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Labor Leaders Vow United Front Against Amazon Amid New Warehouse Union Election

Workers at the LDJ5 Amazon sorting center voted 618-380 against unionization, according to a final NLRB tally.

Sen. Bernie Sanders joins Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls at a rally on the eve of the union election for the LDJ5 Amazon sorting center on April 24, 2022, in Staten Island, New York. Smalls successfully organized the JFK8 Amazon fulfillment center across the street, making it the first Amazon warehouse to unionize.

Ballots will be counted today at a second, 1,500-worker Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, that began voting last week on whether to unionize with the independent, worker-led Amazon Labor Union (ALU) led by retaliatorily terminated Amazon employee Chris Smalls.

A win at the warehouse, known as LDJ5, would build on ALU’s stunning April 1 victory at the larger, 8,000-worker JFK8 warehouse just across the street, forming a second unionized workplace at the second-largest private employer in the United States. A victory would cement ALU’s place as a leading force in the U.S. labor movement that could set the path of union organizing for years to come.

Amazon is seeking to overturn the results of the election at JFK8, accusing ALU of coercing workers to support the union by offering them marijuana in an “impermissible grant of support” for votes, according to filings obtained by The New York Times. The company also alleges ALU “intentionally created hostile confrontations,” among other objections, including that a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional office overseeing the election “unfairly and inappropriately facilitated the [ALU’s] victory” by forcing the company to rehire a JFK8 employee named Gerald Bryson, who is now an ALU organizer. The NLRB has refuted the allegation.

Truthout was first to report ALU’s union drive at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island after the outcome of the initial Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) election at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Smalls, who was fired from JFK8 in 2020 after organizing a walkout to protest the company’s lack of COVID-19 protections, told Truthout at the time that an independent union would be more appealing to workers than RWDSU. Smalls said that, rather than a “third party coming in,” ALU — organized by former and current Amazon workers themselves — would be more likely to inspire confidence, and therefore votes.

In November, the NLRB granted a new election at the Bessemer warehouse after ruling Amazon engaged in illegal interference during the 2021 union drive. A vote in the second election, however, remains too close to call after ballots were counted in late March. The margin of the RWDSU’s apparent loss was smaller than the number of challenged ballots.

In the event of a loss at LDJ5, ALU is likely to file similar charges of illegal interference in order to seek a new election, says Office and Professional Employees International Union Senior Business Representative Seth Goldstein, who is a pro bono attorney representing ALU. He has helped file multiple unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB after LDJ5 ALU worker-organizers described being subjected to the same kinds of union-busting tactics Amazon utilized in Bessemer and JFK8.

Goldstein tells Truthout Amazon has violated the National Labor Relations Act by forcing JFK8 and LDJ5 employees to attend anti-union captive-audience meetings, disciplining organizers for protected union activities, and prohibiting the union from displaying its banner in the break rooms. Goldstein alleges Amazon, in an attempt to chill organizing efforts, gave two LDJ5 workers verbal warnings for “removing employer literature” last week.

“There’s active union-busting going on…. [Amazon is] doing everything they can to try to coerce people to vote against their interests,” Goldstein told Truthout last week, ahead of today’s ballot count. “I think people have to realize that what Amazon is trying to do is analogous to January 6 — that they don’t care about how people voted. They didn’t get the desired results, so they’re going to try to throw it out,” he said, referring to the company’s attempt to overturn election results at JFK8.

Last week, as voting began in the LDJ5 union election, Goldstein says Amazon put in place a security checkpoint that employees have to pass through in order to reach ALU organizers’ tent outside the sorting facility, making it more difficult to gain access to organizers. The company also has also displayed a video looping anti-union messages near the entrance of the warehouse, he says. An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment, but the company has repeatedly denied accusations of intimidation.

ALU has joined with the American Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers in filing a complaint with New York Attorney General Letitia James, alleging that Amazon’s anti-union efforts are in violation of the worker protection provisions of the New York State Excelsior Jobs Program, which provides tax credits for businesses that expand in or relocate to New York. The complaint asks James’s office to seek repayment of nearly $400 million in tax breaks Amazon has received through the program.

Goldstein argues Attorney General James should be able to make a quick determination against the tech giant based on at least 40 Staten Island-related unfair labor practice charges before the NLRB, which show violations of the company’s national settlement with the Board to allow its workers to freely organize, as well as the administrative law decision in the case of Bryson, the reinstated JFK8 employee.

Bryson first filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB in June 2020 after Amazon fired him three months earlier for, he alleges, protesting the company’s lack of COVID-19 protections. While Amazon has appealed the decision, an NLRB judge firmly ruled the company had violated labor law. Additionally, the Board’s general counsel recently called for a ban on the employer practice of holding mandatory anti-union meetings, saying they amount to a “license to coerce” employees to reject organizing.

“I think Amazon will learn a lesson that if you violate people’s rights under the law, and therefore violate the provisions of a law that says you have to follow the labor law, there should be consequences, and the taxpayer should get their money back,” Goldstein says.

Pressure from the state, regulators and from the Biden administration, he says, alongside worker actions including strikes, could provide the necessary leverage to force Amazon to recognize the union at JFK8, and potentially LDJ5, and get workers to the bargaining table. ALU has asked Amazon to begin contract negotiations at JFK8 this month.

LDJ5 workers are organizing on many of the same issues that catalyzed the ALU victory at JFK8, including pushing for a $30-an-hour pay, better scheduling and hours for employees, longer breaks, union representation at disciplinary meetings, an end to mandatory overtime, and increased sick and paid time off.

Amazon recently signaled willingness to make small concessions to workers on some of the ALU and employees’ basic demands when the company announced last week that it will allow its warehouse workers to keep their cellphones while they work. After six workers were killed when a tornado collapsed an Amazon warehouse in Illinois in December, workers demanded permanent access to their phones as a safety precaution. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has declined to levy any fines or other penalties over the tragedy in Illinois.

“A Multi-Union Crusade”

A new bargaining unit at LDJ5 would bolster ALU as it seeks to establish its new local, and national labor unions are closely monitoring today’s ballot count and potential results, pledging material support to ALU even as they seek their own unionization drives at Amazon.

National labor leaders including Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson, Teamsters President Sean O’Brien and American Postal Workers Union (APWU) President Mark Dimondstein rallied support for ALU alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last Sunday in Staten Island. The three have pledged financial support to cover ALU’s campaign bills, pro bono legal help, office space and communications advice.

APWU President Dimondstein told Truthout his union has offered ALU access to legal, communications and negotiations specialists and counsel, as well as monetary support once the union gets fully set up under the Department of Labor. He declined, however, to say how much funding APWU would provide.

Smalls and other ALU leaders met privately with Teamsters President O’Brien in early April, who, as Truthout has reported, ran for president of the nation’s largest private-sector Teamsters union on promises to unionize Amazon, and has also pledged similar forms of support.

“We’re advocating that the labor movement take on Amazon in a multi-union crusade,” APWU’s Dimondstein told Truthout. “And that includes the need to support the independent initiatives of ALU.”

Dimondstein said a second ALU victory — and successful contract negotiations with Amazon — would be especially meaningful to APWU members, who work in similar packing and shipping industries. Organizing Amazon’s 1.1 million U.S. employees would provide a transformational boost to union roll membership that has been steadily declining for the past 40 years.

“Any group of workers in our industry that can uplift their wages, benefits and working conditions gives us in the APWU better opportunity to continue to improve ours as well, because we’re in the same industry. The more all of us can rise, the more any one group of us can rise,” Dimondstein said.

Leading labor unions, however, are also pursuing their own avenues to potentially initiate union drives across different sectors of Amazon, and the possibility remains open that ALU could affiliate with a national union down the road if its uphill battle against the corporate behemoth proves too challenging for the small, fledgling union.

Still, Dimondstein and labor leaders have said they remain steadfastly committed to ALU’s independence. The APWU’s support, Dimondstein emphasized, comes with “no strings attached.”

“We don’t want jurisdictional arguments to get in the way of taking on this powerful, wealthy company,” he says. “And, you know, maybe those jurisdictional arguments and that narrow view of how to build the union movement, or rebuild it, I should say more precisely — maybe that’s why [unions represent] only 6[.1] of the private-sector workforce in this country.”

With major unions eyeing their own inroads at the company, and preliminary, worker-led efforts already underway at Amazon facilities in New Jersey, North Carolina, New Mexico and elsewhere to form independent unions, Dimondstein suggested the coming tidal wave of union organizing may necessitate a larger council of locals organized at Amazon — something ALU attorney Goldstein agreed would be necessary to successfully organize and align a patchwork of separate unions.

Unions can also simply work together on the same union drive within a workplace, Dimondstein says. “And then they work together to get a contract, and then work together on representation and building the union, and so on. We’re wide open to all of those scenarios.”

“The Rubber Has to Meet the Road”

Unions must work together in a united front not just in opposition to Amazon, advocates say, but also in order to apply pressure to the Biden administration to take executive action to stop union-busting. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would enable more workers to form a union, remains stalled in the Senate, amplifying the need for the president to act, labor organizers say.

That’s something Senator Sanders took up on his own last week, sending a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to cut off federal contracts to Amazon until the company stops its “illegal anti-union activity.” Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, is expected to hold a hearing this week dedicated to calculating how many federal contracts go to companies that are fighting unionization efforts.

Dimondstein supports such a move, saying public money shouldn’t be used to enable union-busting. “We have a president who verbally is quite pro-union, and we’re pleased about that. But the rubber has to meet the road, and certainly Senator Sanders’s idea is worthwhile,” he said.

ALU’s Goldstein told Truthout that the Biden administration could also take action to boost transparency in employer-mandated filings under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, including employer reports disclosing their work with union-busting consultants. He also called for the NLRB to increase its use of section 10(j) injunctions, which would allow workers to obtain immediate relief in cases of unfair labor practices still under litigation, and more staffing at the NLRB and Department of Labor more widely, saying its press office could be more proactive.

More than 140 members of Congress recently called on House leaders to increase the NLRB’s budget, arguing the agency isn’t equipped to handle the surge of workplace organizing at large companies like Starbucks and Amazon.

While Goldstein praised the recent news that Democrats are considering banning its consultants from engaging in anti-union activity after it was revealed that party pollster Global Strategy Group (GSG) aided Amazon’s union-busting activity, he said Democrats must to do more to back up their pro-union rhetoric, or run the risk of alienating workers.

“The Democrats can’t be saying one thing to unions and still be tied to Big Tech; that’s how Democrats lose elections,” Goldstein says. “If Amazon refuses to bargain [with ALU], will [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi sell her … Amazon stock?”

Goldstein called out outgoing Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s ties to GSG as its former senior vice president and managing director during the Obama years and President Biden’s cozy relationship with Amazon’s senior vice president of global corporate affairs, Jay Carney, who has been sending Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, messages about “perceived slights” against the company. Carney was director of communications for Biden when he was vice president.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the White House is in talks with workers from ALU and Starbucks Workers United, which is behind the unionization of more than 40 Starbucks locations since December, about a potential White House visit. The talks come after Senator Sanders pressed the Biden administration to invite workers at the Staten Island rally last Sunday.

A victory at LDJ5, Goldstein says, would help build pressure on the administration to follow through on the potential invite and take executive action to help workers fighting to organize their workplaces. But the union drive and push for contract negotiations, he says, is more than just a test for Democrats; it’s a test of “whether or not democracy still exists in the United States.”

Even if organizers at LDJ5 do not win the union vote, the loss may not slow the tide of union organizing already catalyzed by JFK8’s victory, Goldstein says. “The time has changed regardless of what happens at LDJ5. We hope we win, … but regardless, what was done in JFK8 has changed the world.”