Amazon has suspended 50 workers in Staten Island, New York, after workers at the only unionized Amazon warehouse in the U.S. waged a work stoppage in protest of being forced to work after a fire broke out in a compactor in the warehouse.
According to the union, per The Washington Post, the company has suspended 10 union leaders and another 40 workers who participated in the work stoppage. The suspensions, which the company says will be paid, will last until an investigation is conducted into the protest.
Over 650 night shift workers stopped working on Monday in protest of unsafe working conditions, saying they could still smell smoke and had difficulty breathing in the warehouse, according to Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which workers at the warehouse voted to join earlier this year. Even after one worker went to the hospital, management threatened workers with termination if they didn’t return to work, union officials said.
“Amazon associates at JFK8 had our lives placed at risk yesterday, and this isn’t the first time. Yesterday’s safety and health risk, a fire, is but one example of why we voted to form a union, so we can have a real voice on crucial issues which impact all associates every day,” the union wrote in a statement following the suspensions, demanding that the company recognize and begin bargaining with ALU.
The union says that workers had demanded to see the fire department report or information on what was happening with the fire, but were stonewalled by the company. ALU plans on filing an unfair labor practice charge over the suspensions.
“We will not tolerate any unsafe workplace and we will not tolerate intimidation,” the union said, ending with a call for the company to “STOP STALLING AND START NEGOTIATING!”
Amazon has yet to recognize the union, and has tried to challenge the results of the election. Last month, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) official recommended that the company’s objections be “rejected in their entirety,” a recommendation that the board is likely to follow.
The company said in a statement on Monday that day shift workers had been sent home and that the fire department had certified that the building was safe to work in before night shift workers reported to work. The union says that the company’s claims about the incident are false.
“It’s a shame that due to Amazon’s lack of safety protocols, workers had to take a stand, because they were not feeling as though the company took [the fire] as seriously as they should have,” ALU President Christian Smalls told The Washington Post.
The suspensions come just over a week before workers near Albany, New York, are slated to vote on joining ALU.
The union and organizing workers have continually raised concerns about Amazon’s safety protocols. Amazon went through a similar incident in March, when the unionizing warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, filled with a smoky, mysterious gas. Workers continued working as the gas disseminated on the warehouse floor, with no word from management, and evacuated by word of mouth as emergency vehicles arrived on the scene. The gas was later determined to be vaporized oil from a malfunctioning compressor.
Amazon warehouses are disproportionately dangerous when compared to other warehouses in the U.S. Last year, nearly 50 percent of warehouse injuries occurred at an Amazon warehouse, despite the company only employing about 33 percent of warehouse workers nationwide.
In a report released after a tornado ripped through an Amazon warehouse in Illinois last year, federal workplace safety officials determined that the company technically meets legal safety requirements, but at a bare minimum level. Progressive lawmakers and union organizers have demanded that the company increase its safety standards and put workers’ safety first, rather than strict quotas.