Staten Island Amazon Warehouse Workers Get Union Vote, Board Rules

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Federal officials ruled that Staten Island Amazon warehouse workers — who have been organizing to form a union for nearly a year — have enough support to hold a vote. 

The Wednesday decision comes after the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) — an independent union led by grassroots organizer and former Amazon employee Chris Smalls — withdrew its original petition for a union vote and refiled it in December 2021. A representative for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal body overseeing the nation’s unions, confirmed that the ALU “reached a sufficient showing of interest” to hold a vote. 

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The multibillion-dollar e-commerce giant might see not one, but two union elections this year, as warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., begin a do-over election next week for almost 6,200 employees eligible to vote, NPR reported. Workers in Bessemer voted against forming a union in spring 2021, but the NLRB later overturned the results, finding that Amazon violated labor law by interfering with the election to make it appear that the corporate giant controlled the process.

The results of the Bessemer election are expected to come out in March, NPR reported. On Staten Island, Amazon, the labor organizers and the NLRB will meet Feb. 16 to discuss the vote and size of the potential bargaining unit. The ALU is seeking a bargaining unit of 5,000 hourly full-time and regular part-time fulfillment center workers, according to NPR. 

The union drive began last April 2021 after the site, known as the JFK8, came under scrutiny for a lack of COVID-19 safety precautions. Attorney General Letitia James later sued Amazon for its COVID-19 cleaning policies and for wrongfully firing a worker for bringing up safety concerns. Amazon previously told Commercial Observer that the suit was not an accurate depiction of its safety protocols at the site.  

Smalls led a protest outside the Staten Island facility in March 2020, demanding better cleaning protocols, and was fired days later, which he said was in retaliation for his strike. Smalls and Derrick Palmer, a current Amazon employee and now the vice president of the ALU, began organizing a union drive shortly thereafter and filed charges against the e-commerce company for building a fence that forced organizers to relocate.

The Staten Island union organizers filed for a vote in late October 2021 but, after the NLRB told them they did not have enough support for an election, they withdrew their petition 10 days before the ALU’s hearing. An Amazon spokesperson cast doubt on the union’s support in a statement on Thursday.

“We’re skeptical that there are a sufficient number of legitimate signatures and we’re seeking to understand how these signatures were verified,” Kelly Nantel, Amazon’s national media relations director, said in a statement. “Our employees have always had a choice of whether or not to join a union, and as we saw just a few months ago, the vast majority of our team in Staten Island did not support the ALU.”

The NLRB requires about 30 percent of employees to sign union authorization cards to call an election, and organizers had about 20 percent in November 2021, The Washington Post reported. Smalls said that more than 2,500 workers signed union cards expressing their support for an election.

Smalls’ top priorities are improving health, safety, job security and wages for workers. If the union is recognized, he hopes to advocate for longer breaks, more paid time off and medical leave, hazard pay, more advance notice of overtime scheduling and making the workers shareholders in the company, he told CO. 

“We’re going to celebrate today but tomorrow we’re right back to work,” Smalls told CO. “We know what to expect already [from Amazon] because of Bessemer and are definitely going to be aware of what’s to come. But right now, our main focus is to continue to build with our workers.

“Amazon is going to do what they are going to do,” he added. “We know we have a long battle ahead.”

Celia Young can be reached at cyoung@commercialobserver.com.