Staten Island Amazon Workers Pause Unionization Battle, But the Fight Isn’t Over

Derrick Palmer was at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island when he heard that the petition to form a union he had spent the last six months acquiring signatures for had failed. Palmer, a warehouse associate in packing, was working a shift packing and loading orders onto conveyor belts. Chris Smalls, the president of Amazon Labor Union (ALU), broke the news.

“I was devastated and I felt like it wasn’t fair,” said Palmer, the union’s vice president. “But at the same time, you’ve got to expect the unexpected in Amazon.”

ALU organizers withdrew the petition to the National Labor Relations Board on November 12 after being alerted that they didn’t have enough valid signatures to allow the board to start a vote about union representation. They must have at least 30% of workers sign union-authorization certificates. The ALU had filed the petition on October 25, believing they had union cards from a third of the warehouse’s 5,500 workers. Amazon contacted NLRB to confirm that the warehouse actually had more than 9,600 workers. The ALU plans to resubmit the petition within the next month.

According to the union, its count was not a rough estimate but a precise number from trusted sources. Amazon is creating its own rules for the 4,100-name discrepancy.

Chris Smalls also blamed the location’s high turnover rate, more than 150% a year, for invalidating hundreds of the petition’s signatures, as those workers are no longer employed by Amazon. According to the ALU, many of those who signed union cards were fired.

Because of the inevitable attrition caused by anti-union campaigns and management, it is important to have at least 70% of a unit signed up before you can ask for a vote on representation. Smalls states that the ALU will go ahead once it has reached the minimum of 30% because of the high turnover rate.

“With a higher percentage, of course you have better chances. But when you deal with a company like this, it’s impossible to get. I’ll be here for two years,” the ALU president told The Indypendent. He says the union’s plan is to get the minimum number of cards signed and approach an election campaign in sucker-punch style, quickly bringing the union message to the thousands of workers who would need to be persuaded before a vote.

“The union has trouble figuring out who is actually in the unit because there’s night shifts, and there’s people who are in the unit but might be working off site or something like that,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara. “So, A, they keep it sort of secret, they don’t let you know how many are actually in the unit. Then ‘B, they flood the unit. That’s what they did at Bessemer… and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what they’re doing right now in Staten Island.”

The recent developments in Staten Island provide a near “mirror image,” according to Palmer, of the tactics used by Amazon earlier this year to fight unionization at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, exposing parts of the company’s effective — and sometimes illegal — anti-union playbook and providing a valuable learning experience for the ALU.

Another union-busting tactic is “captive-audience meetings,” where workers are forced to listen to anti-union propaganda. Amazon held them every day in Bessemer, and also placed anti-union messages on the insides of toilet doors. ViceRecently released audio from a captive-audience meeting that was held in the Staten Island Warehouse has been leaked.

“We continue to be a target for third parties who do not understand our pro-employee philosophy and seek to disrupt the direct relationship between Amazon and our associates,” said the operations manager at the meeting. A member of the ALU quickly pointed out that organizers are workers, not a third party group.

By a margin of 1,798-738, the workers from Bessemer voted against joining RWDSU. But on Nov. 29, the NLRB ordered a new election, on the grounds that Amazon had tainted the vote by setting up a mailbox to send in ballots inside a tent emblazoned with the company’s anti- union slogan.

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Amazon’s punishing workload and the harsh conditions in its warehouses are well known. Shifts last no less than 10 hours and overtime is mandatory during holidays. There are many injuries and the COVID-19 safety rules are not followed properly. Chris Smalls, who had been with the company for five year, was fired in March 2020. He made public his concerns about Staten Island not providing personal protective equipment to employees.

The pace is fast, with workers’ every move tracked by a computer. Numerous Amazon workers have said that they urinate in bottles to avoid being penalized for five minutes “time off task.” Shifts are spent scanning, packing, moving carts or loading packages onto docks. JFK8, one of the four warehouses within the Staten Island complex is twice the size of a football field.

“Breaks in this building are a nightmare because by the time it takes to get to the place where you need to be, your break’s already half over, and then by the time the break’s over, you’re already late,” says Josiah Morgan, an ALU organizer who has been working at the warehouse since March. Management recently reduced the break time from 20 minutes to 15 minutes.

“There’s definitely a racial issue going on,” says Derrick Palmer, who is also the founder of the Congress of Essential Workers, an organization that supports the rights of the working class throughout New York.

According to a June New York TimesAccording to a report, 60% of JFK8 warehouse workers were Black or Latino in 2019. Black workers were nearly 50% more likely be fired than their white counterparts. 70% of the management was Asian or white.

“Race is probably one reason why we don’t get the support that we deserve. But it is what it is, you know, I mean, of course people are not gonna support us because of that,” Smalls told The Indy.

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The main difference between the Staten Island drive and the Bessemer drive is that, while the Bessemer workers tried to join the RWDSU (a large national union), the Staten Island workers have formed their own.

After the RWDSU’s defeat in Bessemer, workers at the Staten Island’s four Amazon warehouses saw having their own union as a way to build a more resilient, grass-roots campaign. They created the ALU in spring last year.

There are now approximately 2,500 workers who have signed up, and a committee of over 150 members. Every day, a group of organizers are on the ground in the Staten Island warehouses. They report that they have had a positive response. However, they believe that the real issue will come down to beating the turnover rate.

ALU organizers set up a tent outside JFK8 warehouse. They bring pizza to workers during shift change, hold nighttime bonfires and barbecues and offer free weed. They also host gatherings while handing out union pamphlets, gaining signatures for petitions to the NLRB, and passing out union pamphlets.

On Thanksgiving, the ALU held a potluck dinner outside the facility for workers “trapped in a warehouse.” In late November, when a warehouse worker was hit and killed by a car while leaving the facility, it held a vigil in her honor. After a hard 10-12 hour shift, it is nice to have a warm meal before the three-hour journey back to New Jersey or Bronx. “Most people take public transportation to get here,” said Josiah Morgan. “I know one girl who travels from White Plains.”

Every half an hour, buses from the city pull up in front warehouses. A long line of workers forms and then disperses towards one of the warehouses. Smalls is often present to greet them, while other workers organize themselves on the inside or outside during breaks.

While the bottom-up approach is not supported by large unions such as the RWDSU, it has the potential to create a stronger core of organised workers, according Ellen Dichner (labor lawyer and distinguished lecturer at City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies).

“As a whole, running union campaigns like this requires a lot of money and a lot of expertise, which usually workers who’ve not had experience organizing lack,” she said. “On the other hand, they’re the folks that are in constant contact with their coworkers, and having that inside organizing campaign of the workers is instrumental, absolutely instrumental.” By having a union created by workers themselves, Dichner adds, the ALU will have an easier time refuting Amazon’s casting unions as an outside third party only eager to take workers’ money for dues, something she thinks the Bessemer effort failed at.

Amazonians United was also founded in Chicago by six workers in 2019. It was formed in response to a fight on the shop floor to force management to provide clean water at a local warehouse. It has evolved into a network that is decentralized and active in many cities, including New York. Its organizers are known for building strong working relationships with workers. They are focused on leading shop-floor struggles that result in better working conditions. Long-term goals include building a network to organize Amazon workers and ensuring greater victories.

The International Brotherhood of the Teamsters declared in June that organizing Amazon was a top priority. The Teamsters have more than 1.3 million members — 10 times as many as RWDSU — and an annual budget of more than $200 million.

For the Teamsters, Amazon’s rapid growth presents both an opportunity and a direct threat to their base of workers in the trucking and warehousing industries. They represent 340,000 UPS workers. The union has launched a nationwide outreach campaign featuring Teamster members speaking directly to Amazon workers about benefits of union jobs that often pay at least twice as much than the $15-17/hour that is the norm at Amazon.

In November, a left-leaning reform slate won the Teamsters presidency by a 2-1 margin, ousting the union’s old-guard leadership. Incoming President Sean O’Brien has vowed to pull out all the stops to win a strong new contract with UPS when the old one expires in 2023 and hold up that success to show Amazon workers what a strong union can do. Teamsters leaders suggested that the union might organize wildcat strikes at Amazon facilities in order to win recognition. This would be an alternative to relying solely on elections, which favor management.

Smalls says he wouldn’t be opposed to collaborating with the Teamsters, but indicated he didn’t have much faith in the large top-down union. He was a member before he left to work for Amazon in 2015. This was because he was unhappy about the contract it negotiated.

“I know a lot of people are like, ‘No, what about the experience?’” he says when asked about organizing a small, completely new union. “But there’s no experience, because if you’ve never worked for this company, you are not going to be able to really understand.”

“We operate like a union already,” he adds, explaining the ALU’s well-developed organizational structure. “We have everything that a union has already… besides the protections and the resources. To support us, any union will have to meet with us. And, you know, we’ll figure out a way where we can work together.”

Palmer insists that the road towards a union victory at Staten Island warehouses remains open. “We’re going to continue our efforts and we’re going to file again,” he said.

Many view the attempt to unionize mega-employers such as Amazon, Starbucks, and Walmart as potentially revolutionary. “It would be the same sort of thing as organizing General Motors or U.S. Steel in 1937, or the Montgomery bus boycott in terms of civil rights,” said Lichtenstein, author of several books on the history of labor unions in 20th century America, about the societal impact if Amazon workers were to unionize.

These efforts come at a time when polls show the highest level of public support for unions since the 1960s, although less than 11% of U.S. workers now belong to one — and less than 7% at private-sector employers. Despite that public support, the battle against Amazon and its centi-billionaire founder, to overcome the company’s sheer will to destroy any union drive, will be a long, tough one, requiring intense organizing and effective tactics.

Jane McAlevey, labor author and organizer, wrote an article in April, shortly after the Bessemer results were announced. The Nation, “Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign.” She had two main criticisms of the RWDSU effort there. Organizers only organized at the workplace gate, under Amazon’s gaze, instead of visiting workers at home (while taking precautions against COVID), and they didn’t go public with workers who promised a Yes Vote and encourage others to vote.

The exception to the labor-organizing rule that home visits are essential, she wrote, would be “if large numbers of actual Bessemer Amazon workers were the people standing at shift change at the plant gate.” That is indeed the case at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouses, where most workers arrive by bus. Many Staten Island workers have made it clear that they plan to vote for the union.

Can the ALU’s do-it-yourself organizing model or an alliance with a union such as the RWDSU or the Teamsters reverse the defeat at Bessemer and provide a solution to the challenges posed by Amazon’s union-busting tactics? We’ll learn more in the coming months and years.

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