Last Friday, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island lined up by the hundreds to vote on whether to unionize JFK8, New York City’s largest Amazon warehouse which employs some 6,000 workers.
The union election began last week and will continue through Wednesday under a set of tents in the warehouse parking lot in Staten Island. During shift change on the first day of voting, workers milled about outside the warehouse after their shift waiting for rides or the bus. Some workers donned “Amazon Labor Union” pins and others wore bright red “Vote No” t-shirts.
“I actually voted ‘yes,’” a picker from Woodhaven, Queens who identified himself as James, told Motherboard outside JFK8 after his shift. “I’m willing to give them a chance to see if they can fulfill their promises to people.”
Workers are voting on whether to unionize with Amazon Labor Union, an independent union that formed early last year, which has said that it would fight for a $30 per hour minimum wage, two paid 30 minute breaks, abolished mandatory overtime, and more paid time off. If the union prevails, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island would be the first at the e-commerce giant to unionize. Another union election is ongoing at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where votes are being counted this week.
In Staten Island, Amazon has responded to the union drive with a full-fledged anti-union campaign, bombarding workers with dozens of “Vote No” messages across a variety of platforms in recent days, and suggesting that workers could lose what they have if they vote to join the union.
“This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for,” Christian Smalls, the president of Amazon Labor Union, told Motherboard, standing outside the warehouse on Friday. “I think we’ve already made history, so I’m happy. People want something better and ALU represents change. Even if there are doubts workers know what they’re receiving from Amazon is not enough and they deserve more.” JFK8 is the first Amazon warehouse in New York State to qualify for and hold a union election.
James, the picker, said he got a job at JFK8 after getting laid off from a previous job in 2019, and voted to unionize because he thought there was a chance it could improve his living circumstances. “I’m getting evicted,” he said. “I’m currently having to spend some time with my sister and I owe some money, so I’m hoping that ALU can pull it off and I can turn my life around and get back on my feet. I live in Queens and I would like to move somewhere closer to this warehouse. My commute is two-and-a-half hours. I take a train, a ferry and a bus. I’m primarily interested in [what the union will do about wages and job security.]”
Last year, in order to attract new workers in a tight labor market, Amazon offered $22.50 an hour and sign-on bonuses of up to $3,000 in some parts of the greater New York City area.
Kevin, an associate from Staten Island who makes $18.80 an hour after nearly three years, waiting by the bus-stop outside JFK8 told me voted for the union because “I don’t feel like I’m getting what I deserve,” alluding to Jeff Bezos’ wealth. “I voted for the union because if I vote no, all I’m doing is working harder for lower wages,” he said. “I’m making this one guy richer and richer. I've been here for three years and I’ve done eight jobs and then even last year, I was a little insulted because Amazon had these commercials on TV. You could become an employee for $20-something an hour and get a $1,000 bonus to sign up. I was insulted that they were going to pay a new guy more than me on the first day.”
Other workers Motherboard spoke to had serious doubts about the union, either because of previous negative experiences with unions, a fear that Amazon would take away benefits if workers unionized, or a sense that their working conditions were already decent—talking points that Amazon has communicated with workers in recent months.
“I voted no,” a 20-year-old warehouse worker who started at JFK8 two months earlier said. She joined Amazon in large part to get tuition assistance to study cosmetology. “At first, I was going to vote ‘yes,’ but I feel like Amazon would take our benefits away. I want to go to college and do Amazon’s Career Choice Program [which prepays its employees’ tuition at select colleges]. That’s the only thing I care about.”
On a Q&A page on Amazon’s website dedicated to its anti-union campaign, a question reads: “If a union is elected, will I still be able to access the Career Choice Program?” Amazon’s response suggests that workers could lose this benefit by unionizing. “We can’t predict the outcome of a contract negotiation. The only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know what the union will attempt to negotiate on your behalf.”
“A union is not the right choice for me because Amazon gives you enough benefits and everything to help you out,” another warehouse worker said. “Amazon is not a last stop job. It’s a good starter job and then go on and move to something else. For this place, it’s not necessary to have a union. It’s not like they completely abuse employees.”
In recent weeks, Amazon has bombarded workers with anti-union rhetoric in the form of fliers, meetings, videos, text messages, in-app notifications, Instagram and Facebook ads, letters, phone calls, and mailers. Motherboard compiled a non-exhaustive set of examples of this propaganda, which labor experts say is very effective in convincing workers against unionization.
The Economic Policy Institute found that on average a union worker earns 10 percent more than a non-union peer with similar education and experience. Black and Latinx workers represented by unions are paid 13.1 percent more and 18.8 percent more, respectively than their non-union counterparts.
“I feel good,” said Derrick Palmer, the vice president of Amazon Labor Union and a current warehouse associate, on Friday outside the warehouse. “I’m a little nervous about things, but I think we’re going to pull it off, not going to say landslide, but I definitely think we’ll pull it off.”
The National Labor Relations Board will begin tallying votes on Wednesday.