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Workers stand in line to cast ballots for a union election at Amazon's JFK8 distribution centre. Alamy Stock Photo

Amazon workers vote to unionise in New York, in a US first

“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space because while he was up there we were signing people up,” one union organiser said.

AMAZON WORKERS IN New York voted to launch the first US union at the e-commerce giant, a milestone for a company that has steadfastly opposed organised labour in its massive workforce.

Dozens of supporters cheered and clapped as the result was announced, with union organiser Christian Smalls popping a champagne cork in front of bank of TV cameras and photographers.

“We want to thank (Amazon founder) Jeff Bezos for going to space because while he was up there we were signing people up,” Smalls joked after workers at the Staten Island JFK8 warehouse backed the union 2,654 to 2,131 votes.

Amazon noted “disappointment” over the outcome, and said it was evaluating its options, including “filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence” of the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the vote.

At stake was Amazon’s ability to remain union-free in its home market, a status it has guarded fiercely since the company was set up in the 1990s by Bezos, who has since started a space tourism venture.

During the contentious campaign, the company discouraged workers from supporting unions at mandatory meetings, and through signs and other literature at the work site.

Amazon has argued that forming a union will mar the company’s direct relationship with workers and represent a jump into the unknown, with no guarantee employees will wind up with better wages or job security.

“It’s a truly historic day, it really is,” said Eric Milner, who represented the union organizers during the process. “I think it’s going to start a chain reaction – warehouse to warehouse.”

Official results were expected in the coming weeks in a union vote for an Amazon warehouse in the southern state of Alabama, but incomplete results showed organisers were not on pace to capture enough votes.

Staten Island organizers were already mobilising for their next battle: the LDJ5 sorting centre across the street from the JFK8 warehouse, with a vote will be held there at the end of the month.

Union revival?

The overall picture for organised labour in the United States is no better than mixed in an economy that has seen unions’ share of the American workforce steadily diminish in recent decades.

The number of US workers who are members of a union has fallen from about 20% in 1983 to about 10% in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At Amazon, workers at a Bessemer, Alabama warehouse last year overwhelmingly voted against a unionization push supported by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

But US worker rights agency National Labor Relations Board later called for a redo of the vote, citing what it called interference by Amazon.

In the Alabama re-vote 993 workers cast ballots against the labour group, compared with 875 employees in favor.

But there were 416 “challenged” ballots, a “determinative” amount, according to the National Labor Relations Board, meaning the number of ballots still to be settled is big enough to potentially decide the final result.

For the Staten Island vote, a total of 8,325 workers at the JFK8 warehouse were eligible -although some no longer work at Amazon – for the vote held 25-30 March. Ballots were cast by 4,852 employees.

At a news conference Thursday, union officials noted that their initial campaign last year – which received lots of media coverage and even an official endorsement by President Joe Biden – helped spur similar moves around the country.

At Starbucks, a movement to shift labour dynamics began with two cafes in upstate New York voting in December to unionise. Since then, more than 150 restaurants are at various stages of union campaigns.

The Starbucks campaign was led mostly by younger and college-educated workers who are broadly reflective of the current wave of newer labour supporters.

Union campaigns have also had recent success at museums, NGOs, media companies and universities.

But beyond those sectors, labour unions have struggled to gain a foothold, particularly in southern and some western states, whose percentage of unionised workers are less than one-third or one-fourth of those in California and New York.

© AFP 2022

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