has not yet commented on the result. It has previously said that it felt unions were unnecessary and that its employees enjoyed industry-leading pay and benefits.

Workers’ rights advocates regard Amazon as a prime target for organising efforts, at a time when support for unions among Americans is growing, according to studies conducted by Pew.

“This is a big deal,” said Ken Jacobs, from the Center for Labor Research and Education at University of California in Berkeley.

“Winning the election is one step, and getting the first contract will be another major battle. But I would expect after a victory at JFK8 to see much greater interest in organising among Amazon workers around the country,” he added.

Another facility, LDJ5, also on Staten Island, is due to hold its own vote to organise under the ALU on April 25.

Separately, a rerun of an Amazon union vote at the BHM1 facility in Bessemer, Alabama, saw the organised labour effort look set for another defeat. The “No” vote had a lead of 993 to 875 at the conclusion of the count on Thursday.

However, unlike the in-person Staten Island vote, the Bessemer contest was conducted by postal ballot. There are also 416 challenged ballots that have yet to be scrutinised, which could sway the result. A hearing to begin this process will be held in the coming weeks, the NLRB said.

The race was considerably tighter than the first vote by BHM1 workers, in April last year, when Amazon won a decisive victory, 1,798 votes to 738. Labour officials ordered a rerun because of what was deemed to be improper interference in the campaign by Amazon.

“We believe that every valid vote must be counted, and every objection heard. Workers here deserve that,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said on Thursday.

Rapid headcount growth at Amazon during the coronavirus pandemic — the company now employs more than 1.6mn people worldwide — has seen its practices come under intense scrutiny, particularly with regard to the pace of work and other conditions.

On Thursday, three Democratic members of the influential House oversight committee wrote to Amazon chief executive Andy Jassy demanding documentation regarding the company’s safety practices, particularly in regards to severe weather events. In December, six Amazon employees were killed when a tornado struck a facility in Illinois.

The victorious Staten Island workers have said they will now negotiate a contract for higher wages, more support for injured workers and improved transportation options. The union victory could hamper Amazon’s ability to exert strict controls and closely monitor its workers’ productivity, often seen as the bedrock of its fast delivery times.

The ALU, which is not backed by any larger union groups, sprang up after unrest around Amazon’s treatment of workers during the early days of the pandemic.

Smalls, the ALU president, was dismissed by the company in March 2020 for what Amazon said was “violating social distancing guidelines and putting the safety of others at risk”.

According to a memo obtained by Vice News, David Zapolsky, Amazon general counsel, wrote that Smalls was “not smart or articulate” and could be made “the face of the entire union/organising movement”.

In February, Smalls was arrested at the facility for trespassing, along with two current employees. Smalls claimed he was delivering food for workers.

Smalls’ dismissal was cited by Tim Bray, a former senior software engineer at the company, when he resigned in protest against its treatment of whistleblowers during the early days of the Covid-19 crisis.

“History, and the law, are passing judgment on Amazon’s behaviour in 2020,” Bray said on Thursday. “I am optimistic that we’re entering an era where big business in general and big tech in particular have to recognise the agency and humanity of the hundreds of thousands of people in their employ.”

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