Amazon Workers on Staten Island Aim for Union Vote

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Tucked in four plastic tubs in a tent by a Staten Island bus stop are stacks of cards with valuable autographs: the signatures of more than 1,700 hourly Amazon workers.

“I, the undersigned, authorize the Amazon Labor Union to represent me for the purpose of collective bargaining,” the cards read.

The commitments are the results of six months of organizing at Amazon’s only fulfillment center in New York City. The organizers expect to have several hundred more by Monday, when they plan to file for a union election.

If the National Labor Relations Board validates their request, it could bring the second unionization vote at an Amazon warehouse in less than a year. In April, Amazon defeated a union election at its warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., in what was the gravest union threat the company had faced in its history. The workers’ effort attracted national attention, including visits from Senator Bernie Sanders and a tacit nod of support from President Biden.

Unlike the Alabama drive, which was run by a national retail workers union, the one in Staten Island is being organized by current and former Amazon workers aiming to form a new independent union, called the Amazon Labor Union. The drive is led by Christian Smalls, a former employee at the warehouse who became the face of worker unrest at the company last year.

The unionization push reflects the growing labor challenges that Amazon and other large employers face as the pandemic has given workers across the economic spectrum an upper hand for the first time in decades. Unleashed by the pandemic’s shock to their daily lives, workers have gone out on strike at John Deere and at plants that make Oreos and other Nabisco snacks as well as Kellogg cereals like Frosted Flakes, and nearly walked off sets in Hollywood. And workers at some Starbucks locations have filed to form a union.

At Amazon, the issue is compounded by its ambitions. It has 1.3 million employees and wants to hire almost 300,000 seasonal and permanent hourly workers in the United States this fall alone. Amazon has increased wages, and announced that it strives to be “Earth’s best employer.” Its employment model, however — with turnover so high executives fear running out of available American workers — was under strain even before the pandemic.

Still, the campaign in Staten Island faces many hurdles. The labor board will need to determine if enough valid signatures were collected to demonstrate substantial interest in an election. And as the Alabama vote showed, support can erode over time. Amazon pushed back, promoting its $15 minimum wage and benefits, and workers rejected the union by a wide margin. Some of Amazon’s anti-union measures prompted a labor board official to recommend that the results be thrown out and the election rerun, which Amazon has said it would appeal.

Mr. Smalls and others behind the push said they hoped their insider status gave them an advantage. They have been able to build support with colleagues and have the right to use spaces and communication tools only employees can use. Workers supporting the unionization drive have worn shirts and masks in the building with the union’s logo, put literature in the break room, and posted on internal message boards.

“To get a card signed from a worker is difficult,” Mr. Smalls said. “It is a harder conversation to have when you are a third party rather than someone who works at the company.”

Kelly Nantel, a company spokeswoman, said Amazon did not think unions were the best answer for its employees.

“Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes — quickly,” she said in a statement. “That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle.”

She added that the company had made “great progress” on pay and safety in recent years.

The unionization effort follows a dramatic 18 months at the massive Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, which serves as Amazon’s key pipeline to New York City.

Early in the pandemic, after Mr. Smalls organized a protest about safety conditions, Amazon fired him. The company said that by attending the event, he had violated a company quarantine order for being exposed to a sick co-worker.

Leaked meeting notes taken by the company’s top lawyer called Mr. Smalls, who is Black, “not smart or articulate.” Amazon’s actions drew public condemnation, a lawsuit by New York’s attorney general accusing the company of retaliation, and accusations of racism, all of which Amazon disputes. The lawyer later apologized and said he was unaware of Mr. Smalls’s race at the time.

Even as the firing drew headlines, Derrick Palmer, Mr. Smalls’s best friend, remained employed at the 5,000-worker facility, one of the largest in the country, pledging to change it from the inside. A New York Times investigation this summer found that the warehouse exemplified Amazon’s employment model: It attracted employees with solid wages and benefits but burned through workers, subjected them to problems like erroneous firings and provided limited opportunity for advancement.

Even before the pandemic, Amazon’s turnover among its work force was roughly 150 percent a year, almost double that of the retail and logistics industries overall.

Just a month after the Alabama vote failed last spring, Mr. Smalls and Mr. Palmer started organizing JFK8. Amazon acted swiftly, sending out notifications and running messages on TV screens in central areas and on signs inside bathroom stalls. “A.L.U. has inexperienced leadership and zero experience negotiating for workers,” read one break room sign.

Ms. Nantel said Amazon provided materials to educate workers about the facts of joining a union and the election process itself.

Understand Amazon’s Employment System

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Employee churn is high. The company conducted a hiring surge in 2020, signing up 350,000 workers in three months offering a minimum wage of $15 an hour and good benefits. But even before the pandemic, Amazon was losing about 3 percent of its hourly associates each week — meaning its turnover was roughly 150 percent a year.

Buggy systems caused awful mistakes. Amazon’s disability and leave system was a source of frustration and panic.  Workers who had applied for leaves were penalized for missing work, triggering job-abandonment notices and then terminations.

Strict monitoring has created a culture of fear. The company tracks workers’ every movement inside its warehouses. Employees who work too slowly, or are idle for too long, risk being fired. The system was designed to identify impediments for workers. Though such firings are rare, some executives worry that the metrics are creating an anxious, negative environment.

There is rising concern over racial inequity. The retail giant is largely powered by employees of color. According to internal records from 2019, more than 60 percent of associates at JFK8 are Black or Latino. The records show Black associates at the warehouse were almost 50 percent more likely to be fired than their white peers.

Since mid-May, workers at JFK8 have filed nine cases with the labor board accusing Amazon of illegally interfering with their organizing rights, from confiscating pro-union pamphlets they left in the break room to surveilling where they congregated on a sidewalk. Staff lawyers at the labor board have found some merit in the charges of illegal interference in three cases and are still investigating the others, according to the agency.

Ms. Nantel declined to comment on the cases.

The unionization push, Mr. Smalls said, is financed largely by $20,000 raised through a GoFundMe account, which he said had been used to buy food, T-shirts and an S.U.V. to transport their supplies. The organizers have hosted barbecues outside the facility, and set up a firepit nearby to stay warm when recruiting workers on the night shift.

“We are able to connect with the workers and really pick their brain as to what they would want for us to implement,” Mr. Palmer said. “It is real personal because we are at Amazon still — I’m still employed.”

Last Thursday, Mr. Smalls, dressed in red, white and black from head to toe — what he says would be the colors of an Amazon union — waited at the bus stop for workers to arrive at their shifts.

Quron Olive, 23, rolled up to the warehouse on his longboard before the start of his 4:30 p.m. shift. He started at Amazon after his pandemic-era federal unemployment benefit expired in September. Though he doesn’t see a career at Amazon, he decided to sign a union card.

“I’d rather be a part of the people trying to make it a better experience for them than looking out just for myself,” Mr. Olive said.

Jean Valeur, another worker at the warehouse, commutes for two hours each way from the Bronx. He started working for Amazon in early October, and hadn’t signed the union’s election petition before because he didn’t want to miss the bus.

This time, he clocked out of his shift and walked out with a friend to wait for the bus. After seeing his friend sign the union’s petition, Mr. Valeur decided the facility would benefit if workers organized.

“In the times we’re in,” he said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Mr. Smalls and Mr. Palmer initially focused on just JFK8. But they plan to file to hold elections at three other Amazon warehouses clustered in the same industrial park: a building where workers sort packages for delivery and two stations where drivers pick up boxes and fan out to deliver them.

Wilma B. Liebman, who was chairwoman of the labor board under former President Barack Obama, said independent unions had a history going back a century. Over time they often end up affiliating with larger unions to manage a long, bruising fight.

She said that established unions had more resources, both in terms of finances and experience, but that worker organizers had “a lot of advantages because they are working side by side with people and can have conversations.”

She added, “It may be hugely successful, and it could fail.”