NEW YORK (AP) — Amazon workers in Alabama appear to have rejected a union offer in a close race, according to early results Thursday. But pending disputed votes could change the outcome.
In New York, union supporters have the advantage in a count that will continue Friday morning.
Warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted 993 to 875 against forming a union. The National Labor Relations Board, which oversees the election, said 416 contested votes could potentially overturn that result. A hearing has not yet been set to decide whether the disputed votes will be counted, but it is expected in the coming weeks.
“This is just the beginning and we will continue to fight,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which organizes the union campaign in Bessemer, said at a press conference Thursday.
The close election marks a stark contrast to last year, when Amazon workers overwhelmingly rejected the union.
Meanwhile, in a separate union election on Staten Island, New York, the fledgling Amazon Labor Union is leading by more than 350 votes out of about 2,670 counted. Counting is expected to continue Friday morning.
If a majority votes yes in either place, it would mark the first successful U.S. organizing effort in Amazon’s history. Organizers have faced an uphill battle against the country’s second-largest private employer, which is doing its utmost to keep unions out.
In New York, the ALU led the charge to form a union with Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who now leads the fledgling group. In-person election turnout was unclear, but Smalls hoped for victory.
“Being ahead on day one and winning a few hundred against a trillion dollar business is the best feeling in the world,” Smalls said after Thursday’s count ended.
While Smalls’ attention has been focused on winning in New York, similar efforts in Alabama have also weighed heavily.
“I’m not sure what’s going on in Alabama right now, but I know the sky’s the limit if you can organize any warehouse,” he said, noting that the vote in Alabama could well end differently. “I hope they will succeed. I don’t know what’s going on yet, but we know we’re showing them our support and solidarity. »
The Staten Island warehouse employs more than 8,300 workers, who pack and ship supplies to customers based primarily in the northeast. A union victory there was seen as difficult, but organizers believe their grassroots approach is more relevant to workers and could help them overcome where established unions have failed in the past.
After a landslide defeat last year, when a majority of workers voted against forming a union, RWDSU is hoping for a different outcome in the Bessemer election, in which mail-in ballots were sent to 6,100 workers in early February. Federal labor officials overturned the results of the first election there and ordered a recast after Amazon’s decision tainted the election process.
The RWDSU said elections there had a turnout of about 39% this year, much lower than last year.
Amazon pushed back strongly. The retail giant held mandatory meetings, during which workers were told unions were a bad idea. The company also launched an anti-union website targeting workers and placed posters in English and Spanish at the Staten Island plant urging them to reject the union. In Bessemer, Amazon made some changes but retained a controversial US Postal Service mailbox that played a key role in the NLRB’s decision to invalidate last year’s vote.
New York is more worker-friendly than Alabama, a right-to-work state that prohibits a company and union from signing a contract that requires workers to pay dues to the union that represents them. But some experts say it won’t make much of a difference to Staten Island’s election outcome, citing federal labor laws that favor employers and Amazon’s union-busting stance.
“The employer is the same, and that’s the main thing,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements at the City University of New York. “Amazon is resisting this with all it has.”
The predominantly black workforce at the Alabama facility, which opened in 2020, reflects the Bessemer population of more than 70% black residents, according to the latest U.S. census data. There is little public transportation, so many Amazon workers travel to the factory from as far away as the Montgomery subway, nearly 100 miles south.
Pro-union workers say they want better working conditions, longer breaks and higher wages. Regular full-time employees at the Bessemer facility earn at least $15.80 an hour, which is above the estimated average of $14.55 an hour in the city. That figure is based on an analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual median household income for Bessemer of $30,284, which could include more than one worker.
The ALU said it did not have a demographic breakdown of warehouse workers on Staten Island, and Amazon declined to provide the information to The Associated Press, citing the union’s vote. Internal records leaked to The New York Times from 2019 showed more than 60% of the facility’s hourly associates were black or Latino, while most managers were white or Asian. But it’s unclear how the facility’s high turnover rate may have changed that.
Amazon workers often travel from all over the New York metro area by subway, then take a 40-minute public bus to the warehouse. At a nearby bus stop, organizers put up signs encouraging workers to vote for the union. “WE ARE NOT MACHINES, WE ARE HUMAN BEINGS,” it reads, a nod to workers’ complaints about long shifts and the company’s “time off” tool that blames workers. employees from taking too many breaks.
Among other things, Staten Island workers are seeking longer breaks, paid time off for injured employees and an hourly wage of $30, compared to a minimum of just over $18 an hour offered by the company. . An Amazon spokesperson said the company invests in salaries and benefits, such as health care, 401(k) plans and a prepaid tuition program to help develop the careers of employees. workers.
“As a company, we don’t believe unions are the best answer for our employees,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Our goal remains to work directly with our team to continue to make Amazon a great place to work.”
In Staten Island, warehouse workers like Elijah Ramos, 22, said they planned to vote against the union, doubting the ALU could get Amazon to accept higher wages and other benefits. Ramos said he felt the organizers didn’t have enough experience to represent him.
Although he thinks a union could bring good things, Ramos said he could also constantly clash with the company and create more complications.
“It’s better to deal with what we have now than to deal with something that we don’t know what they’re going to do with,” he said.
Associated Press writers Tali Arbel and Bobby Caina Calvan in New York contributed to this report.