On Monday, Amazon sent out an email to workers at its Staten Island warehouse warning them not to trust union organizers, including their co-workers.
“Don't be misled by union organizers wearing Amazon vests--they are not part of Amazon,” one email reads. "While some of these individuals may be current Amazon associates or representatives of the Amazon Labor Union—they DO NOT represent Amazon."
A bullet pointed list follows, warning workers that these suspicious individuals "try to make you think they are part of Amazon” by “wearing an Amazon vest or something that looks similar." That’s because they do work for Amazon except for one notable exception.
Chris Smalls, a former worker at this warehouse, is helping organize the union drive here. After helping organize a walkout at the Staten Island facility over coronavirus-related safety concerns, Amazon fired Smalls. He was then the subject of an Amazon executive memo planning to make him "the face of the entire union/organizing movement" then smear him as company leadership dismissed him as "not smart or articulate."
"They contradict themselves in the email when they say individuals are not affiliated with Amazon, but then the next bullet point goes 'Oh they might be Amazon workers,'" Smalls told Motherboard. "I’m the only one over here that’s not a current Amazon worker. They should have just said, 'if you see Chris Smalls, he no longer works for Amazon,' but everyone knows this already, I've never said I do.”
For the past few weeks, The Congress of Essential Workers (TCOEW), a labor rights group founded by Chris Smalls, has been working with a group of workers in the State Island warehouse calling themselves the Amazon Labor Union (ALU).They're seeking pay raises, increases to time-off, longer breaks, stronger covid-19 protections, safer workplace conditions, and employee advocacy, among other things. The group is currently organizing a fundraiser for a solidarity fund that can support the volunteers as they launch this union drive.
In response to this drive, Amazon has taken up old and new tactics. A new union busting campaign using rhetoric honed against the unionization effort in an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama has begun, with anti-union messaging being shown on TV screens and in bathrooms. Smalls told Motherboard that the company has also tried to scare off the organizers of the union drive effort, first with fencing to wall off the warehouse then with calls to the police and fire department on two separate occasions.
"After we had our first union BBQ, they started building a fence―there's two different sides of fencing now around this area. It looks like Rikers Island instead of Staten Island," Smalls told Motherboard. “Amazon's being silly. They even called the fire department and told them we were protesters that had a generator without a permit so that was a safety hazard.”
Smalls told Motherboard that the New York Fire Department came by and that union organizers were allowed to be there.
An Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard that Amazon did not put up the fence, and that the fire department came in response to a false alarm with one of the warehouse’s HVAC units.
Smalls told Motherboard that he’s optimistic about the way things are developing at the Staten Island facility, but even in a situation where a union drive is unsuccessful TCOEW and ALU are pursuing legal challenges that, in the mean-time, could force Amazon to make its workplace safer and less dehumanizing.