NEW YORK — Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, voted to unionize on Friday, marking the first successful U.S. organizing effort in the retail giant’s history and delivering an unexpected victory for a fledgling group which fueled the union campaign.
Warehouse workers cast 2,654 votes – or about 55% – in favor of a union, giving Amazon’s fledgling union enough support to secure a victory. According to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees the process, 2,131 workers — or 45% — rejected the union’s application.
The 67 ballots contested by Amazon or the ALU were not enough to influence the result. Federal labor officials said the results of the tally will not be verified until they address objections — due by April 8 — that both sides may file.
The victory was an uphill battle for the independent group, made up of former and current workers who lacked the official backing of an established union and were overtaken by the deep-pocketed retail giant . Despite the obstacles, organizers believed their grassroots approach was more relevant to workers and could help them overcome where established unions have failed in the past. They were right.
Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon worker who led the ALU in its fight on Staten Island, left the NLRB building in Brooklyn on Friday with other union organizers, waving his fists and jumping while chanting “ALU.” They uncorked a bottle of champagne and Smalls hailed the victory as a call to arms for fellow Amazon workers at the sprawling company.
“I hope everyone is careful now because a lot of people were doubting us,” he said.
Smalls hopes the success in New York will encourage workers at other facilities to launch their own organizing campaigns. Even his group will soon turn its attention to a nearby Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, where a separate union election is due to take place in late April. Organizers believe Friday’s victory will also make things easier for them.
Amazon released a statement on its company website on Friday saying it was weighing its options after the election.
“We are disappointed with the Staten Island election results because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” the message read. “We are weighing our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence of the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) have witnessed in this election. .”
The company didn’t give details, but it did signal that it may contest the election based on a lawsuit filed in March by the NLRB, which sought to force Amazon to reinstate a fired employee who was involved in the union campaign.
NLRB spokeswoman Kayla Blado responded to Amazon’s statement by noting that the independent agency has been authorized by Congress to enforce the state labor relations law.
“All of the NLRB’s enforcement actions against Amazon have been consistent with this congressional mandate,” she said.
Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University, said he didn’t see how workers would benefit from a unionized Amazon installation and called the general corporate push to unionize misguided. . He said Amazon is a “very disciplined and regimented” company willing to pay high wages and good benefits, but also demands huge returns from its workers who work 10-hour shifts.
“Amazon isn’t going to change their culture because there’s a union in them now,” Cohen said. “They might have to let people work eight hours, but those people will earn less money. »
The successful union effort on Staten Island contrasted with that launched in Bessemer, Alabama, by the more established retail, wholesale and department store union. Workers at an Amazon warehouse there appeared to have rejected a union offer, but outstanding contested ballots could change the outcome. The votes were 993 to 875 against the union. A hearing to review 416 disputed ballots is expected to begin in the coming days.
The union campaigns come at a time of widespread social unrest in many companies. Workers at more than 140 Starbucks locations across the country, for example, have called for union elections and several have already won.
But Amazon has long been seen as the labor movement’s top prize given the company’s massive size and impact. The results at Staten Island reverberated all the way to the White House.
“The president was happy to see workers making sure their voice is heard when it comes to important workplace decisions,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during the briefing. Friday on the vote. “He strongly believes that every worker in every state should have the free and fair choice to join a union and the right to bargain collectively with their employer.”
John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said the labor victory was a potential tipping point two years into a pandemic that has changed the landscape work.
“We knew the unions had a moment, but this is much more important,” Logan said. “There is no greater prize than organizing Amazon.”
He added that the ALU victory challenges the traditional thinking that only national unions can take on big business. But the group could still have a fight ahead, according to Erin Hatton, a sociology professor at the University at Buffalo in New York.
“Bringing Amazon to the negotiating table will be another feat all together,” Hatton said. “Often the union collapses because the company does not come to the bargaining table in good faith as it is obligated to.”
Rebecca Givan, a social studies professor at Rutgers University, said the victory is just the first step in a likely protracted battle against Amazon.
“It’s clear that Amazon will continue to fight, they don’t concede that workers have the right to organize,” she said. “It appears the legal issues they have raised this afternoon suggest they are trying to undermine the entire authority of the NLRB.”
Amazon has pushed back hard ahead of two elections in Staten Island and Bessemer. 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 throughout Staten Island facilities. 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.
Both labor struggles faced unique challenges. Alabama, for example, is 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.
The union landscape in Alabama is also very different from that of New York. Last year, union members made up 22.2% of workers in New York, ranked only behind Hawaii, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is more than double the national average of 10.3%. In Alabama, it’s 5.9%.
Amazon workers in Staten Island 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. The estimated average wage for the borough is $41 an hour, based on a similar U.S. Census Bureau analysis of Staten Island’s median household income of $85,381.
Tristan Dutchin, who started working for the online retailer about a year ago, hopes the new union will improve working conditions at his site.
“I’m thrilled that we’re making history,” Dutchin said. “It will be a fantastic time for workers to be surrounded by a better and safer working environment.”
Tinea Greenaway voted against unionizing but said she would reserve judgment for now.
“We cannot take back our votes,” she said. “I’ll give things a chance, but let’s see if they deliver.”
Associated Press writer Mae Anderson in New York contributed to this report.
More Must-Try Stories from TIME