Amazon tries to prevent union campaign on two fronts

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By HALELUYA HADERO, ANNE D’INNOCENZIO and JAY REEVES, Associated Press

Amazon is preparing for its toughest union fight yet, with two separate union elections taking place as early as next week, which could add momentum to the recent wave of organizing efforts across the country.

Warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, and Bessemer, Alabama, will decide whether or not to form a union. If a majority votes yes in either place, it would mark the first successful U.S. organizing effort in Amazon’s history. A rejection would mark another victory for the country’s second-largest employer by keeping unions at bay.

Here’s what the elections will look like in Bessemer and Staten Island:

VOTE

Last April, Bessemer workers overwhelmingly voted against a union candidacy, handing a bitter defeat to a labor movement that had already lost influence but made some gains during the pandemic. Federal labor officials later overturned the results and ordered a rerun, deeming Amazon tainted the election process.

Ballots for the second election were mailed to 6,100 employees in early February. The counting process is expected to begin on Monday and could take several days.

Meanwhile, Amazon workers at the Staten Island warehouse began voting in person on Friday in their first union election. The facility is one of Amazon’s largest in New York with more than 8,300 employees. Voting ends on Wednesday and counting is expected to begin shortly thereafter.

UNION SUPPORT

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is once again spearheading the campaign at the Alabama factory. More than 150 organizers from the union, along with around 20 other labor groups, have been on the ground since last summer – a bigger push than during the first election – to galvanize support. Vaccines have made it easier during the ongoing pandemic to knock on workers’ doors and visit hair salons, stores and other places to hand out flyers and talk to residents.

Pulling off a win could still be tough. There is a high turnover rate in the establishment, which makes it difficult to build momentum. Meanwhile, organizers estimate that about half of current workers were eligible to vote in the last election, giving RWDSU a chance to recruit new workers who may be more willing to unionize.

In Staten Island, Amazon workers are currently organizing as part of the Independent Amazon Union led by Chris Smalls, a former employee who says he was fired after leading a protest against warehouse working conditions in start of the pandemic. (Amazon said it violated COVID-19 safety protocols.)

The fledgling union is seeking to negotiate higher wages, more paid holidays and other benefits for workers, 100 of whom sit on its workers’ committee. Some of them wore band logo shirts and masks during shifts. Others handed out pro-union flyers after work and encouraged their co-workers to unionize.

NEW YORK VS. ALABAMA

The union landscape in Alabama is radically different from that of New York.

Last year, union members made up 22.2% of workers in New York City, ranked only behind Hawaii, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is more than double the national average of 10.3%. In Alabama, it’s 5.9%.

Alabama is also a right-to-work state, which prohibits a company and a union from signing a contract that requires workers to pay dues to the union that represents them. Pro-worker experts say many may feel intimidated by companies that might undermine the union shop.

New York is not a right-to-work state, and Amazon is trying to use that to its advantage. The company tells workers it could fire them if they unionize but don’t pay union dues. But that requirement isn’t a general mandate for states that don’t have the right to work and is something that’s negotiated during contracts with unions, said Jennifer Sherer, senior state policy coordinator at the Institute for Left-Wing Economic Policy.

THE WORKERS

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 Metro, 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 per hour, which is higher than the estimated average of $14.55 per 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.

At Amazon’s Staten Island plant, which opened in 2018, workers earn a minimum hourly wage of just over $18, well below the estimated average of $41 an hour for the borough, according to a similar US Census Bureau analysis of the median household income of $85,381 in Staten Island.

Workers across the New York metro area travel long distances to get to the company’s warehouse, often alternating between subway, ferry and 40-minute public bus rides.

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. But 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.

THE AMAZON STRATEGY

Amazon sees labor unions as a threat to its business model based on fast deliveries to customers.

“As a company, we don’t believe unions are the best answer for our employees,” an Amazon 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.”

The online retail giant continues to hammer home the message that it offers benefits such as health care, 401(k) plans and a prepaid tuition program to help grow workers’ careers. He launched a website for workers at the two warehouses that questioned the benefits of unions and distributed mass mailings, text messages, emails and flyers.

He has also relied on consultants and managers to hold mandatory staff meetings to discuss why unions are a bad idea. These meetings stopped at Bessemer, just before the ballots were sent out on February 4, in accordance with labor regulations. But that could continue on Staten Island until 24 hours before the start of in-person voting scheduled for Friday.

A company spokesperson said the meetings give employees a chance to ask questions and learn what a union “could mean to them and their daily lives at Amazon.”

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. In February, police arrested Smalls after Amazon officials said he trespassed while delivering food to Staten Island workers. Two other currently pro-union employees were arrested with him for obstructing government administration charges.

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