Pro-union vote leads in New York as Amazon workers look to make history
Union leaders are joined by community group representatives, elected officials and social activists for a rally in support of unionization efforts by Amazon workers in the state of Alabama on March 21 in Los Angeles, California (AFP)

Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York appear on track to form the first-ever union at the retail behemoth in the United States after the opening round of vote counting ended Thursday with the pro-unionization side holding a significant lead.

"A union victory today in Staten Island would be historic for the whole world."

With the count expected to resume Friday morning, the union effort was ahead 1518 votes to 1154, said the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a warehouse worker-led group spearheading the organizing effort. ALU is not affiliated with any established union, making its early success all the more impressive to observers.

"To get to this point, it's already history," said ALU president Chris Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse employee who was fired in 2020 after protesting the corporation's failure to protect workers from Covid-19.

Historian Erik Loomis argued that a union victory at Amazon would be "game-changing for the entire labor movement in this country."

"This is huge. Absolutely huge," Loomis wrote on Twitter. "Lot of work left to do still—getting the first contract will be very, very hard. But this could be the most significant union victory in... a few decades?"

The roughly 6,000 employees at the Staten Island facility are looking to overcome a relentless anti-union campaign by Amazon's management, which just last month was sued by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for terminating a worker who was involved in organizing and campaigning for stronger safety measures amid the pandemic.

Throughout the collective bargaining push, Amazon has forced Staten Island workers to attend hundreds of anti-union sessions known as captive-audience meetings, a common and perfectly legal union-busting tactic. Leaked audio from one of the meetings in February revealed that an Amazon official warned unionization could bring pay cuts and other consequences for workers.

"A union victory today in Staten Island would be historic for the whole world," New York State Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynes (D-51) tweeted Thursday as the vote count rolled in. "It would prove that ordinary working-class people can organize and fight against one of the globe's largest companies... and win. Our collective struggle is being tested today."

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama are also voting—for the second time—on whether to form a union after the first election last year was deemed invalid by the NLRB, which ruled that Amazon's management unlawfully interfered with the organizing attempt.

"This fight is the spark of the 21st-century labor movement."

As it stands, the Bessemer effort is trailing, with 53% of election participants voting against unionization, indicating a much closer outcome than the previous contest.

The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is leading the Bessemer drive, said in a statement late Thursday that the final result "hinges on 416 ballots challenged by the parties."

"Every vote must be counted," said RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum. "Workers at Amazon endured a needlessly long and aggressive fight to unionize their workplace, with Amazon doing everything it could to spread misinformation and deceit. We will hold Amazon accountable and we will be filing objections on their behavior."

"This moment is historic, and the workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have inspired working people all over the country and all over the world to fight for change at their workplaces, including other organizing at Amazon around the country," Appelbaum continued. "This fight is the spark of the 21st-century labor movement."

According to new filings with the U.S. Labor Department, Amazon spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants last year as the Seattle-based company worked to crush employee organizing.

As HuffPost labor reporter Dave Jamieson noted Thursday, "A 2020 analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found only a few employers have spent more than $1 million on anti-union consultants, and it's typically taken several years to rack up such a bill."

"Any spending in the hundreds of thousands of dollars is on the high end," Jamieson added. "None of the companies in EPI's analysis came close to spending as much as Amazon in such a short period of time."