Grassroots labor group takes on Amazon in NYC union fight
Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island will determine whether or not they want to form a union. Thursday afternoon saw the vote count begin. It is not yet known when the results will be announced. The count could continue into Friday.
In New York the nascent Amazon Labor Union is leading the charge in a fierce labor battle. The nation’s second largest private employer has made every effort against labor organizers and Chris Smalls (a fired Amazon employee) who now leads the fledging group. Smalls expressed hope for victory, but said that celebrations would have had to wait.
” We don’t want be too confident and think we’ve won.” He said, noting that his group had not planned any celebrations right away. A small group of Amazon employees has planned to gather at an Brooklyn art gallery to remotely count the votes.
” This has been a long road for me, so I’m just happy that we were able get to this point.” Smalls stated.
The warehouse in Staten Island employs more than 8,300 workers, who pack and ship supplies to customers based mostly in the Northeast. It is difficult to win a labor victory. However, organizers believe that their grassroots approach is more accessible to workers and could help them overcome past failures of established unions.
Meanwhile, Amazon has pushed back hard. The retail giant held mandatory meetings where workers were told that unions were a bad idea. The company also created an anti-union website for workers, and placed English and Spanish posters throughout Staten Island asking them to reject the union.
New York has a higher labor-friendly rating than Alabama, which is hosting the other union election. However, some experts believe that this won’t make a significant difference in the outcome. They cite federal labor laws that favor employers and Amazon’s anti union stance.
“The employer and the key thing are the same,” Ruth Milkman, a sociologe of labor and labor movements at City University of New York, said. “Amazon is resisting this with everything it’s got.”
The ALU said they don’t have a demographic breakdown of the warehouse workers in Staten Island and Amazon declined to provide the information to The Associated Press, citing the union vote. Internal records leaked to The New York Times from 2019 showed more than 60% of the hourly associates at the facility were Black or Latino, while most of managers were white or Asian. It’s not clear how the facility’s high turnover rate could have affected things.
Amazon workers often travel from across the New York metro area by subway and then take a 40-minute long public bus ride to get to the warehouse. Nearby, organizers have placed signs encouraging workers to vote for the union. One sign reads, “WE’RE NOT MACHINES, WE’RE HUMAN BEINGS”, referring to worker complaints about long shifts as well as the company’s “time-off task” tool that punishes employees for taking too much time off.
Among other things, Staten Island workers are seeking longer breaks, paid time off for injured employees and an hourly wage of $30, up from a minimum of just over $18 per hour offered by the company. A spokesperson for Amazon said the company invests in wages and benefits, such as health care, 401(k) plans and a prepaid college tuition program to help grow workers’ careers. A spokesperson for Amazon stated in an email that unions are not the best solution for employees. “Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”
ALU organizers say they’re optimistic about their chances at pulling off a win, but challenges remain.
To hold the election, organizers collected signatures from about 30% of eligible voters, which is the legal threshold. Typically, unions attempt to secure support from 60% or more of eligible workers before filing for an election. This is done to protect against any loss of support that could occur when employers intensify efforts to persuade workers to join unions.
Connor Spence is the vice president of membership at ALU. Spence said organizers decided not to pursue this strategy due to high turnover.
ALU lacks official backing from major unions. These unions are well-staffed and financially stable. Smalls, the leader, said his group has spent $100,000 it raised since it formed last year. As of early March, he said it had only about $3,000 left in its account and was operating on a week-to-week budget.
Two unions, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and Unite Here, have stepped in and provided office space and a lawyer to aid organizers.
Pro-union employees also ramped up efforts. Michelle Valentin Nieves, a warehouse worker, claims she had been quietly supporting the union push, but when the ALU won an election, she decided she wanted to be more visible and stayed late after her shifts in order to distribute pro-union flyers. Some Amazon managers reacted hostilely to her organizing.
” I get the death stares,” Nieves said. “Some people have just stopped speaking to me.”
Already, organizers have filed several complaints with the NLRB against the company, citing unfair labor practices, including surveillance of pro-union employees.
Other warehouse workers like 22-year-old Elijah Ramos said they planned to vote against the union, doubting the ALU can get Amazon to agree to higher wages and other benefits. Ramos stated that he doesn’t believe organizers have enough experience to represent his interests.
Although he thinks a union could bring good things, Ramos said it also might constantly butt heads with the company and create more complications. He stated that it is better to deal now with what we have than to deal later with something we don’t know.
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