As votes in union elections at two different Amazon warehouses are tallied this week, early returns show close counts at both facilities — signs that an organizing effort that has gained steam in recent years is gaining ground against the company’s efforts to keep workers from unionizing.
There are no final results yet, as hundreds of ballots are being contested in Alabama and the count is ongoing in New York.
But with votes still being counted, the Amazon Labor Union is leading at a warehouse in Staten Island, with 1,518 votes in favor to at least 1154 votes against, according to ALU’s count as of Thursday evening. And in Bessemer, Alabama, where 875 voted for the union and 993 against, out of 2,284 total ballots, the count is closer than in the previous election, which went heavily against the union but was thrown out last year when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Amazon had illegally interfered.
A spokesperson for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union said more than 400 ballots would be contested.
In Staten Island, where counting will continue into Friday, the total number of ballots hasn’t been released, so it’s not clear how many challenged ballots would be needed to alter the outcome. In Alabama, where the final official count on Thursday was in Amazon’s favor, election challenges will drag out the final results for at least a few weeks. Both the union and the employer can challenge ballots depending on multiple factors, such as whether the worker who voted held a supervisory role or how recently they worked a shift.
ALU didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Amazon declined to comment before the final votes were tallied.
Both unions are outperforming expectations. “Any time there’s a strong showing like this, it shows a sort of against-the-odds success, because the anti-union campaign is so strong and the legal context is so tipped against workers,” said Rutgers labor studies professor Rebecca Givan.
In Alabama, the union experienced a landslide loss in last year’s election, but the National Labor Relations Board declared the outcome invalid, ruling that Amazon’s installation of a mailbox on site constituted an effort to surveil and intimidate workers casting their ballots.
The union has said it expected a better outcome this time due to a more involved educational campaign and high worker turnover.
This year’s vote is much closer, and the 416 challenged ballots could flip the outcome. The union is also charging Amazon with multiple unfair labor practices, which could potentially put the entire outcome of the election into question once again.
Meanwhile, in Staten Island, ALU, an independent labor union, is defying predictions. The union had a rocky road to today’s vote, which was initially approved in November, then withdrawn later that month, and then rescheduled in February. The group is led by Chris Smalls, a former Amazon employee and activist whose firing in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020 made national headlines when news leaked that an Amazon lawyer had called him “not smart or articulate.” Another election at a second Staten Island Amazon warehouse is currently scheduled to begin in April.
ALU’s independent status made its early lead all the more surprising, Givan said. “They don’t have resources,” she said of independent unions like ALU. “Longer-standing unions have collected dues from members, every member is paying dues, and the union is able to use those resources … ALU was funded from GoFundMe donations and pro bono legal work and didn’t have any staff or pool of resources available.”
She said the union’s lead in Staten Island could be linked to the high percentage of workers already in unions in New York. In Alabama, a right-to-work state that is more “hostile” to unions, she said the union’s improved performance over last year is also an upset.
“Even for these workers to come close is really indicative of the way they’ve been treated by their employer and their appetite to have strong collective representation,” she said.