Workers at Staten Island Amazon Warehouse File to Hold Union Election
More than 2,000 of the 7,000 or so employed at the 546 Gulf Avenue site, known as JFK8, signed union cards that were delivered to the NLRB’s Brooklyn offices, the first step to kick off forming a union after months of campaigning by former and current Amazon workers, according to Chris Smalls, the president of the Amazon Labor Union.
“Most workers realize that Amazon is not upholding the things that they preach,” Smalls told Commercial Observer in an interview last week. “With the union, they feel that they can come to us with real grievances [and] that we really fight for them.”
The filing will likely kick off a long battle between organizers and the e-commerce giant, which was found to have illegally interfered with a union election in Bessemer, Ala., earlier this year.
For a union election to be held, the NLRB must first certify that at least 30 percent of employees support the petition to hold one, according to the federal agency. Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel cast doubt that the Staten Island workers received enough union supporters to hold an election, the spokesperson said in a statement to CO.
“We’re skeptical that a sufficient number of legitimate employee signatures has been secured to warrant an election,” Nantel said in a statement. “If there is an election, we want the voice of our employees to be heard and look forward to it. Our focus remains on listening directly to our employees and continuously improving on their behalf.”
Amazon’s business model often results in a revolving door of workers, making it more difficult to garner support for a union with high turnover, Smalls said. Before the pandemic started, the turnover among Amazon’s workforce was roughly 150 percent a year, The New York Times reported.
“They see their co-workers get hired and fired all the time,” said Smalls. “That’s the reason why time is of the essence. We want to get this done as soon as possible.”
Amazon has also attempted to make it difficult to recruit workers to the union by allegedly putting up a fence to separate organizers from warehouse staffers, relocating recruitment events away from the facility and putting up signs discouraging employees from joining the union, Smalls said.
Derrick Palmer, another union advocate and current Amazon employee, filed charges against the tech giant with the NLRB about the fence and anti-union messages in May, but Palmer’s attorney withdrew the case in August. (A spokesperson for the NLRB did not respond to a request for comment on why the case was dismissed.)
Another employee also alleged that they were interrogated about their union leanings by a person working for the company, CO reported. Smalls said he’s filed around a dozen charges with the NLRB against Amazon in total.
If Smalls is successful, the NLRB will work with both the Amazon Labor Union and the tech giant to determine when and where to host an election and who will be eligible to vote. Smalls said he is filing for JFK8, a Staten Island fulfillment center, and three surrounding facilities as well.
Amazon could take an alternate path and voluntarily recognize the union outside of the NLRB process, though given the company’s history it seems unlikely the billion-dollar company would choose to recognize the Amazon Labor Union.
The online ordering giant decided not to recognize a union in Bessemer, Ala., even after 3,000 employees signed union cards. The vote failed in April when only 738 out of the 3,125 workers voted to form a union, CNBC reported.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which fought to represent warehouse workers in Alabama, alleged that Amazon threatened workers through mandatory meetings and emails, saying unionization would lead to a loss of business at the facility that could cause layoffs or a shutdown. A NLRB official later found that those tactics violated labor law by interfering in the union election and recommended a do-over.
Smalls and two current Amazon employees said they’ve experienced treatment similar to Bessemer workers at Amazon’s facility on Staten Island, CO reported. But it was how employees are treated in their daily duties that Smalls is looking to change.
He said he will advocate for a $30-an-hour minimum wage, more paid time off and making employees shareholders in the company. Amazon offers a $15 hourly minimum wage for warehouse staff, although it raised its average starting wage to $18 an hour for around 125,000 workers in tight labor markets in September. (It’s unclear if Amazon would give New Yorkers workers that bump.)
Smalls started advocating for a union after he led a March 2020 strike outside the Staten Island facility, demanding better cleaning protocols after coworkers tested positive for the coronavirus. He was fired days later — an act he said was in retaliation for his protest. His strike helped spur New York Attorney General Letitia James to sue the company in February over its coronavirus protocols at the warehouse.
James’ lawsuit claimed that Amazon failed to disinfect portions of the warehouse after an employee tested positive for the coronavirus, wrongly fired a worker who brought up safety concerns to the company, and had a deficient contact tracing procedure. (Amazon previously told CO James’ suit does not present an “accurate picture” of its safety protocols at its warehouses.)
Despite the effort to allegedly squash its Staten Island workers from moving forward with forming a union, Amazon will now likely have to deal with Smalls regularly as the union process moves forward.
“I think this is the worst-case scenario for them — the fact that they may have to negotiate with Chris Smalls,” Smalls told CO. “I think I’m Public Enemy No. 1 when it comes to Amazon right now.”
Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from Amazon.
Celia Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.