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Why 2 union drives for Amazon workers had such different outcomes

·Senior Reporter
·4 min read
In this article:
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It’s a historic victory. On Friday, workers at an Amazon (AMZN) Staten Island warehouse voted to unionize, marking the first U.S. union in the e-commerce giant's history.

Where does that leave a pending union vote for Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama? Though 6,153 workers were eligible for that vote, 1,868 valid votes were counted Thursday — 875 voted "yes" to being represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) while 993 voted "no.” It looks like Amazon has come out ahead there so far, though the hundreds of challenged votes, a little north of 400, could swing the election towards the union.

However, in Staten Island, where workers voted to be represented by the emerging Amazon Labor Union, it was a resounding victory. The difference, experts said, is in part a matter of location, location, location.

“Alabama is an anti-union, right-to-work state,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, a Cornell University labor expert. “The level of outside pressure against the union in Alabama is so high, whereas New York is a pro-union state.”

In a right-to-work state, employees are not required to join or pay dues to a union in order to work for a given company.

In 2021, Hawaii and New York were the most unionized states in the country, with membership rates at 22.4% and 22.2% respectively, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report. The figures in Alabama are much lower, at about 6%. To be sure, Alabama’s neighbors in the Deep South are even less union-friendly — South Carolina is the least-unionized state, with membership rates at 1.7%.

Still, the victory in Staten Island could have ramifications for Amazon workers across the country. “It could force Amazon to come up with a new strategy nationwide,” Tamara Lee, a professor at Rutgers University, told Yahoo Finance.

The company released a statement on Friday saying that, while it was disappointed with the outcome in Staten Island, it was exploring next steps. The company also suggested that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) had unfairly influenced the vote.

"We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election," the company said.

Politcians and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum pose for a picture at the entrance to the Amazon facility in Bessemer.
Politcians and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum pose for a picture at the entrance to the Amazon facility in Bessemer.

The role of race in Bessemer

The Bessemer warehouse’s workers are predominantly Black, making up about 80% of the workforce, according to a study conducted by Lee and Maite Tapia, a labor expert at Michigan State University. Bessemer itself is a predominantly Black suburb of Birmingham, with 72.7% of the population identifying as Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The study released by Lee and Tapia reveals that workers’ lives at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer are particularly tinted by the South’s deep history of racial injustice and contemporary Black experiences of policing.

“Public records indicate that Amazon engages police on an off-duty basis around the country, but this engagement is significantly more prevalent among fulfillment centers located in the Southern ‘Black belt’ than in other parts of the country,” the report states.

To be sure, we don't have the final results of the Alabama vote yet and likely won't know more for several weeks. Whether the workers in Bessemer ultimately prevail like those in Staten Island, it’s going to be a much closer call. It’s a marked difference from the 2021 Bessemer vote, which was a landslide victory for Amazon. Some experts believe the closeness of the Alabama election is already an achievement, one that will resound even further with the success of Amazon’s Staten Island workers.

“This should be talked about as a victory for Black workers and Black workers in the South,” Tapia said. “That’s not to say that white workers didn’t vote yes, but it is important to highlight the resilience of Black workers who are fighting against strong racist legacies inside and outside the workplace.”

Allie Garfinkle is a senior tech reporter at Yahoo Finance. Find her on twitter @agarfinks.

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