KRWG

Amazon warehouse workers in New York file for a union vote

Oct 25, 2021
Originally published on October 25, 2021 3:55 pm

Updated October 25, 2021 at 5:38 PM ET

Amazon warehouse workers in New York have taken their first formal step toward unionization on Monday.

Organizers from Amazon's Staten Island facilities say they've collected some 2,000 signatures from warehouse workers who say they want a union election.

On Monday, about a dozen activists hand-carried four plastic containers filled with signed cards into a local labor office, petitioning it to authorize a union vote. Outside, supporters chanted pro-union slogans against the backdrop of a giant cutout of Jeff Bezos.

This labor push stands out for being unaffiliated with any national union. It's a product of a self-organized, grassroots worker group called the Amazon Labor Union, financed via GoFundMe. It is run by Chris Smalls, who led a walkout at the start of the pandemic to protest working conditions and was fired the same day.

The group is now pushing to unionize warehouses that employ an estimated 7,000 people and that pack and ship products for the massive New York market. They hope to help workers win longer breaks, better medical and other leave options and higher wages.

"We want better working conditions," Smalls told NPR on Thursday. "We want higher wages, we want longer breaks, we want better medical leave options."

The Staten Island campaign faces an uphill battle as Amazon has for decades successfully fought off labor organizing at its U.S. warehouses. The company is now the second-largest U.S. private employer after Walmart with 950,000 full- and part-time employees as of last month.

So far, the closest an Amazon warehouse has gotten to unionizing was this spring, when workers in Alabama voted on whether to join a retail union and overwhelmingly rejected unionizing. Later, a federal labor official found that Amazon's anti-union campaign tainted that election, and Alabama workers now await a ruling on whether they get a revote.

"Amazon's been around for 27 years, and all these established unions have been around, that have the expertise, the money, the resources," Smalls told NPR. "If it (unionizing) was that simple, it would have been done already, so maybe it's something that's different that needs to be done, and not the traditional way."

Amazon in its latest statement argued that unions were not "the best answer" for workers: "Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes — quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle."

Workers have also filed labor complaints

The Staten Island warehouse cluster has been among the most active Amazon facilities. Since the walkout and protest in March 2020, workers have also filed 10 labor complaints, alleging that Amazon has interfered with their organizing efforts. The National Labor Relations Board says its lawyers have found some merit in three of them and continue to investigate others.

New York's attorney general is also pursuing a legal case over Smalls' firing. Smalls alleges that Amazon fired him as retaliation for his activism. Amazon says he had violated quarantine and safety measures. A top corporate executive also had to apologize after Vice News reported on leaked notes from a meeting with founder Jeff Bezos in which Smalls, who is Black, was described as "not smart, or articulate," prompting accusations of racism.

Since April, Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union have been collecting Staten Island worker signatures in favor of a union vote by holding barbecues, handing out water and coffee as people leave work and setting up fire pits with s'mores.

Smalls says Amazon, for its part, has begun posting anti-union signs around the warehouses and even mounted a fence with barbed wire to restrict the organizers' space. The company did not comment on those allegations.

"I know I'm excited, but also exhausted, so I don't know how to feel right now," Smalls said, as he drove boxes with coveted signatures — "more valuable the money" — to the Brooklyn NRLB office Monday.

Labor rules require organizers to show support from at least 30% of the workers they seek to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board officials will scrutinize eligibility of the collected signatures, among other things.

NPR's Taylor Haney contributed to this report.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Will Amazon beat back another attempt by workers to unionize? Well, a new Amazon unionization effort is underway in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Amazon, Amazon, you should know. Union busting's got to go. Amazon, Amazon, you should know.

MCCAMMON: Organizers from a Staten Island warehouse formally petitioned federal officials to authorize a union vote. NPR's Alina Selyukh is in New York, and she joins us now. And we should note that Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

Alina, welcome.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello, hello.

MCCAMMON: Tell us more about this union push.

SELYUKH: The most remarkable aspect here, I think, is the fact that this is a self-organized, independent worker campaign. Usually, a major union provides the backing for workers who want to go up against a major company, a big one like Amazon. But these workers from Staten Island have decided to go it alone in a grassroots campaign, trying to organize a cluster of warehouses there, where they estimate about 7,000 people work. The organizers call themselves the Amazon Labor Union. And today, about a dozen of them handed to labor officials here in Brooklyn four small plastic tubs filled with cards signed by warehouse workers who say they want a union vote. The group estimates they have about 2,000 signatures, which they think would be enough to authorize such an election.

MCCAMMON: So, Alina, you say there is no major union behind this group. Who, then, is organizing these workers?

SELYUKH: The president of the group is Chris Smalls. He's a former Amazon worker who's been kind of a central figure here. Early in the pandemic last year, he helped stage a protest and a walkout to protest working conditions. And that same day, Amazon fired him. The New York attorney general is now pursuing a legal case over that. And I spent much of today with Smalls, who has been camping out by the warehouses for six months, rallying about a hundred other organizers from the warehouses and filling his car with all the necessities.

CHRIS SMALLS: Do we have a grill? Yeah, we grill. We have a barbecue pit, a fire pit. We make s'mores for the workers at night, hand out hot chocolate, coffee.

SELYUKH: And all of that lives in your car.

SMALLS: All of this lives in my car.

SELYUKH: Also in his car are coolers, pamphlets, a speaker, a generator and those coveted union petitions.

MCCAMMON: He is ready to go. What's prompting this organizing push right now, Alina?

SELYUKH: In the past few years, Amazon's warehouse workforce has really ballooned across the country. And as it's grown into the second largest private employer in the U.S., more workers have been speaking out about working conditions there. And this particular warehouse in Staten Island has been fairly active in recent years. Early, like I mentioned, they had organized that walkout - pandemic related. And then since then, they've filed about 10 labor complaints against Amazon. So far, the National Labor Relations Board has found some merit in at least three of them. Smalls says their specific goals are to help workers win longer breaks, better medical leave options and higher wages.

MCCAMMON: So this unionization push is moving forward. But, Alina, how likely is it to succeed?

SELYUKH: It's going to be quite the challenge. Amazon has, for decades, successfully fought off labor organizing at its U.S. warehouses. The closest a warehouse has gotten so far was earlier this year in the spring, when workers in Alabama voted on whether to join a retail union. And they voted overwhelmingly against unionizing. Later, a federal labor official did find that Amazon's anti-union campaign tainted that election, so now Alabama workers might get a ruling to get a revote.

When I asked Smalls about why he thinks his group would succeed where a professional union didn't, he says they wanted to try something different.

SMALLS: You know, Amazon's been around for 27 years. And all these established unions have been around that had the expertise, the money, the resources. If it was that simple, it would have been done already. So maybe it's something that's different that needs to be done in not the traditional way. And I don't think that we organize traditionally. We do it our way. And our way is from a worker-led cooperative and from the inside out.

MCCAMMON: And what is Amazon saying about all this?

SELYUKH: In their latest statement, the company simply argued that unions were not the best answer for workers, saying it makes changes, improvements pretty quickly. And that would be harder to do with unions in the middle. And certainly the company is expected to challenge the signatures and other organizational efforts that Smalls has done so far.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Alina Selyukh, thank you.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.