In four plastic tubs in a tent next to a bus stop on Staten Island there are stacks of cards with valuable autographs: the signatures of more than 1,700 Amazon employees every hour.
“I, the undersigned, authorize the Amazon Labor Union to represent me in collective bargaining,” it said on the cards.
The commitments are the result of six months of organization at Amazon’s only fulfillment center in New York City. Organizers expect hundreds more to join by Monday if they want to run for a union election.
If the National Labor Relations Board approves their motion, it could bring the second union vote at an Amazon warehouse in less than a year. In April, Amazon defeated a union election at its Bessemer, Alabama camp in the largest union threat the company has faced in its history. The workers’ efforts attracted national attention, including visits from Senator Bernie Sanders and a silent nod of support from President Biden.
In contrast to Alabama Drive, which was operated by a national retail trade union, which in Staten Island is being organized by current and former Amazon workers with the aim of creating a new independent union called the Amazon Labor Union. The drive is led by Christian Smalls, a former camp employee who became the face of workers’ unrest at the company last year.
The union reorganization reflects the growing worker challenges Amazon and other major employers are facing in the wake of the pandemic has given workers the upper hand across the economic spectrum for the first time in decades. Unleashed by the shock of the pandemic in their daily lives, workers have gone on strike at John Deere and with plants that do Oreos and other nabisco snacks as well as Kellogg cereals such as Frosted Flakes, and almost went off set in Hollywood. And have employees at some Starbucks locations registered to form a union.
At Amazon, the problem is compounded by its ambitions. It has 1.3 million employees and plans to hire nearly 300,000 seasonal and permanent employees on an hourly basis in the US this fall alone. Amazon has raised wages and announced that it is “the best employer in the world”. His employment model, however, with such a high turnover Executives fear that the American workforce is running out – was under pressure even before the pandemic.
However, the campaign in Staten Island faces many hurdles. The task force must determine whether enough valid signatures have been collected to show a significant interest in an election. And, as the Alabama vote showed, support can erode over time. Amazon has pushed back, promoted its $ 15 minimum wage and benefits, and Workers opposed the union by a wide margin. Some from Amazons Anti-union action prompted an official from the working committee to recommend that the results be discarded and that the elections against which Amazon has appealed be repeated.
Mr. Smalls and others behind the advance said they hoped their insider status would give them an advantage. You were able to build up support with colleagues and have the right to use rooms and means of communication that only employees can use. Workers supporting the union initiative wore shirts and masks with the union logo inside the building, put literature in the break room and posted it on internal forums.
“It’s difficult to get a worker to sign a card,” said Mr. Smalls. “It’s more difficult to have a conversation when you’re a third party than someone who works in the company.”
Kelly Nantel, a company spokeswoman, said Amazon doesn’t think unions are the best answer for its employees.
“Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do, we want to make those changes – and quickly,” she said in a statement. “This type of continuous improvement is more difficult, fast and agile with unions in the middle.”
She added that the company has made “great strides” in terms of pay and security in recent years.
The union effort follows a dramatic 18 months in the huge Staten Island warehouse known as JFK8, which serves as Amazon’s main pipeline to New York City.
At the start of the pandemic, after Mr. Smalls organized a protest against security conditions, Amazon fired him. The company said that by attending the event, he violated a company’s quarantine regulation because he was exposed to a sick colleague.
Leaked Notes from the meeting recorded by the company’s top lawyer named Mr. Smalls, who is Black, “not smart or articulate”. Amazon’s actions have been publicly condemned, with a New York Attorney General’s lawsuit accusing the company of retaliation and allegations of racism, all of which Amazon denies. The attorney later apologized and said he was unaware of Mr. Smalls’ race at the time.
Even as the layoff hit the headlines, Derrick Palmer, Mr. Smalls’ best friend, stayed at the 5,000-employee facility, one of the largest in the country, promising to change it from the inside out. A New York Times detection That summer, the warehouse turned out to be an example of Amazon’s employment model: it attracted employees with solid wages and benefits, but burned the workers, subjugated them Problems like erroneous layoffs and offered limited opportunities for advancement.
Even before the pandemic, Amazon’s turnover among its workforce was around 150 percent per year, almost twice as high as that of retail and logistics as a whole.
Just a month after the Alabama vote failed last spring, Mr. Smalls and Mr. Palmer began organizing JFK8. Amazon was quick to respond by sending notifications and running messages on TV screens in central areas and on signs in the toilet cubicles. “ALU has inexperienced leadership and no experience in negotiating for employees,” read one Break room sign.
Ms. Nantel said Amazon provided materials to educate workers about the facts of union membership and the electoral process itself.
Understand Amazon’s employment system
Since mid-May, JFK8 workers have filed nine cases with the labor office alleging Amazon illegally interfering with their organizing rights, from confiscating union-friendly brochures they left in the break room to monitoring where they were on one Gathered sidewalk. The labor office’s lawyers have found the charges of illegal interference to be justified in three cases and are investigating the others, according to the agency.
Ms. Nantel declined to comment on the cases.
The union push, Smalls said, is largely funded by a $ 20,000 GoFundMe account, which he said was used to purchase groceries, t-shirts, and an all-terrain vehicle to carry their supplies. The organizers held barbecues outside the facility and set up a fire pit nearby to keep warm while recruiting workers for the night shift.
“We are able to connect with the workers and really choose their brains for what they want us to implement,” said Palmer. “It’s very personal because we’re still at Amazon – I’m still employed.”
Last Thursday, Mr. Smalls, dressed from head to toe in red, white and black – what he says would be the colors of an Amazon union – waited at the bus stop for workers to get on their shifts.
Quron Olive, 23, rolled his longboard to the warehouse before his shift started at 4:30 p.m. He started at Amazon after his pandemic-era federal unemployment benefit ran out in September. Despite not seeing a career at Amazon, he decided to sign a union ID.
“I’d rather be part of the people who are trying to make it a better experience for them than just taking care of myself,” said Mr. Olive.
Another worker at the warehouse, Jean Valeur, commutes two hours at a time from the Bronx. He started working for Amazon in early October and hadn’t yet signed the union’s petition because he didn’t want to miss the bus.
This time he left his shift and went out with a friend to wait for the bus. After seeing his friend sign the union’s petition, Mr. Valeur decided that the facility would benefit from organizing workers.
“In the times we find ourselves in,” he said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Mr. Smalls and Mr. Palmer initially only focused on JFK8. But they plan to hold elections at three other Amazon warehouses in the same industrial park: a building where workers sort packages for delivery and two stations where drivers pick up boxes and fan them out to deliver.
Wilma B. Liebman, chair of the working committee under former President Barack Obama, said the history of independent unions goes back a century. Over time, they often join larger unions in a long, bloody struggle.
She said that established unions have more resources, both financially and experience, but that workers’ organizers have “many advantages because they can work and talk side by side with people”.
She added, “It can be very successful and it could fail.”