Derrick Palmer was at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island when he heard that the petition to form a union he had spent the last six months acquiring signatures for had failed. As a warehouse associate in the packing department, Palmer was working a shift packaging and loading orders onto conveyor belts when the president of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), Chris Smalls, broke the news.
“I was devastated and I felt like it wasn’t fair,” said Palmer, the union’s vice president. “But at the same time, you’ve got to expect the unexpected in Amazon.”
On November 12, ALU organizers withdrew their petition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), as they were alerted that they did not have enough valid signatures for the board to initiate a vote on union representation. They needed to have union-authorization cards signed by at least 30% of workers at the site. The ALU had filed the petition on October 25, believing they had union cards from a third of the warehouse’s 5,500 workers. However, Amazon contacted the NLRB and said there were actually more than 9,600 workers employed in the warehouse. The ALU plans to refile the petition in the coming months.
The union says its count was not a ballpark estimate, but a concrete number from trusted sources. Whatever accounts for the 4,100-name discrepancy in headcount, Amazon is writing its own rules.
Chris Smalls also blamed the location’s high turnover rate, more than 150% a year, for invalidating hundreds of the petition’s signatures, as those workers are no longer employed by Amazon. The ALU says many of the workers who signed union cards were fired.
In organizing a union, the general rule is to sign up at least 70% of a unit before asking for a vote on union representation, because of the inevitable attrition once management cranks up an anti-union campaign. But the ALU plans to go ahead once it reaches the 30% minimum because the turnover rate means it might be impossible to reach 70%, says Smalls.
“With a higher percentage, of course you have better chances. But when you deal with a company like this, it’s impossible to get. I’ll be here for two years,” the ALU president told The Indypendent. He says the union’s plan is to get the minimum number of cards signed and approach an election campaign in sucker-punch style, quickly bringing the union message to the thousands of workers who would need to be persuaded before a vote.
“The union has trouble figuring out who is actually in the unit because there’s night shifts, and there’s people who are in the unit but might be working off site or something like that,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara. “So, A, they keep it sort of secret, they don’t let you know how many are actually in the unit. Then ‘B, they flood the unit. That’s what they did at Bessemer… and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what they’re doing right now in Staten Island.”
The recent developments in Staten Island provide a near “mirror image,” according to Palmer, of the tactics used by Amazon earlier this year to fight unionization at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, exposing parts of the company’s effective — and sometimes illegal — anti-union playbook and providing a valuable learning experience for the ALU.
Another union-busting tactic is “captive-audience meetings,” where workers are forced to listen to anti-union propaganda. Amazon held them daily in Bessemer, where it also posted anti-union messages on the inside of toilet doors. Vice recently released leaked audio from a captive-audience meeting held in the Staten Island warehouse.
“We continue to be a target for third parties who do not understand our pro-employee philosophy and seek to disrupt the direct relationship between Amazon and our associates,” said the operations manager at the meeting. An ALU member quickly pointed out that the organizers are not a third-party group, but workers themselves.
The Bessemer workers voted against joining the RWDSU by a 1,798-738 margin. But on Nov. 29, the NLRB ordered a new election, on the grounds that Amazon had tainted the vote by setting up a mailbox to send in ballots inside a tent emblazoned with the company’s anti- union slogan.
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Amazon’s punishing workload and the harsh conditions in its warehouses are well known. Shifts are never shorter than 10 hours, and during the holidays, overtime is mandatory. There is a high rate of injuries and lax COVID-19 safety measures. Chris Smalls was fired in March 2020 after working for the company for five years because he went public with criticisms about people not getting personal protective equipment at the Staten Island facility.
The pace is fast, with workers’ every move tracked by a computer. Numerous Amazon workers have said that they urinate in bottles to avoid being penalized for five minutes “time off task.” Shifts are spent scanning, packing, moving carts or loading packages onto docks. JFK8, the biggest of the four warehouses in the Staten Island complex, is the size of two football fields.
“Breaks in this building are a nightmare because by the time it takes to get to the place where you need to be, your break’s already half over, and then by the time the break’s over, you’re already late,” says Josiah Morgan, an ALU organizer who has been working at the warehouse since March. To make things worse, management recently shortened break time from 20 to 15 minutes.
“There’s definitely a racial issue going on,” says Derrick Palmer, who is also the founder of the Congress of Essential Workers, an organization that supports the rights of the working class throughout New York.
According to a June New York Times report, 60% of warehouse workers at JFK8 in 2019 were Black or Latino, and Black workers were almost 50% more likely to be fired than their white peers. Management was 70% white or Asian.
“Race is probably one reason why we don’t get the support that we deserve. But it is what it is, you know, I mean, of course people are not gonna support us because of that,” Smalls told The Indy.
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The biggest difference between the Staten Island and Bessemer drives is that while the Bessemer workers were attempting to join the RWDSU, a large national union, the Staten Island work- ers have formed their own.
After the RWDSU’s defeat in Bessemer, workers at the Staten Island’s four Amazon warehouses saw having their own union as a way to build a more resilient, grass-roots campaign. They founded the ALU last spring.
It now has around 2,500 workers signed up and an organizing committee with over 150 members. A group of organizers is on the ground at the Staten Island warehouses every day. They say they have had a largely positive response, projecting that the real issue will be beating the turnover rate.
Setting up a tent outside the JFK8 warehouse, ALU organizers have become a staple there, by bringing pizza to workers at shift change, holding nighttime bonfires and barbecues, offering free weed and hosting gatherings, while passing out union pamphlets and garnering signatures for NLRB petitions.
On Thanksgiving, the ALU held a potluck dinner outside the facility for workers “trapped in a warehouse.” In late November, when a warehouse worker was hit and killed by a car while leaving the facility, it held a vigil in her honor. A warm plate of food helps after a 10-12-hour shift on your feet, before a three-hour ride back to the Bronx or New Jersey. “Most people take public transportation to get here,” said Josiah Morgan. “I know one girl who travels from White Plains.”
Every half hour, city buses full of people pull up in front of the warehouses. A line of workers files out, then disperses as they head towards one of the four warehouses. Smalls is often there to greet them, while other workers organize on the inside, or outside during breaks.
The bottom-up approach, while lacking the financial support of a large union like the RWDSU, has the potential to lead to a stronger core of organized workers, says Ellen Dichner, a labor lawyer and distinguished lecturer at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.
“As a whole, running union campaigns like this requires a lot of money and a lot of expertise, which usually workers who’ve not had experience organizing lack,” she said. “On the other hand, they’re the folks that are in constant contact with their coworkers, and having that inside organizing campaign of the workers is instrumental, absolutely instrumental.” By having a union created by workers themselves, Dichner adds, the ALU will have an easier time refuting Amazon’s casting unions as an outside third party only eager to take workers’ money for dues, something she thinks the Bessemer effort failed at.
Other attempts to organize Amazon include Amazonians United, founded by six workers in Chicago in 2019 during a shop floor battle to force management to provide clean drinking water at a local warehouse. It has since become a decentralized network active in several cities, including New York. Its organizers emphasize patiently building relationships among workers that yield strong organizing committees. Those focus on leading winnable shop-floor struggles for better working conditions. The long-term goal is to build a network of organizing committees throughout Amazon that will lead the fight for bigger victories.
In June, the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters announced that they were making organizing Amazon a top national priority. The Teamsters have more than 1.3 million members — 10 times as many as RWDSU — and an annual budget of more than $200 million.
For the Teamsters, Amazon’s rapid growth presents both an opportunity and a direct threat to their base of workers in the trucking and warehousing industries. They represent 340,000 UPS workers. The union has initiated a nationwide outreach campaign, featuring Teamster members speaking directly with Amazon workers about the benefits of a union job, which often pays at least twice as much as the $15-17 per hour that is the norm at Amazon.
In November, a left-leaning reform slate won the Teamsters presidency by a 2-1 margin, ousting the union’s old-guard leadership. Incoming President Sean O’Brien has vowed to pull out all the stops to win a strong new contract with UPS when the old one expires in 2023 and hold up that success to show Amazon workers what a strong union can do. Teamsters leaders have also suggested that the union might seek to organize wildcat strikes at Amazon facilities to win union recognition, rather than solely relying on elections, in which the playing field is slanted in favor of management.
Smalls says he wouldn’t be opposed to collaborating with the Teamsters, but indicated he didn’t have much faith in the large top-down union. He was a member of one of their locals before moving to Amazon in 2015 because he was unhappy with the contract it negotiated.
“I know a lot of people are like, ‘No, what about the experience?’” he says when asked about organizing a small, completely new union. “But there’s no experience, because if you’ve never worked for this company, you are not going to be able to really understand.”
“We operate like a union already,” he adds, explaining the ALU’s well-developed organizational structure. “We have everything that a union has already… besides the protections and the resources. For any union to support us, they will have to sit down and meet with us. And, you know, we’ll figure out a way where we can work together.”
Palmer insists that the road to a union victory at the Staten Island warehouses is still open. “We’re going to continue our efforts and we’re going to file again,” he said.
Many see the effort to unionize mega-employers like Amazon, Starbucks or Walmart as potentially revolutionary. “It would be the same sort of thing as organizing General Motors or U.S. Steel in 1937, or the Montgomery bus boycott in terms of civil rights,” said Lichtenstein, author of several books on the history of labor unions in 20th century America, about the societal impact if Amazon workers were to unionize.
These efforts come at a time when polls show the highest level of public support for unions since the 1960s, although less than 11% of U.S. workers now belong to one — and less than 7% at private-sector employers. Despite that public support, the battle against Amazon and its centi-billionaire founder, to overcome the company’s sheer will to destroy any union drive, will be a long, tough one, requiring intense organizing and effective tactics.
In April, just after the results of the Bessemer vote were announced, labor author and organizer Jane McAlevey wrote an article for The Nation, “Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign.” She had two main criticisms of the RWDSU effort there. Organizers only organized at the workplace gate, under Amazon’s gaze, instead of visiting workers at home (while taking precautions against COVID), and they didn’t go public with workers who promised a yes vote, encouraging others to do the same.
The exception to the labor-organizing rule that home visits are essential, she wrote, would be “if large numbers of actual Bessemer Amazon workers were the people standing at shift change at the plant gate.” That is indeed the case at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouses, where most workers arrive by bus. And many of the Staten Island workers have clearly gone public with their plans to vote yes for the union.
Can the ALU’s do-it-yourself organizing model or an alliance with a union such as the RWDSU or the Teamsters reverse the defeat at Bessemer and provide a solution to the challenges posed by Amazon’s union-busting tactics? We’ll learn more in the coming months and years.
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