Unions turn to Cuomo, de Blasio for an in with Amazon

Leaders of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union gathered with progressive groups and elected officials in City Hall Park after officials announced Amazon would open a substantial campus in Long Island City.
Leaders of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union gathered with progressive groups and elected officials in City Hall Park after officials announced Amazon would open a substantial campus in Long Island City. Photo Credit: Molly Tavoletti

Retail and warehouse unions are leaning on the governor and the mayor to deliver an in for them with Amazon.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and Teamsters Joint Council 16 sent identical letters Monday to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, arguing that before the government provides nearly $3 billion in public benefits to Amazon, "the corporation must commit to a fair process for all Amazon workers to form a union." The letters noted that many people performing work for Amazon are inaccurately treated as contractors and paid below living wages,  threatening standards in the retail, warehouse and package delivery sectors.

"We urge you to work with us to ensure that Amazon changes the way it operates in New York, and that Amazon commits to allow its workers to assert their right to form a union without interference," the letters noted.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said people putting together the deal for Amazon’s Long Island City campus, where it plans to build a 4 million-square-foot office hub and hire at least 25,000 full-time employees over the next decade, requested that Amazon management meet with his organization, and they have refused to do so.

"Amazon feels so powerful that . . . even the people who are proposing the subsidies, Amazon rejects their requests to speak with us," Appelbaum said. "Our elected officials need to demand that, if Amazon wants to be welcomed into New York, they need to change the way they operate; they have to end their anti-union, anti-worker behavior; they have to respect New York values."

Applebaum said he would defer to elected officials on what specific steps it would be prudent for Amazon to take.

George Miranda, president of Teamsters Joint Council 16, said the executives should ensure Amazon meets with the unions, as his trade group has requested. He also suggested that a labor peace agreement would be prudent. Under these so-called card check neutrality arrangements, employers typically agree to maintain a neutral position on organizing efforts as long as workers do not picket, boycott or otherwise interfere with workflow in an attempt to protect the viability of projects.

"One of the good things that would be conducive is to have set up a meeting so that we can discuss, like I said, a card check neutrality agreement with the company, directly," Miranda said.

Although there have not been plans for warehousing activity at Amazon’s Long Island City campus, the labor leaders said now that the company is expanding so dramatically in the city, New Yorkers need to focus on ensuring a business with such a big impact in the industry lives up to local, progressive employment practices.

Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for de Blasio did not directly respond when asked what he thought about the push for a labor peace agreement. 

"From Day One we’ve made it clear to Amazon that New York City is a union town, and in this city we respect and defend the right of workers to organize," mayoral spokeswoman Jane Meyer said in a statement that referenced building maintenance and construction groups’ support for Amazon. "We’re glad to see productive conversations happening with labor about building maintenance and construction, and we will continue to push the company toward talks with other unions as well.”

An Amazon spokeswoman did not directly respond when asked about sitting down with the retail and warehouse unions or about the prospect of a labor peace agreement.

In a statement, she said Amazon already offers in Staten Island what unions are requesting, including industry-leading pay of $17 to $23 an hour, benefits, opportunities for career growth and a safe, modern work environment. The Staten Island facility is completely staffed by full-time employees, according to the statement. 

The statement said Amazon provides a great employment experience through its direct connection and collaboration with workers, and respects their right to choose to unionize.