Amazon workers vote against unionization in New York

Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post.
Pat Cioffi, left, and Chris Smalls at a rally in front of the Amazon LDJ5 warehouse on April 24. Workers at the warehouse voted last week on a proposal to unionize.

Union organizers in New York pledged to keep fighting to organize Amazon workers Monday, despite a setback when workers at a Staten Island warehouse rejected joining the union.

Workers at the LDJ5 warehouse voted against joining the independent Amazon Labor Union, casting 618 votes against unionization, compared with 380 votes in favor. The union’s loss comes just weeks after it made history by organizing the first successful vote to unionize at an Amazon warehouse in the United States.

Labor organizers blamed, in part, Amazon’s union-busting tactics for the loss Monday and said the blow will not be the end of the movement.

I’m a fighter. I know that I’m not going anywhere, said ALU interim president Chris Smalls, who started the union after being fired from Amazon. “My team are fighters. They’re not going anywhere. We’re going to hold our head up high and we’re going to continue to push forward.”

The effort to organize workers at the country’s second-largest private employer has had its share of ups and downs over the past several years as labor leaders worked to crack the tightly controlled warehouses. The movement gained significant momentum from its victory last month, but Amazon also ramped up its union busting efforts, workers say, at the smaller Staten Island warehouse in the weeks before the vote.

The company held mandatory classes to discourage workers from voting for the union and hired outside consultants to talk to workers on the warehouse floor.

They have bred a climate of fear and hate at this building, said Julian Mitchell-Israel, a worker at the warehouse and organizer for the union. “And it was intimidating for a lot of workers, the incredible amount of misinformation.”

A lawyer for the ALU said the union plans to contest the results.

Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said in a statement that the company looks forward to “continuing to work directly together as we strive to make every day better for our employees.”

We’re glad that our team at LDJ5 were able to have their voices heard, she said. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Labor organizers and experts say they expect the momentum to organize at Amazon’s more than 1,000 warehouses across the country to continue despite the loss.

In many ways, this election was even more important to Amazon than it was to the ALU – a second defeat could have proved fatal to the company’s efforts to stop the organizing from spreading like wildfire, just as it has done at Starbucks, said John Logan, the chair of the labor and employment studies department at San Francisco State University.

The ALU, started by Smalls and led by former and current employees, won 55% of the vote in its first election April 1, with little support from established national unions. Workers at the massive JFK8 warehouse voted 2,654 to 2,131 to join the ALU – stunning many labor observers who had said Amazon would succeed in using its vast resources to discourage workers from organizing.

Then the union took its fight across the street to smaller warehouse LDJ5, which had more than 1,600 workers eligible to vote. The ALU, which is led by volunteers, turned its attention to the second warehouse after notching its first victory. Amazon responded by ratcheting up anti-union tactics at the facility.

Last year, an Amazon warehouse in Alabama was the first in several years to hold a vote on unionizing. That vote failed, but regulators later called for a repeat after finding that Amazon had improperly interfered with the process. The second vote remains too close to call.

The company has strongly opposed the union campaigns, paying outside consultants millions of dollars to discourage employees at its U.S. warehouses from voting yes. Amazon also has held “captive audience meetings,” where it requires workers to leave their work stations and attend classes meant to dissuade them from unionizing. And it has printed posters, sent text messages and handed out fliers suggesting that the union’s primary motive is collecting union dues and enriching itself.

The day before voting started last week at the smaller warehouse, politicians and labor leaders rushed to Staten Island to support union organizers and to pressure Amazon to recognize the union, even as it protests the outcome of the first election.

Amazon workers in both New York and Alabama planted the seeds of organizing during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, when workers objected to safety protocols. On Saturday, Amazon told workers it was ending separate paid sick leave it had offered those who got COVID. It also will stop sending notifications to employees about positive cases in the warehouses, according to a message shared with workers.

Many pro-labor politicians and top executives of large, established unions had been reluctant to embrace the ALU before its surprising victory. Now they view the union’s success as essential to reviving an organized-labor movement that has been shrinking for decades.

The day before voting started on April 25, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other labor supporters gathered outside the Staten Island facility.

You have been an inspiration for millions of workers all across this country who have looked at you … and said that if they could do it in Staten Island, we could do it throughout this country, Sanders told a crowd packed on a patch of worn grass just beyond the warehouse’s parking lot.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., gestured toward the 8,000-person warehouse that was home to the ALU’s first victory on April 1, calling it “the first domino to fall.”

The politicians were joined later in the afternoon by Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who pledged to help the ALU grow into a national force.

Morally, we must support you. Righteously, we must support you, she said. “Because with you goes workers’ rights; with you goes solidarity; with you goes everything.”

For many employees of the LDJ5 warehouse, the stakes were more personal. Worker Micheal Aguilar, 22, a union supporter, said he has seen “so many of my friends and family fired for the stupidest things” during his years with the company. He hoped the union would bring job security and better pay.

I want people to stay here as long as they want, he said. “I want people to have livable wages instead of slave wages.”

The ALU has heard from workers at dozens of other warehouses who are interested in organizing, according to the union’s leaders.

Derrick Palmer, ALU’s vice president for organizing, said Monday that the union would fix whatever mistakes it made at LDJ5.

We’ll be fine I promise, he said outside the NLRB office in downtown Brooklyn. “I guarantee we’ll be fine.”

Smalls added that organizers needed to take a mental break, and take time to “reassess, recoup, come back, get grounded.”

And we gotta get back into the fight, he said.

The organizing push at Amazon coincides with increasing labor momentum at other large businesses, notably Starbucks, where workers at dozens of stores have voted this year to join unions. National labor unions are hoping to be part of the action at Amazon after the ALU’s win, throwing their support behind the independent union in the form of pledges of money, office space and legal help.

The unions close to the action at JFK8 seemed to know that the ALU needed a lot of elbow room, said Logan. “Other unions should follow their lead and make clear their readiness to assist, but at the call of the self-organizers.”

The ALU has said it believes much of its strength comes from being “insiders” at Amazon.