About six weeks after successful union votes at two Starbucks stores near Buffalo in December, workers filed paperwork to hold union elections in at least 20 other Starbucks locations across the country.
By contrast, since the Amazon Labor Union’s win last month in a vote at a huge warehouse on Staten Island, workers at just one other Amazon facility have filed for a union election — featuring an obscure union with a checkered Past — before withdrawing their application immediately.
The difference may come as a surprise to those who thought the organization at Amazon might follow the explosive pattern we see at Starbucks, where employees at more than 250 stores have registered for elections and the union prevails by a vast majority. of the locations that voted .
Christian Smalls, the chairman of the independent Amazon Labor Union, told NPR shortly after the win, his group had heard from workers at 50 other Amazon facilities, adding: the Starbucks movementwe want to spread like wildfire across the country.”
The two campaigns share some features, most notably both are: largely supervised by employees rather than professional organizers. And the Amazon Labor Union has made more progress at Amazon than most experts expected, and more than any established union.
But unionizing at Amazon would always be a longer, messier job, given the scale of the facilities and the nature of the workplace. “Amazon is so much harder a nut to crack,” John Logan, a professor of labor sciences at San Francisco State University, said by email. The union recently lost a voice in a smaller warehouse on Staten Island.
To win, a union must have the support of more than 50 percent of workers who voted. That means 15 or 20 union workers can drive the win at a typical Starbucks store — a level of support that can be called in hours or days. At Amazon warehouses, a union would often have to win hundreds or thousands of votes.
Amazon Labor Union organizers spent hundreds of hours chatting with colleagues in the warehouse during breaks, after work and on days off. They held cookouts at a bus stop outside the warehouse and communicated with hundreds of colleagues via WhatsApp groups.
Brian Denning, who leads an Amazon organizational campaign sponsored by the Democratic Socialists of America branch in Portland, Oregon, said his group had received six or seven questions a week from Amazon employees and contractors after the Staten Island win, at one or two a week. week in advance.
But Mr Denning, a former Amazon warehouse worker who tells workers they are the ones leading a union campaign, said many didn’t realize the effort involved in unionizing, and some became discouraged when he consulted with them.
Understand the Unionization Efforts at Amazon
“We get people who say how do we get an ALU situation here? How do we do it like they did?” mr. Denning said, adding: “I don’t want to scare them. But I can’t lie to workers. This is what it is. It’s not for everyone.”
At Starbucks, employees work together in a relatively small space, sometimes without a manager present to supervise them directly for hours. This allows them to openly discuss concerns about pay and working conditions and the merits of a union.
At Amazon, warehouses are cavernous and employees are often more isolated and more closely monitored, especially during an organizational campaign.
“What they would do is strategically separate me from everyone in my department,” said Derrick Palmer, an Amazon employee in Staten Island and one of the union’s vice presidents. “If they see me communicating with that person, they would move him to another station.”
Asked about the allegation, Amazon said it has assigned employees to workstations and tasks based on operational needs.
Organizing drivers is an even bigger challenge, in part because they are officially employed by contractors Amazon hires, although labor organizers say they would like to pressure the company to allay drivers’ concerns.
Christy Cameron, a former driver at an Amazon facility near St. Louis, said the layout of the track largely prevented drivers from interacting with each other. At the start of each shift, a contractor manager briefs the drivers, who then disperse to their trucks, help load and set off.
“There is very little time left to talk to colleagues outside of a hello,” Ms Cameron said in a text message, adding that Amazon’s training discouraged talking to fellow drivers about working conditions. “It was generally how they are strongly against unions and not talking to each other about wages and benefits.”
Amazon, with about a million American employees, and Starbucks, with just under 250,000, offer comparable wages. Amazon said that the minimum hourly wage is $15 and that the average starting salary in warehouses is over $18. Starbucks said that from August the minimum hourly wage will be $15 and the average will be close to $17.
Despite similar rewards, organizers say firms’ workforces can be very different dynamics.
Inside the Staten Island warehouse where Amazon employees voted against unionizationmany workers work four-hour shifts and commute 30 to 60 minutes one way, suggesting they have limited alternatives.
“People who go to extremes for a four-hour job — it’s a certain group of people who really struggle to make it,” says Gene Bruskin† a longtime labor organizer who advised the Amazon Labor Union in the two Staten Island elections, in an interview last month.
As a result of all this, organizing at Amazon could mean incremental profits rather than high-profile election wins. In the Minneapolis area, a group of mostly Somali-speaking Amazon workers has staged protests and concessions received of the company, such as an assessment process for layoffs related to productivity goals. Chicago area workers involved in the Amazonians United group receive pay increases not long after a strike in December.
Ted Miin, an Amazon employee who is one of the group’s members, said the concessions followed eight or nine months of organization, when he said it would have taken at least two years to win union elections and land an initial contract. negotiate.
For employees seeking a contract, the procedures for negotiating a contract with Starbucks and Amazon may differ. In most cases, negotiating improvements in pay and benefits requires additional pressure on the employer.
At Starbucks, in a sense, that pressure is union momentum through election wins. “The spread of the campaign gives the union the opportunity to win in negotiations,” said Mr. logan. (Starbucks has nevertheless said: it will mean new wage and benefit increases from unionized workers who say such benefits should be negotiated.)
At Amazon, on the other hand, the pressure needed to land a contract is likely to come through other avenues. Some are conventional, such as continuing to organize warehouse workers, who could decide to strike if Amazon refuses to recognize or negotiate with them. The company is challenging the union victory on Staten Island.
But the union is also calling on political allies to pressure Amazon. Mr. Smalls, the union chairman, testified in a Senate hearing this month who investigated whether the federal government should refuse contracts to companies that violate labor laws.
On Thursday, Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey introduced legislation to prevent employers from deducting anti-union activities, such as hiring consultants to prevent employees from unionizing, as a business expense.
While many of these efforts may be more symbolic than substantive, some seem to have gained traction. After the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced last summer that it was awarding Amazon a 20-year lease at Newark Liberty International Airport to develop an air freight hub, a coalition from community, labor and environmental groups that mobilized against the project.
The status of the lease, which was: become final late last year, remains unclear. An Amazon spokeswoman said the company looks forward to “ongoing engagement with the state” and is confident the deal will be closed.
A spokeswoman for New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said the company may need to negotiate with unions before the deal goes through. “The governor encourages anyone doing business in our state to cooperate in good faith with labor partners,” the spokeswoman said.
karen way reporting contributed.