Amazon Workers Pass Union Vote for the First Time in the U.S.

Workers at one of Amazon’s warehouses in Staten Island, New York, have just made history by voting in favour of unionizing — the first time employees at a U.S.-based facility operated by the eCommerce giant have joined a labour union (via CNBC).

Out of roughly 8,000 employees, 2,654 workers at JFK8, Amazon’s largest fulfillment center in New York, voted in favour of unionizing, while 2,131 voted against and 67 ballots were challenged.

The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is a new organization created last year, led by Christian Smalls, a former manager at JFK8.

By voting to unionize, the workers have not only gained the freedom to collectively bargain with Amazon but have also set a precedent for Amazon employees across the U.S.

Amazon has managed to keep labour unions out of its U.S. operations for three decades. Workers in Bessemer, Alabama, recently held a second vote on whether to unionize but failed. However, the count was significantly closer than the previous attempt and JFK8’s success may just fan the flames of unionization in Bessemer and other Amazon locations.

Amazon has no interest in seeing the unionization movement gain further momentum. According to the company, there is no need for its workers to unionize. Pay at Amazon’s fulfillment centres starts at $18 an hour, well above minimum wage in every U.S. state, and the company also offers health insurance, paid parental leave, and educational opportunities to workers.

Company founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos has said the company does not “believe that we need a union to be an intermediary.” Back in February, Amazon even increased its total compensation to retain existing employees and recruit top talent.

Now that the ALU has a seat at the table, the organization’s next objective is to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) on behalf of roughly 6,000 employees at JFK8. Amazon isn’t likely to make doing so easy for the ALU, though.

“Amazon will delay,” said David Rosenfeld, a labour lawyer at Weinberg, Roger and Rosenfeld, and a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. “They’re not going to walk in and do the right thing because that will encourage organizing everywhere else. They’ll do everything they can to avoid a contract, and it will be a big, long, nasty fight.”

According to an analysis published in June by Bloomberg Law, it takes, on average, 409 days for newly unionized workers to sign CBAs with their employers.

As it stands, Amazon gets to control everything at all of its locations. If employees are unhappy, they can walk out the door. This has resulted in high employee turnover at the company’s warehouses and fulfillment centres. Adding a union to the mix changes that dynamic entirely as it gives employees bargaining.

Instead of being able to dictate pay, benefits, and working conditions as it does across its massive network of offices, data centres, and warehouses, Amazon will now have to negotiate those key details with union leaders when it comes to JFK8.

Amazon has the opportunity to embrace that reality, said Anastasia Christman, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project in New York.

“They have this choice they can make,” Christman said. “They can either decide to continue to fight this in a very negative way or say that workers have identified problems in the workforce and let’s hear them out.”

Tom Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, believes that this may be a time for the company to play nice and avoid a protracted battle. “Amazon is going to have to reassess its labour relations strategy,” he said.

“I would expect now that there is this first victory on the part of a union that Amazon is going to have to reassess its labour relations strategy and begin to negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement,” said Kochan, an expert on work and employment policies.

“They will add fuel to the flames if they continue to stonewall in negotiations as they have so vigorously resisted in the organizing phase.”

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders congratulated JFK8 workers in a tweet on Friday, saying “it’s going to be a shot in the arm for this country’s labor movement.”

As for the various Amazon warehouses in Canada, none of them have had a union vote passed, for now.