World-Outlook speaks with rank-and-file organizers
By Argiris Malapanis
NEW YORK CITY, November 3, 2021—Amazon warehouse workers in New York took a big step toward unionization on October 25, when they filed more than 2,000 signatures with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking a union representation election. World-Outlook visited the union organizing center and spoke with Chris Smalls and other workers. Smalls and other organizers have drawn important lessons from previous efforts to organize the retail giant.
The Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a grassroots group organized by warehouse workers, is leading the organizing drive. With no affiliation to any of the established national trade unions, the ALU is trying to unionize the approximately 7,000 workers employed in four warehouses—the JFK8 and surrounding facilities dubbed LDJ5, DYY6, and DYX2 on Staten Island. Amazon uses these warehouses to fulfill orders in the huge New York market.
A union victory here would reverberate through the working class and labor movement in the United States. These workers know they are challenging a powerful enemy.
Amazon is the second-largest private U.S. employer behind WalMart, with 950,000 full and part-time employees as of September. Not a single U.S. Amazon facility is yet organized by a union. Amazon’s management has spared no effort to keep it that way.
The most prominent union organizing drive at a U.S. Amazon facility took place earlier this year in Bessemer, Alabama. Pro-union workers suffered a setback in their effort to organize the giant Amazon warehouse there in April when they lost the vote for representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU). Later, a federal labor official found that Amazon’s anti-union campaign tainted that election. Alabama workers now await a ruling by the NLRB on whether the labor board will order a revote.
The company has mobilized its virtually unlimited resources in its unceasing efforts to keep unions out.
“Last year, Amazon earned an additional $9.7 billion in profit—a staggering 84% increase compared to 2019,” reported the Brookings Institute web page last March. At that time, the company’s stock price had risen 82%, while founder Jeff Bezos added $67.9 billion to his wealth—38 times the total hazard pay Amazon has paid its 1 million workers since March 2020. Profits dropped in the third quarter of this year to “only” $3.2 billion. Anticipating even greater profits, however, the company, “At a cost of billions… has nearly doubled the size of its fulfillment network since the start of the pandemic,” according to the Seattle Times.
Chris Smalls is a central organizer of the Staten Island campaign. Amazon fired Smalls in March 2020 after he led a walkout at JFK8 to protest unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. “We had a week-long sit-in in the warehouse cafeteria, followed by a walkout,” Smalls told World-Outlook in a November 1 interview. “The company singled me out for organizing the protest.”
Amazon claims it fired Smalls for violating pandemic “quarantine” rules. In a meeting after Smalls was fired, attended by Amazon owner Jeff Bezos and other executives, Amazon’s general counsel labeled Smalls, who is African American, “not smart or articulate,” according to a leaked memo. The lawyer later issued a pretentious and belated apology for the slur. Smalls had worked at Amazon for about five years.
New York’s state attorney general has filed a lawsuit against Amazon alleging Smalls’ firing was retaliatory. The NLRB has filed another lawsuit on behalf of Gerald Bryson, also terminated for similar reasons, according to Smalls. In December 2020, an NLRB investigation found merit in the complaint that Amazon discharged Bryson illegally for helping to lead a protest outside JFK8, away from company property, while off work.
Last April, Smalls and other organizers set up a tent outside the JFK8 warehouse, where they have been hosting barbecues and collecting signatures from workers on cards calling for a union election. He described the effort as 24/7, rain or shine.
The unionization campaign, Smalls said, is financed mainly through the Amazon Labor Union Solidarity Fund. So far, the fund has raised more than $39,000 toward a $50,000 goal through a GoFundMe account. (The link to the account is at the bottom of the homepage of amazonlaborunion.org.) “We encourage anyone in the outside community to contribute,” Smalls said. Workers have used the financial support to buy food, T-shirts, and a vehicle to transport their supplies. Organizers regularly set up a firepit nearby to stay warm when signing up workers on the night shift.
World-Outlook encourages our readers to support this important union organizing drive. Visit the ALU web site (https://amazonlaborunion.org/) and spread the word on the fight these workers are leading. Encourage your unions and other organizations to pass resolutions backing the ALU organizing effort and to extend financial support. Make a contribution on the union’s GoFundMe page and encourage others to do the same. Donations can be made here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-the-amazon-labor-union
“We want better working conditions,” Smalls explained, “longer breaks, better medical leave options. And we want higher wages.” The fast pace and long hours of work frequently result in injuries, a concern of many workers. “We often work 10- to 12-hour shifts,” he said. “On top of that, many workers have two-hour-long commutes. The amount of physicality you need to work at Amazon is extreme.”
Countering Amazon’s anti-union efforts
Smalls explained Amazon has tried to counter the unionization effort by posting and distributing anti-union flyers, installing a chain fence with barbed wire between the parking lot and the bus stop where organizers set up, and confiscating union literature. “Sometimes they have called the police on us or the fire department, but that hasn’t worked,” he said. “They have not stopped us.”
Amazon responded swiftly after the organizing campaign started, sending workers notifications and running messages on TV screens in central areas and on signs inside bathroom stalls. “ALU has inexperienced leadership and zero experience negotiating for workers,” read one break room sign. “They are trying to divide the workers,” Smalls said.
Since the March 2020 walkout, workers have also filed 10 complaints with the NLRB, on the grounds that Amazon has interfered with their organizing efforts. The board says its lawyers have found merit in three and continue to investigate others.
“We have to make sure every move is calculated,” Smalls said, referring to Amazon’s anti-union campaign and the workers’ tactical decision to build an independent union.
‘You have to earn the trust of workers’
“The established unions have expertise, money and resources. But Amazon is a different animal,” he said. “There is no playbook for unionizing Amazon, you just have to earn the trust of workers. It’s really just us on the ground having face-to-face conversations and building relationships.”
“We are able to connect with the workers and really pick their brain as to what they would want for us to implement,” said Derrick Palmer, who works at JFK8 and is one of the organizers of the union effort. “It is real personal because we are at Amazon still—I’m still employed.”
Palmer said that other unionization efforts at Amazon have involved “a third party or already an established union. Them being on the outside makes a big difference. I’m able to see exactly how Amazon is union busting, and I’m able to talk to workers that may feel discouraged and give them the facts so that they’re able to at least have a fair judgment on whether or not they want to join.”
The New York attorney general’s lawsuit against Amazon regarding Small’s case also lists Palmer in the complaint. It alleges the company retaliated against Palmer when managers wrote him up for participating in the same March 2020 protest related to unsafe working conditions during the pandemic.
The first target of the organizing drive is to secure a union representation election at JFK8, which employs 5,000 workers. Amazon’s pipeline to New York City, JFK8 is as large as 15 football fields. At the same time, workers want to organize the cluster of the other three surrounding Amazon facilities. “We want a union election at all four warehouses,” Smalls said.
Lessons learned from the Alabama union campaign
According to organizers, more than 100 workers are part of the rank-and-file effort to actively build support for the union. Most of these workers have been working at Amazon since JFK8 opened in September 2018, Smalls said.
These rank-and-file organizers have been able to build support among fellow workers and have the right to use spaces and communication tools available to employees. Workers supporting the unionization drive have worn shirts and face masks in the building with the union’s logo, put literature in the break room, and posted on internal message boards.
“To get a card signed from a worker is difficult,” Smalls said. “It is a harder conversation to have when you are a third party rather than someone who works at the company.”
Smalls and other workers said the organizing drive in Bessemer helped galvanize their effort here. Workers in New York also learned lessons from the setback in Alabama, he added.
“We personally visited Bessemer,” Smalls said. “We saw a lot of missed opportunities.” These included not having a large enough committee of Amazon workers themselves leading the unionization effort. There was too much reliance on politicians and other public figures, he added, concluding: “Workers have to organize themselves.”
Palmer said Amazon workers started collecting signatures soon after the Bessemer vote. He said they wanted to build on the momentum the Bessemer fight created, despite the setback.
“We felt that it was super important that we started right when they took the loss,” he said. “Taking a defeat like that, we wanted to pick up where they left off.”
Connor Spence is another ALU organizer who works at JFK8. He told World-Outlook on November 3 he did not have a chance to go to Bessemer during the union organizing drive there. He pointed out, however, that union organizers have discussed these lessons and made sure all workers involved in the New York union campaign are thoroughly familiar with them and have internalized their importance.
For example, Connor said, it seemed that the RWDSU gave the impression to workers supporting the union in Bessemer that they should be cautious and largely refrain from speaking openly to the media for fear of retaliation by the company. “We decided to do exactly the opposite,” Connor said. “We advise workers to speak up, give our names to the press, stop being afraid. Invite the most public scrutiny by the media. It’s our best protection against retaliation by the company.”
Another lesson learned is the need to legally challenge the company’s “every single anti-union move during the organizing drive, not after the vote,” Connor explained. Amazon hired the same union-busting outfit, the Burke Group, in New York that it used to defeat the Bessemer organizing effort, he said.
“One time these union busters confiscated from me union authorization cards I was passing out in the cafeteria after my shift was over,” Connor added. “That is illegal. We immediately filed a complaint with the NLRB. We are filing three more complaints for similar incidents tonight. The labor board has already ruled in ALU’s favor several times. We have been able to push back against Amazon’s union busting. This increases the confidence of the workers.”
Palmer said that workers at Amazon facilities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Texas, and Florida have already contacted him and other organizers to express an interest in joining the Amazon Labor Union.
One of the challenges workers face is the high turnover rate at Amazon. Even before the pandemic, the turnover in Amazon’s workforce was roughly 150 percent a year, almost double that of the retail and logistics industries overall. That can mean workers who have signed union cards may no longer be working at Amazon when a representation vote takes place.
“With that kind of turnover we had no choice but to act quickly,” Smalls said, referring to the ALU’s decision to file the petitions with the NLRB as soon as they surpassed the threshold of 30% of the workforce signing union cards, which labor law requires to trigger a union representation vote. “The clock is ticking,” Smalls said. “It’s better to have a shorter time frame than a long, dragged-out campaign.”
To maximize the chances the NLRB will authorize a union vote, ALU organizers have continued to collect union authorization cards since they filed the initial batch exceeding 2,000 signatures. “We have collected several hundred new signatures over the last week,” Smalls said on November 3. Union supporters are hoping they will be able to file these additional signatures with the NLRB if needed to secure a representation election.
Despite the very real obstacles they face, ALU organizers expressed optimism about the chances to win union representation.
“We’ve been out there for six months, meeting workers and signing workers day and night. Sometimes I’ve been out for 36 hours straight, just trying to get to our goal,” said Smalls. “The workers that are organizing themselves within these facilities, because they’re the ones that are really inside the facility, to see that, to witness and to be a part of it, it’s just been a magical experience, something that I’ve never fathomed.
“The energy and culture we built over the last six months with these workers, it’s been very strong. Everybody’s excited.”
A forthcoming Reporter’s Notebook, based on the November 3, 2021, World-Outlook visit to Amazon’s Labor Union organizing center, will paint a more detailed picture of this impressive unionization campaign led by rank-and-file workers.
 See “After Setback in Alabama Rank-and-File Workers Will Determine What’s Next,” published on World-Outlook.com on April 15, 2021.
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions