Amazon workers at New York warehouse could vote to form company’s first US union

Amazon workers at a facility in Staten Island appeared to lean toward forming a union with a newly-established organization called Amazon Labor Union (ALU), based on the first day of public vote counting.

The vote count, which began Thursday and resumed Friday morning, has so far notched 1,518 votes in favor of unionizing and 1,154 votes against it. ALU is seeking to represent roughly 5,000 workers at the facility. It is unclear how many workers ultimately cast ballots.

The results of a separate do-over election at a facility in Bessemer, Alabama were too close to call. A total of 875 workers at the facility voted for joining a union and 993 voted against it, according to the tally, which was also conducted on Thursday. But another 416 ballots were challenged. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) expects to hold a hearing on the matter in the next few weeks to determine whether any of the challenged ballots will be opened and counted.

Both union efforts were borne out of worker frustrations with Amazon’s treatment of workers amid the pandemic and were also motivated in part by increased national attention to racial justice issues and labor rights. But there are key differences between the two. The Alabama effort was done in coordination with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an 85-year-old labor union, which has organized tens of thousands of workers. By contrast, the Staten Island push is not aligned with an existing labor union but rather is trying to create its own, former by current and former warehouse employees.

The face of the Staten Island effort is largely Christian Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse worker fired by Amazon two years ago after leading a walkout at the facility to protest pandemic-related health and safety concerns. (Smalls says he was retaliated against; Amazon says he was terminated for violating its policy that required him to quarantine after being notified of a possible Covid-19 exposure.)

Smalls previously told CNN Business that ALU is running on «pennies compared to other campaigns,» garnering $100,000 in donations raised through pages on GoFundMe, a crowdfunding platform.

He has sought to differentiate his organizing effort from the one in Bessemer, stating that having an independent union led by current and former employees of the facility «was working and resonated with the workers.» (ALU has also garnered enough signatures for an NLRB election at a nearby Amazon facility in Staten Island later this month April.)

The two union pushes are also unfolding in two very different parts of the country. The RWDSU drive occurred in Alabama, a right-to-work state, where union membership is low. New York, on the other hand, has the second highest union membership in the nation. Amazon’s starting wage for workers of at least $15 an hour also fares differently in Alabama where the minimum wage is $7.25, compared to New York City’s $15.

«They’re enormously important elections. [Amazon] is a company that is not just retail, it is not just logistics, it cuts across almost every sector of the economy,» John Logan, professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, told CNN Business.

Logan credits the initial RWDSU Bessemer drive one year ago, which was celebrated by a number of celebrities and politicians alike, with broadly creating «energy and enthusiasm amongst young people interested in organizing themselves.» While the results of that election favored Amazon, a do-over was called for after the company was deemed to have illegally interfered. (An Amazon spokesperson called the decision «disappointing» at the time.)

Labor experts have repeatedly said that organizing Amazon workers is an incredibly difficult task given current labor law and the company’s opposition to such efforts. Amazon’s anti-union campaigns included signage inside its warehouses, text messages, and meetings that workers were required to attend before the election periods kicked off.

Amazon has previously said its «employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union» and that it is focused on «working directly with our team to make Amazon a great place to work.»

«It is almost impossible for workers to organize when they’re facing an anti-union campaign like this,» Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, told CNN Business of both union efforts earlier this week. «Even a strong showing [of support for unionizing] is significant.»