Additional reporting by Claudia Irizarry Aponte
Fresh off their historic win against online retailer Amazon, Staten Island warehouse workers who voted to form a union earlier this month are loading up their arsenal as the internet behemoth ratchets up its defenses against the upstart group.
Amazon has filed more than two dozen objections with the National Labor Relations Board and seeks to overturn the Amazon Labor Union victory at the Staten Island JFK8 warehouse. The company argues that the union intimidated workers into voting in favor of organizing and alleges that the federal agency gave the ALU preferential treatment by filing a lawsuit against the internet retailer ahead of the vote.
And that’s not even the toughest battle the self-organized workers face.
Amazon Labor Union leaders are readying themselves for what they consider “the real fight” — winning a collective bargaining agreement against Amazon, one of the world’s biggest and best-resourced companies. Company lawyers have tools at their disposal to delay or head off contract bargaining by burying the union in bureaucratic tape or stalling negotiations.
Solidarity is now the theme for union leaders, who are holding out an olive branch to employees who voted “no” amid a fierce anti-union corporate campaign that included mandatory worker meetings that the NLRB’s top lawyer is seeking to abolish.
“I want to thank all of the workers who voted yes, and even the ones that are misinformed. We’re here to inform you that this is not a war between us. Let’s unify and let’s bargain the contract of our dreams,” said Angelika Maldonado, a packer at JFK8 and chair of the ALU’s Workers Committee, during a news conference Friday afternoon at Amazon’s warehouse complex on Staten Island.
“I thought I was fighting a fight from October to April, but this is the real fight now. And if we fight together, we can defeat the beast,” said Maldonado.
With roughly $100,000 raised through donations via a GoFundMe and some volunteer assistance, the independent group of current and former Amazon workers at the Staten Island warehouse pulled off the unthinkable and defeated the internet giant by more than 500 votes.
The underdog win is emboldening workers across the country. Amazon employees around the nation have been reaching out to the ALU for tips on how to replicate their success, according to organizers. And a major Democratic-tied political consulting firm is dropping its work for Amazon following news of their involvement.
Meanwhile, the ALU’s GoFundMe is now up to $225,000 toward a $500,000 goal, money that organizers are using to ready for a second Amazon worker vote on Staten Island, starting April 25.
That warehouse, called LDJ5, is smaller than JFK8 across the street, with just 1,500 workers compared to over 8,000. How urgently the LDJ5 workers will feel the need to join a union remains untested — and there’s no guarantee that they’ll follow their neighbors and vote yes.
‘Look Out for Each Other’
Derrick Palmer, vice president of organizing for the Amazon Labor Union and a worker at JFK8, told THE CITY that the LDJ5 sorting center jobs there are less grueling than those at his order-fulfillment facility.
“The workers have different schedules so they don’t work the brutal 10 hours like they do at JFK8,” Palmer said. He called organizing them “a little more of a challenge because they’re not going through what these workers went through.” JFK8 workers like himself, he noted, don’t have access to enter LDJ5 to engage workers and answer their questions.
At JFK8, the break rooms proved to be a lifeline for worker-organizers, who set up tables with literature and food where they were able to engage colleagues directly on the job. Workers at JFK8 make up the bulk of the current Amazon employees in the union leadership team.
Working in the union’s favor now, on the other hand, is the LDJ5’s distribution center’s more compact layout, in contrast to JFK8’s sprawling four stories where workers sift through items to pick and pack customers’ orders. With only one floor and a fraction of the staff, “it’ll be easier to organize” LDJ5, said Palmer.
“Because we work at one of the warehouses, doesn’t mean we can go into all of them,” Maldonado told THE CITY Friday, minutes before her 12-hour shift was slated to begin. “So we would have to work from the outside.”
The ALU is planning on deploying already-proven tactics — hosting barbecues outside of the warehouse, offering homemade food to workers heading in and out of their shifts, and hosting events, said Palmer. Organizers continue to connect with workers at the MTA bus stop serving the facilities — where 33-year-old union president Chris Smalls, a former Amazon supervisor fired by the company, spent months talking up potential members and where plans to spend the days leading up to the next vote.
The unionization drive was sparked by Smalls’ termination in the spring of 2020 for allegedly breaking safety guidelines after organizing a protest over what workers alleged were inadequate COVID-protection measures.
The Amazon Labor Union demands remain the same at LDJ5: a $30 an hour minimum wage, better working conditions, including two paid 30-minute breaks and an hour-long paid lunch break, better medical leave, additional paid time off and eliminating productivity rates that require workers to pick a certain number of items an hour.
“That’s just a building. When it’s family, we still have to look out for each other. So of course we’ll be there supporting them, giving strategies that worked for us at JFK8. Luckily they don’t have 8,000 workers,” Maldonado added.
Phone Ringing Off the Hook
In the week since the ALU pulled off the history-making upset, the once-long shot organizers have been catapulted into the spotlight.
President Joe Biden last week offered his support for the union. The bus stop has been buzzing with cameras and reporters seeking to talk to Smalls and other workers.
Dozens of journalists from major national outlets and from abroad flocked to 5th Street, the bucolic road that separates JFK8 and LDJ5 for the ALU’s Friday press conference as cars and trucks drove by honking in support. The day before, leading organizers for the union were in Washington, D.C., meeting with elected officials and union leaders, which they chronicled on their TikTok.
everybody dickriding now 😂♬ Sweet Giirrrrllll face beat x Father Philis – Phil
On Saturday, the ALU received a hero’s welcome at the Labor Lunch in Albany for the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislators Caucus Weekend, a yearly gathering of lawmakers of color.
Workers from more than 100 Amazon warehouses throughout the 50 states have already reached out to the ALU for help in organizing their facilities, Smalls said, as have workers from Walmart, Target and Dollar General.
“It’s great that they’re watching us because we want to get it done and we want to motivate them to organize and if they need our help, advice, whatever we can offer, we’re gonna do so,” Smalls said.
“These workers never thought about joining a union. They thought we were crazy for doing this shit and now look. They’re contacting us through Twitter, Instagram, email, Facebook, everything. We woke up the world and we shook up the union movement,” Palmer said.
As they set their eyes toward the future and scaling up their operations, the union is beginning to interview lawyers, contract negotiators and communications staff if they’re going to go to war with Amazon.
They also plan to work with other more established unions, like the Teamsters who have offered to assist their efforts, Smalls added.
With Amazon challenging the outcome of the vote, delaying the NLRB’s certification process until later this month, it could be several more weeks, even months, until the company and the ALU start negotiating their first contract — an outcome Amazon is seeking to avoid by objecting to the vote results.
“We’ve always said that we want our employees to have their voices heard, and in this case, that didn’t happen – fewer than a third of the employees at the site voted for the union, and overall turnout was unusually low,” said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel.
Roughly half of the eligible 8,300 JFK8 workers voted in the union election, with 2,654 voting in favor of a union versus 2,131 who voted against.
Nantel added that “the actions of the NLRB and the ALU improperly suppressed and influenced the vote, and we think the election should be conducted again so that a fair and broadly representative vote can be had.”
The NLRB reiterated its previous statement decrying Amazon’s allegations, telling the Washington Post that the agency “is an independent federal agency that Congress has charged with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act,” said Kayla Blado. “All NLRB enforcement actions against Amazon have been consistent with that congressional mandate.”
Amazon did not answer specific questions on how it contends the union swayed the vote or if the company planned on deploying different tactics with the upcoming election at LDJ5.
With “unlimited resources,” the multi-billion-dollar company could continuously delay and fight the union, said State Sen. Diane Savino, whose Staten Island district borders the Amazon warehouses.
“That’s what I’m most concerned about. They have unlimited resources, obviously, and the concern is that they’re not going to take this lying down. And so how they decide to treat their low-wage workforce should send a message to all their consumers around the world,” Savino said.
Already, organizations that Amazon hired to help dissuade workers from unionizing are getting blowback.
Global Strategy Group, a Democratic polling and consulting firm hired by Amazon to provide guidance over employee communications and benefits at JFK8, told THE CITY it is no longer working with Amazon following a CNBC report that the firm was assisting Amazon’s efforts.
“While there were inaccuracies in the description of our work, we regret being involved in any way and have resigned this work with Amazon,” said Tanya Meck, a partner and managing director at Global Strategy Group.
The withdrawal came after the Nevada Democratic Party announced it would “absolutely not be working with” Global Strategy Group, which also has ties to the New York Democratic Party, Gov. Kathy Hochul and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The head of the New York Democratic Party, Jay Jacobs, did not respond to messages asking if the party would continue to work with the company. Hochul’s campaign declined to comment on whether it would continue working with GSG, instead pointing to a tweet of the governor congratulating the Amazon Labor Union.
‘The Cavalry Has Come’
The protracted road ahead points to the weakness of the country’s labor laws, said Sharon Block, professor at Harvard Law School and executive director of the school’s Labor & Worklife Program.
Aside from Amazon’s objections to the vote, it could be a long road to getting the company and the ALU to agree on a contract. While the NLRB requires employers to bargain in good faith once the results conclude, there’s no requirement that workers and their bosses reach a deal on a contract — a point that Amazon officials drilled into during a so-called captive audience meeting at JFK8.
“The company and the union must bargain in good faith…. That means that they must agree to meet at a reasonable time in private and try to reach an agreement. The law does not say that they have to reach an agreement. They just have to try to,” an Amazon workforce staffing manager said at a meeting obtained by THE CITY.
“Amazon, I think, has demonstrated that they are willing to go to great lengths to prevent their workers from having a union,” Block said. “And because the incentives in the law are to play this out as long as possible, if you’re a company that mistakenly but nevertheless believes that you want to keep the union out of your workplace, the law provides a path for you that is essentially costless to push the date out as much as possible.”
The leaders of the Amazon Labor Union say they’re not afraid of what’s coming down the pike.
“The cavalry has come,” said Smalls on Friday. “It is still coming. So Amazon, be prepared because we’re coming.”
“This is not just an opportunity. This is not just a moment. This is history right now, right now. We gotta make sure we bust our ass and we make sure that we get a union for LDJ5,” Palmer told the crowd Friday. “Like I said, we’re gonna whoop Amazon’s ass. We’re gonna win this. We’re gonna win.”