Amazon workers at a Staten Island, New York, distribution facility voted Friday - 2,654 to 2,131 opposed, with 67 ballots being challenged - to unionize, the first time that the e-commerce behemoth had to deal with organized labor at one of its warehouses in the US.
It was a vote that generated an enormous amount of coverage, with experts cautioning that nothing will change overnight, especially because Amazon is likely to look for ways to delay having to negotiate a contract with the newly minted Amazon Labor Union.
Here is a sampling of the coverage and analysis:
• From CNBC:
"The Amazon Labor Union didn’t even exist until last year. Now, the grassroots organization that relied on a crowdfunding campaign to fund its organizing is responsible for negotiating a collective bargaining agreement on behalf of roughly 6,000 employees at Amazon’s largest fulfillment center in New York.
"The ALU is led by Christian Smalls, a former JFK8 manager, who was fired by Amazon in 2020 after the company claimed he violated social distancing rules.
"Rather than getting to dictate pay, benefits and working conditions as it does across its massive network of offices, data centers and warehouses, Amazon will now have to negotiate those key details with union leadership when it comes to JFK8.
"Contract talks between the ALU and Amazon could start soon. But don’t bet on it … According to an analysis published in June by Bloomberg Law, it takes on average 409 days for CBAs to be signed between employers and their newly unionized workers."
The story goes on:
"If the goal is delay, Amazon has unlimited resources to hire the top lawyers and consultants. The company has already expressed its disappointment with the outcome and said it’s considering its options, including 'filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence' of the National Labor Relations Board. Amazon didn’t specify instances of improper meddling, but said the National Retail Federation and Chamber of Commerce witnessed the same behavior.
"Either Amazon or the union can raise objections over conduct during the election. Both parties have left that door open. Any objection must be filed to the NLRB regional office by April 8. The agency will investigate the claims and, if there’s sufficient evidence, will schedule a hearing where each side can present its case.
"Challenges don’t have to end there. If they’re unhappy with the regional director’s ruling, either side can escalate its complaint to the NLRB board in Washington."
CNBC writes that "precedent is Amazon’s principal concern. JFK8 is one of 100-plus Amazon fulfillment centers in the U.S., and there are many truckers and delivery drivers who aren’t part of those facilities. Workers in Bessemer, Alabama, just wrapped up a second vote on whether to unionize, and while the effort appears to have failed again, the count was significantly closer than the first contest last year.
"Amazon has no interest in seeing the movement gain further momentum."
• From The Information:
"More than 4,000 workers participated in the voting process, meaning turnout was likely somewhere between 50% and 70% of the total employees at JFK8. (Amazon and representatives from the Amazon Labor Union have produced different employee totals for the facility.) Though some of those ballots have been challenged by Amazon, the workers voted to unionize by a margin of more than 400 votes, which means that it is likely that decision will stand."
• The New York Times has a terrific story about Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, the JFK8 employees who "set their sights on unionizing after (Smalls) was forced out" from his job. "Along with a growing band of colleagues — and no affiliation with a national labor organization — the two men spent the past 11 months going up against Amazon, whose 1.1 million workers in the United States make it the country’s second-largest private employer.
"At the bus stop outside the warehouse, a site on Staten Island known as JFK8, they built bonfires to warm colleagues waiting before dawn to go home. They made TikTok videos to reach workers across the city. Mr. Palmer brought homemade baked ziti to the site; others toted empanadas and West African rice dishes to appeal to immigrant workers. They set up signs saying 'Free Weed and Food'."
Here's a remarkable statistic: The unionization effort spent $120,000, largely raised through GoFundMe. The Times writes that "Amazon spent more than $4.3 million just on anti-union consultants nationwide last year, according to federal filings."
Here's some color from the Times piece:
"In the first dark days of the pandemic, as an Amazon worker named Christian Smalls planned a small, panicked walkout over safety conditions at the retailer’s only fulfillment center in New York City, the company quietly mobilized.
"Amazon formed a reaction team involving 10 departments, including its Global Intelligence Program, a security group staffed by many military veterans. The company named an 'incident commander' and relied on a 'Protest Response Playbook' and 'Labor Activity Playbook' to ward off 'business disruptions,' according to newly released court documents.
"In the end, there were more executives — including 11 vice presidents — who were alerted about the protest than workers who attended it. Amazon’s chief counsel, describing Mr. Smalls as 'not smart, or articulate,' in an email mistakenly sent to more than 1,000 people, recommended making him 'the face' of efforts to organize workers. The company fired Mr. Smalls, saying he had violated quarantine rules by attending the walkout.
"In dismissing and smearing him, the company relied on the hardball tactics that had driven its dominance of the market. But on Friday, he won the first successful unionization effort at any Amazon warehouse in the United States, one of the most significant labor victories in a generation. The company’s response to his tiny initial protest may haunt it for years to come."
You can read the entire Times piece here.
• From the Los Angeles Times:
"The unorthodox but stunningly successful unionization campaign by Amazon employees in New York was propelled by a burst of new energy by many worker groups, which have emerged from the coronavirus pandemic with new tactics and edge.
"Amazon fought to beat back the unionization effort, and the victory against one of the country’s largest private employers could provide a new playbook for workers that are trying to reverse a historic trend away from union rights. And while Amazon confronts this new reality, other companies are dealing with restless workers, including railroad engineers, coal miners, baristas, nurses and teachers.
"Some of these union drives aren’t being driven by Washington-led progressive groups. Instead, they are being launched by upstart, worker-led campaigns that effectively ambush large companies still relying on old-model, anti-union strategies."
The LA Times goes on:
"Workers are wielding new leverage as the economy emerges from pandemic conditions with fewer workers, making employers more desperate for talent. Nearly 8 million workers left the labor force since the start of the pandemic, and almost 4 million workers have quit their jobs each of the last six months, according to federal workforce statistics, in a phenomenon known as the Great Resignation. It’s led to a boost in wages as employers compete for staff; wages have risen 5.6 percent in the past year, although 7.9 percent inflation has eaten away at much of those gains.
"Although they have more power, workers are still feeling pinched by higher prices on everyday expenses such as housing, fuel and child care, leading them to press for stronger wages, working conditions and benefits, increasingly through unions, or informal workplace collectives that resemble organized labor groups."
• Reuters reports that "the union that Amazon.com Inc. workers recently voted to represent them has demanded the company start bargaining in early May and cease any changes to employment terms at their warehouse in the interim, according to a letter the group issued Saturday on Twitter.
"The Amazon Labor Union also demanded the retailer respect workers' rights to union representation during disciplinary meetings, the letter said. Amazon did not immediately comment."
• From the Seattle Times, a story about collateral impact:
"As the world watched thousands of Amazon warehouse workers in New York form on Friday the company’s first U.S. union, a handful of employees of a Seattle thrift store celebrated their own victory.
"Sixteen workers at Crossroads Trading Co. in search of higher wages, more hours and better benefits voted unanimously Wednesday to form a union at the chain’s store in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Organizers at Crossroads said they built off the momentum and union support in the neighborhood from another successful union drive at a Starbucks store just a few blocks away.
"Now, a group of security workers who have contracts with Amazon, Microsoft and Sound Transit are taking a similar tack, hoping to use the swell of enthusiasm created by Amazon workers in Staten Island to bring more workers in Seattle into the union fold."
It is worth pointing out that as all this union activity transpires, CNet reports that "a congressional committee is investigating Amazon over concerns that the tech giant may be endangering employees by making them work in unsafe conditions during tornadoes and other extreme weather events, says a letter sent this week to company CEO Andy Jassy by the committee.
"The inquiry will examine the deaths of six workers last year who were killed when a tornado struck an Amazon warehouse near St. Louis, says the letter from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. As the tornado approached, the letter says, supervisors at the facility reportedly threatened workers and contractors that if they left, they'd be fired or face other consequences.
"The investigation will also take a broader view of Amazon's policies."
And CNN reports, Amazon's new CEO, Andy Jassy, "received a pay package valued at $212.7 million in 2021, marking a substantial compensation increase for the executive during his first year running the tech giant, according to a company filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday.
"Nearly all of Jassy's compensation comes in the form of stock options that will vest over 10 years, according to the filing. Jassy's 2021 compensation marks a sixfold increase to his pay in 2020, when he was head of Amazon's profit-generating cloud-computing arm AWS."
- KC's View:
However one feels about the unionization effort, the optics, I think we all can agree, are horrible.
I will be surprised if Amazon does not hunker down and challenge every vote and delay, delay, delay.
But I keep thinking about a comment reported by the New York Times from Andro Perez, a worker at another Amazon warehouse in New York that will be voting on unionization later this month. According to the Times, "He’s leaning toward voting yes, he said, because Amazon’s mandatory meetings mostly criticized unions. He would rather his employer address the question: 'What could you do better?'"
Fair question. (And, by the way, the same question that Starbucks seems to be having trouble answering lately.) These companies love to say they think workers do better when they deal directly with the company, but they don't seem to have a compelling, persuasive answer to that question: What could you do better?
I've said it before and I'll say it again. If Amazon brought some small measure of the Today-is-Day-One, innovation-first mindset that it brings to so many of its business ventures to reframing the relationship between management and labor, it would not have these problems. Instead - and this is unusual for Amazon - it seems intent on refighting old battles using old tactics. It is disappointing, to say the least.
The larger problem for Amazon is that it may be swimming upstream against current that are growing more powerful. The Los Angeles Times story notes that "strikes have picked up over the past year. So far in 2022, there have been 589 representation certification petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board, an early step toward holding a union election. That’s the fastest pace of new election filings than in any year since 2010, according to an analysis of NLRB data. Last year, 294 petitions had been filed by April 2."
Amazon could turn this into its greatest advantage. But that does not seem to be the impulse. At least, not yet.