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Grassroots labor group takes on Amazon in NYC union fight

Amazon Union Elections
Elijah Ramos stands outside the the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island borough of New York at a bus stop on March 16, 2022. An independent group formed by former and current Amazon workers are trying to unionize a company warehouse in New York City. If successful, the effort at the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island could lead to the first unionized Amazon facility in the U.S. (AP Photo/Haleluya Hadero)

An independent group formed by former and current Amazon workers is trying to organize a company warehouse in New York City, a David and Goliath scenario that could lead to the retail giant’s first unionized facility in the U.S.

Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island will determine whether or not they want to form a union, with the vote count expected to begin as soon as Thursday.

A separate organizing effort is currently underway in Alabama, where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union faces another tough challenge in a re-do election to unionize Amazon workers in the city of Bessemer.

In New York, the nascent Amazon Labor Union has led the charge in a fierce labor fight, where the nation’s second-largest private employer has made every effort to fend off labor organizers and Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who now leads the fledging group.

The warehouse in Staten Island employs more than 8,300 workers, who pack and ship supplies to customers based mostly in the northeast. A labor win is considered an uphill battle. But organizers believe their grassroots approach is more relatable to workers and could help them overcome where established unions have failed in the past.

Meanwhile, Amazon has pushed back hard. The retail giant held mandatory meetings, where workers were told unions are a bad idea. The company also launched an anti-union website targeting workers and placed English and Spanish posters across the Staten Island facility urging them to reject the union.

New York is more labor-friendly than Alabama, where the other union election is being held. But some experts believe that won’t make much of a difference in the outcome of the Staten Island election, citing federal labor laws that favor employers, and Amazon’s anti-union stance.

“The employer is the same, and that’s the key thing,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements at the City University of New York. “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. But it’s unclear how the facility’s high turnover rate may have shifted 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. At a nearby bus stop, organizers have put up signs encouraging workers to vote in favor of the union. “WE’RE NOT MACHINES WE’RE HUMAN BEINGS,” one reads, a nod to worker complaints about long shifts and the company’s “time off task” tool that dings employees for taking too many breaks.

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.

“As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “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 buffer any loss of support that might happen when employers ramp up efforts to persuade workers not to unionize.

Connor Spence, ALU’s vice president of membership, said organizers chose not to pursue that strategy because of high turnover.

“That strategy only works at smaller companies with lower turnover,” Spence said.

ALU also lacks official backing from major unions, which are traditionally well-staffed and well-financed. 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.

Unite Here, an international union representing workers in hospitality and other industries, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, a separate union affiliated with RWDSU, have pitched in and given organizers office space, additional volunteers and a lawyer to help with legal filings. Local community groups have also been reaching out to workers, making art for the ALU and raising money. As the election neared, organizers put together a potluck that fed up to 400 workers and held a rally to drive more enthusiasm.

Pro-union employees also ramped up efforts. Michelle Valentin Nieves, a warehouse employee, says she’d been quietly supporting the union push but around the time the ALU secured an election, she decided to be more public, staying late after her shifts to hand out pro-union flyers. She said her organizing was met with hostility by some Amazon managers.

“I get the death stares,” said Nieves. “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 said he believes organizers don’t have enough experience to represent him.

Although he thinks a union could bring good things, Ramos said it also might constantly butt heads with the company and create more complications.

“It’s better to deal with what we have now than to deal with something where we don’t know what they’re going to do,” he said.

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