Amazon Warehouse Workers in New York City to File For Union Election

More than 2,000 workers at New York City's largest Amazon warehouse have signed union authorization cards to join Amazon Labor Union.
October 21, 2021, 11:00am
Amazon JFK8
Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Amazon warehouse workers at New York City's largest Amazon warehouse and three neighboring facilities have announced that they plan to file for a union election—gearing up for another labor battle at the country's second largest employer. 

On Thursday, Amazon Labor Union announced that more than 2,000 Amazon employees at the retail giant's Staten Island facilities have signed union authorization cards and at least 100 employees have joined a worker's committee. They intend to petition for an election before the National Labor Relations Board next week. 

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"We intend to fight for higher wages, job security, safer working conditions, more paid time off, better medical leave options, and longer breaks," a press release from the union said. "This is truly a remarkable historical moment for all Amazon workers all over the country. [Amazon Labor Union] has already broken barriers and will continue to do so but we’re not getting complacent. We now need the support of the communities more than ever as our fight is just getting started."

Christian Smalls, an Amazon warehouse worker who was fired from JFK8 in 2020 after leading a protest against working conditions during the peak of New York City's COVID-19 outbreak, has been elected president of Amazon Labor Union. Leaked notes obtained by VICE News at the time from a meeting attended by former CEO Jeff Bezos described Smalls as "not smart or articulate." 

In April, following the defeat of a historic union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama (the first union election at a fulfillment center in the company's history), Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island launched a union drive, notably without affiliating with any national union. For months, the union has set up a tent near the bus stop outside JFK8, where thousands of workers have signed union authorization cards in between shifts and attended rallies and barbecues with hot dogs, baked ziti, and mac and cheese.

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If workers in Staten Island vote to unionize, they'd be the first in the United States to do so at the vehemently anti-union employer. 

“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union,” Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, told Motherboard. “They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes—quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle. The benefits of direct relationships between managers and employees can’t be overstated—these relationships allow every employee’s voice to be heard, not just the voices of a select few. We’ve made great progress in recent years and months in important areas like pay and safety. There are plenty of things that we can keep doing better, and that's our focus—to keep getting better every day.”

The prospect of union election at Amazon warehouses in Staten Island without the support of a national union raises questions about how workers will weather the tech giant's sophisticated anti-union tactics and surveillance without the support of professional union organizers or funding from a national union. That said, workers have already shown some impressive levels of organization in terms of the number of cards signed and the events they've thrown near the warehouse. There are some potential benefits to organizing independently—namely, employers often try to paint union organizers as "outsiders" who are trying to interfere with the relationship between the company and workers and have their own self interest in mind.

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Amazon Labor Union says it intends to fight to bring back monthly bonuses for meeting attendance and productivity targets, known as "variable compensation pay," and stock options for workers. In 2018, the company slashed these benefits when it raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

In June, Motherboard spoke to Natalie Monarrez, an Amazon warehouse worker at JFK8, who is homeless and has lived out of her car in Amazon's parking lot for years. "Jeff Bezos has no idea that his workers are homeless, especially in New York, and I'm not the only one," Monarrez said. 

The union drive encompasses four Amazon facilities, including JFK8, Amazon's only fulfillment center in New York City, and three newer and smaller warehouses in the same warehouse complex, known as LDJ5, DYY6, and DYX2. JFK8 employs roughly 5,000 workers. Typically, unions need to collect authorization cards from a third of their workers to qualify for a union election.

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Over the past six months, Amazon has taken steps to derail and discredit the union drive in Staten Island. It has displayed anti-union messages on TV screens throughout the facility and on fliers posted in bathrooms. It has sent notifications to workers on the company's internal portal, with a list of reasons for not signing union authorization cards. "Speak For Yourself: Union authorization cards are legally binding and authorize the union to act as your exclusive representative. This means you give up the right to speak for yourself," one of these messages said. The company has also sent union avoidance consultants throughout the facility to persuade workers not to join the union. 

In messaging and style, these tactics resemble those Amazon utilized earlier year to crush the union drive in Alabama. Out of 2,500 workers who voted in the Bessemer union election, more than 1,700 voted against the union. Since then, the National Labor Relations Board recommended a rerun of the election because it found compelling evidence that Amazon interfered with results by threatening and intimidating workers. 

In August, the National Labor Relations Board found that Amazon illegally interrogated workers at JFK8, unlawfully confiscated union literature from workers in their break room and created the impression of surveillance of their organizing outside the facility. 

Amazon is also facing a nationwide unionization campaign from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the nation's largest unions, which says it has devoted enormous resources to the project.