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Lasting effects of Amazon union vote unknown but could point to change in labor movement, Washington experts say

Angelika Maldonado, right, ALU chairwoman of workers committee at Staten Island Amazon warehouse, and Brett Daniels, director of organizing for ALU workers committee, watch a zoom-cast of vote counting.  (Bebeto Matthews)

While it’s too early to tell the lasting effects of the decision of Amazon workers in New York to unionize, experts in Washington say the vote is one of the most important events in the American labor movement in recent decades.

For the first time in the company’s history, Amazon workers in Staten Island voted to unionize, according to results released Friday. About 55% of warehouse workers voted in favor of the independent Amazon Labor Union.

The vote, Washington experts said, fits into a theme of a labor market that has experienced significant change in the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Grant Forsyth, chief economist at Avista Corporation, said the labor market has been in “turmoil” the last two years , and it could put younger workers in a much stronger spot than in the last 30 years.

“It’s been a long time since labor has had the perception, whether it’s the labor movement or individuals, that they have a pretty strong upper hand,” Forsyth said.

The Amazon union vote is one of the more significant labor events in the U.S. in recent years, as unionization has been relatively quiet the last 30 years.

But Forsyth said it’s too early to tell whether the Amazon vote means there is a resurgence of the labor movement. He said it’s difficult for him to gauge whether the unionization effort is specific to Amazon or represents a broader trend in the labor market in the country.

Tina Morrison, secretary-treasurer at the Spokane Regional Labor Council, AFL-CIO, said she’s hopeful that this will be the start of a “rebalancing.”

She said more people are realizing that unionizing is a way to have a meaningful voice in a workplace. In the last four to five years, Morrison said there have been more worker activities, more strikes, more leafletting.

“And it’s been coming from the workforce,” she said. “It’s not coming from labor leaders.”

Local and state labor leaders praised the union victory. In a statement released Friday, Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO President Larry Brown and Secretary Treasurer April Sims congratulated the Amazon Labor Union as “becoming the first – hopefully of many – Amazon workers” to unionize for safer working conditions and better pay.

“It is a testament to the power of these working people that this historic victory was achieved in the face of a multi-million-dollar union-busting campaign,” the statement read.

Morrison also praised the efforts of the workers who had a “true grassroots sense of organizing.” The Amazon Labor Union is independent, meaning it is not affiliated with a national labor organization.

“It was them organizing with themselves,” Morrison said. “It wasn’t necessarily other people coming in from the outside.”

Patrick Jones, executive director at the Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University, wrote in an email the unionization campaign at Amazon was more than a salary dispute and included desires for better working conditions and scheduling.

Still, Jones said he would guess Amazon’s wage structure reflects the overall wage structure of the local economies around their fulfillment centers. For example, wages in New York City are likely higher than those in Alabama, or in Washington state, he said.

Warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama tried but failed to unionize after a narrow vote rejected the bid. Challenged ballots still are being examined and could change the outcome, according to the Associated Press.

“If unionization succeeds in NYC, my guess is that the average wage in Amazon there will rise,” Jones wrote. “But if any increases take place outside of NYC in the aftermath of the vote, the amount won’t be the same, here or in (Alabama).”

If better working conditions are part of workers’ demands, Jones said some changes in conditions in New York could make their way to many, if not all, of the fulfillment centers, even if they are not represented by a union.

Forsyth said there are short-term and long-term effects that could happen from the Amazon vote. In the short-term, if benefits and pay improve, there will likely be some positive spill of spending activity in the surrounding communities.

“Higher wages can translate to higher spending,” he said.

In the long-term, however, Amazon has more time to adjust, Forsyth added. That could mean finding ways to reduce labor in their warehouses, such as through automation. With more time, companies are able to adjust, so the effects are uncertain, he said.

Forsyth said the likelihood that more Amazon warehouses begin to unionize will depend on where the warehouse is based and the politics in that state.

Morrison said she’s not currently aware of similar unionization efforts at Amazon locations locally or regionally , but said she would not be surprised if more warehouses try to unionize.

“I think it will catch on,” she said.

Morrison also said she hopes Amazon and other warehouses that aren’t unionized will realize they need to make changes to their workplaces.

“People should be able to go to work and go home without fear of injury and illness and all of these other things,” she said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.