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In a stunning victory, Amazon workers on Staten Island vote for a union

Updated April 1, 2022 at 2:27 PM ET

Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, have voted to unionize, a first for Amazon, and a stunning win for a grassroots campaign led by former and current Amazon employees.

The historic vote was 2,654 for the union to 2,131 against.

Ballots were cast in person over five days starting last Friday. Roughly 8,000 workers were eligible to vote.

The workers, who pick and package items for customer orders at the facility will be represented by the Amazon Labor Union, an upstart group formed by Christian Smalls after he was fired from Amazon in March 2020. At the time a supervisor at the fulfillment center, he staged a walkout over the lack of worker protections against the coronavirus. Amazon says Smalls violated safety protocols by showing up after he'd been told to quarantine due to a COVID exposure.

Shortly after being fired, Smalls formed the Amazon Labor Union, relying on GoFundMe to finance the operation. The ALU is not affiliated with any national union, leading many to wonder early on whether it could even gather enough employee signatures to petition for a vote. Indeed, a first attempt failed, but Smalls persevered, eventually meeting the 30% threshold necessary to hold a vote.

Amazon mounted a robust anti-union campaign. Inside the warehouse, management hung "Vote No" banners and held mandatory meetings at which workers were urged to reject the ALU, which it referred to as a third party. The company has maintained that it prefers to work directly with its employees to make Amazon a great place to work.

Earlier this year, several union organizers, including Smalls, were arrested for trespassing as they delivered food and union materials to the Amazon parking lot.

On Friday, Amazon issued a brief statement expressing disappointment in the outcome of the Staten Island election. The company said it was evaluating its options and may file objections based on activities they witnessed in the election.

Former Amazon supervisor Christian Smalls speaks before attendees at an Amazon Labor Union event in New York city on March 11, 2022. Smalls formed the ALU after being fired in March 2020.
Ed Jones / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Former Amazon supervisor Christian Smalls speaks before attendees at an Amazon Labor Union event in New York city on March 11, 2022. Smalls formed the ALU after being fired in March 2020.

Organizers have been calling for higher wages, longer breaks, paid sick leave and paid time off for injuries sustained on the job, among other demands. In Staten Island, Amazon wages start at $18.25 an hour, higher than many of its competitors. But Smalls has argued that in New York, that kind of wage is not high enough.

"Most of these workers do have a second job, or they still get government assistance," he told NPR last fall. "We need to raise the bar higher, especially when you're talking about one of the richest retailers in the world that can afford to do it."

In late April, workers at a second location on Staten Island, a sorting center across the street from the warehouse, will get their chance to vote on whether to join the ALU. Additionally, there are two other warehouses in the complex that Smalls says they are working to organize.

The Staten Island warehouse was only the second Amazon facility to hold a union election. The first, a mail ballot held last year at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, was invalidated by the National Labor Relations Board after it found that Amazon had improperly interfered in the election by having a mailbox installed in the facility's parking lot.

Votes in the do-over election were counted on Thursday, but the results were too close to call. 993 workers voted no, 875 voted yes, and more than 400 ballots were challenged by one side or the other. A hearing will be held in coming weeks to determine if any of the contested ballots will be opened and counted.

Turnout in the second Bessemer vote was 38.6%, down from last year's election when just over over half of Bessemer workers cast ballots, but the share of voters supporting the union grew. In the original election, workers rejected joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union by a more than 2-to-1 margin. Since then, the workforce has experienced large turnover, and organizers say door-knocking and other outreach was easier now that the pandemic has eased.

"This time around we were able to educate more about unions," said Amazon worker Jennifer Bates. "Last year, we weren't able to get as close to the employees to speak with them."

The wave of organizing among low-wage workers extends beyond Amazon. Union drives at Starbucks stores have taken off since December, when two Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York, voted to join Workers United, a national union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. Since then, another seven stores, including one in Starbucks' hometown of Seattle, have followed. More than 180 Starbucks locations around the country have petitioned for union elections, with more being added every day.

Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters and also distributes certain NPR content.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.