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Amazon Loses Union Election in Staten Island

April 4, 2022
But unionization effort loses in Alabama vote even with NLRB help.

The news that Amazon.com lost its first union organizing vote in Staten Island, NY, sent shockwaves throughout the news media, while the online retailer’s victory over a union in Alabama was only mentioned in passing.

There are good reasons for this. The Staten Island loss was the e-commerce giant’s first in the years’ long campaign by labor to organize employees in the company’s broad network of distribution centers (DCs). The election total was 2,654 votes in favor of joining the union vs. 2,131 opposed, from among the approximately 8,325 workers who were deemed to be eligible to vote at the company’s largest New York facility.

Staten Island also is unusual in that this particular union is unique to that facility. Called the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), it was created just last year by some of the workers themselves and is entirely separate from the traditional labor union that for many years has been seeking unsuccessfully to organize company workers. Some news reports indicate that the defeat also may have been the result of several management missteps and arrogance that appears to have been unique to this campaign.

Amazon points an accusing finger at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which under the Biden administration has taken an increasingly militant pro-union stance. In the process employers have charged that it is putting its thumb on the scale by promoting union-organizing efforts, where it was intended by Congress to be a neutral arbiter.

“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,” Amazon said in a public statement that it issued immediately following the Staten Island vote. “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 (NRF) and U.S. Chamber of Commerce—witnessed in this election.”

Amazon has worked hard over recent years to put itself in a better position for resisting organizing efforts. The company has been flayed in the news media in the past for neglectful and exploitative working conditions—at one point, news footage showed an ambulance parked at a Pennsylvania DC in the summer where workers regularly fell sick to heat illness in the un-air-conditioned facility.

The company has improved employee communications and working conditions, substantially raised pay and even sought to relax some of its work rules. The management missteps in Staten Island—such as one executive calling the ALU leader, a former rapper and Teamsters union member named Christian Smalls, “not smart or articulate”—seemed almost calculated to rankle their employees, and gave the organizers an opening to accuse management of being racist and disrespectful.

Smalls’ efforts began two years ago when he sought to organize workers by asserting that Amazon was not doing enough to protect workers at the Staten Island facility from COVID-19. For his trouble, Amazon fired him, claiming that he had violated social distancing rules by getting too close to employees who tested positive for the virus, which he denied was true and allowed other unions to rally around him, calling for his reinstatement.

Smalls’ approach to organizing possessed its own unique characteristics. “We had over 20 barbecues, giving out food every single week, every single day, whether it was pizza, chicken, pasta, home-cooked. We all contributed by giving out books, literature, giving out free weed because it’s legal,” he told The Washington Post following the victory.

Smalls and the ALU also are continuing an effort aimed at organizing 1,500 sortation workers at another Amazon facility located on Staten Island. That vote is currently scheduled to take place at the end of April.

Another union battle in an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Ala., remains in limbo while the NLRB reviews more than 400 ballots that were challenged by both the company and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). In that vote, which was held on March 30, a reported 993 votes were cast in opposition to joining the union and 875 in favor.

The union lost a previous organizing vote by a 2-1 margin that was held last spring at the Bessemer facility, but the NLRB ordered a do-over afterwards, claiming that management had violated labor law in the process of opposing the union’s campaign. The RWDSU also has filed charges of unfair labor practices committed by Amazon in the lead up to the March 30 vote, holding that the company broke the law by holding “captive audience” meetings for employees in the workplace where management used the occasions to attack the unionizing efforts.

Before President Biden assumed office and the NLRB subsequently took a more pro-union cast, such meetings were considered legal as long as they did not violate other strictures on management communications, like threatening the loss of jobs due to competition if the union prevailed.

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