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In an Amazon 1st, workers on Staten Island have voted to unionize

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

On Staten Island in New York, a historic win for an upstart union.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) ALU, ALU, ALU.

SNELL: Workers at a massive Amazon warehouse have voted to join the Amazon labor union. It's the first Amazon facility in the U.S. to unionize, and organizers vow it won't be the last. NPR's Andrea Hsu joins us now. Hi, Andrea.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi.

SNELL: So let's start with just what makes this win so stunning.

HSU: Well, no one expected this scrappy grassroots campaign to emerge victorious against the behemoth that is Amazon. You know, the Amazon labor union was not backed by traditional labor groups. It didn't have the kind of funding or organizing power that these campaigns often have. It was created by a warehouse supervisor named Chris Smalls after he was fired by Amazon two years ago, almost to this day. He had no union background. He raised money for the operation through GoFundMe. He spent many, many hours talking to workers at a bus stop, and the Amazon executives were highly dismissive of him. So you can just imagine after a vote that went for the union by a pretty big margin, we're talking more than 500 votes, he's having his moment.

CHRIS SMALLS: To the first union in American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

HSU: That's him popping the champagne outside the National Labor Relations Board office where the votes were counted. And here's more of what he had to say.

SMALLS: This right here - this is going to be the catalyst for the revolution. That's exactly what this is. Y'all just witnessed that.

(APPLAUSE)

HSU: You know, this vote on Staten Island brings more than 8,000 people who work at the warehouse into the union. So Chris Smalls has pulled off what the formidable Teamsters union has been unable to do - organize at Amazon. Last year, the Teamsters vowed they were going to unionize Amazon Workers coast to coast.

SNELL: And Amazon is an enormous company. So could you give us some context? How big a setback is this for Amazon?

HSU: It's a really big setback. Amazon has spent millions of dollars on labor consultants to fight the union campaigns. They've held many, many mandatory meetings for workers, urging them to vote no. They took a pretty aggressive stance against the Amazon Labor Union. They had Chris Smalls and a couple other people arrested for trespassing while they were delivering food and other materials to the warehouse parking lot a couple of months ago. You know, Amazon's argument to workers is that they've already made Amazon a great place to work without the involvement of a union. And they do offer competitive pay. They offer generous benefits like health care coverage on Day 1 for full-time employees and full tuition for college. But the work inside these warehouses is really grueling. You're on your feet for hours. You're doing very repetitive, very physically demanding work. And workers say the breaks are too short and turnover at Amazon warehouses can top 100% a year.

SNELL: Oh, wow. So we should say that there was another vote count happening at the same time. Another Amazon warehouse was voting on a union.

HSU: Right. Kelsey, that was the do-over election at the warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. So last year, yeah, workers voted more than 2 to 1 against joining a well-established national union. Those results were thrown out after the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Amazon had improperly interfered in that election. So workers voted again starting this past February by mail, and those votes were counted yesterday. The no's came out with a small lead, but there are more than 400 contested ballots. A hearing is going to be held to determine if any of those ballots will be opened and counted. So the Bessemer, Ala., vote could still go either way.

SNELL: So we'll hold off and wait for those results, but what comes now for the Staten Island workers?

HSU: Well, you know, voting for the union is just the first step. It's a huge first step. But now comes the collective bargaining. The Amazon labor union says it wants higher wages, longer breaks, paid time off for injuries sustained on the job. And then there are some things that are very specific to New York, like they want a shuttle service to relieve some of the crowding on the public buses. So that's a lot to negotiate in the coming months, and it's likely to be a fight. Amazon has already said they were disappointed in the outcome of the elections, and they may file objections. But there's another election on Staten Island at the end of this month at an Amazon sorting center that has about 1,500 employees. Of course, the union now has a ton of momentum heading into that vote.

SNELL: Well, we'll be watching all of that. That's NPR's Andrea Hsu. Thanks so much.

HSU: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.