Rank-and-File Workers Lead Organizing Drive
By Argiris Malapanis
The following is based on a November 3, 2021, visit by World-Outlook to the Amazon Labor Union organizing tent in front of the JFK8 Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island, New York. It is a supplement to the news article “NY Amazon Workers File for Union Recognition,” published by World-Outlook on November 4. Those identified only by their first name asked World-Outlook to withhold their last name to minimize the chance of company retaliation.
At the Bus Stop
I arrived at the bus stop across from the main entrance to Amazon’s JFK8 giant fulfillment center around 3:30 pm on November 3, nine days after Amazon Labor Union (ALU) supporters filed more than 2,000 signatures with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) seeking a union representation election. I was there for a little over an hour before ALU organizers arrived to set up their tent, which they use as a center to collect signed union authorization cards.
During that hour, I spoke with two dozen workers waiting to get on the bus after finishing their shift. Most workers I met or saw getting on or off the buses were young and in their majority Black or Latino.
The large majority of the two dozen workers I interviewed at the bus stop supported the ALU effort to organize a union at JFK8 and Amazon’s three surrounding warehouses, dubbed LDJ5, DYY6, and DYX2.
“A union would benefit us,” said Justin, who has worked at LDJ5 for two years. “We have no protection now from arbitrary firings. Amazon uses a point system of discipline. After accumulating six points you are out. If you are late, managers write you up for 1.5 points. If you call out [take a day off from work], you got another 2. It’s easy to reach the cutoff and get fired.”
Justin added that long shifts, often 12 hours, especially the 5 pm – 5 am night shift, and the fast pace of work, result in injuries, another common complaint from workers. “These are some of the reasons I already signed the union authorization card,” said Justin, who is in his late 20s.
Even among those who have recently started working at Amazon, support was strong for the ALU. “I’ve been here for two months,” said Aziz, who works at JFK8. “But I think a labor union can give us more confidence, more job security.”
Others were more reluctant to express an opinion. “I don’t know much about the union,” said Susan, a young worker who started a month ago.
“If there was a vote tomorrow, I would vote for the union,” said Carmen Díaz, a middle-aged worker originally from the Dominican Republic who has worked at JFK8 for 2 years. She added, however, she has not signed a union authorization card. “I’ve worked at other jobs before, including union jobs, and the wages and benefits we have at Amazon now are the same or better,” she said. “I am OK with work here.” Carmen explained she would vote for the union “because I have a 22-year-old son who started work here a year ago. He has already signed a union card.”
Only one worker among those interviewed, Philip, expressed hostility toward the ALU but did not want to explain why.
The Organizing Tent
Chris Smalls, one of the main ALU organizers, and Ray, a volunteer supporting the union organizing drive, pulled up in an SUV at the bus stop around 4:45 pm. Ray worked for Amazon in the past but quit during the pandemic because “lack of adequate safety measures by the company put me and my family at risk,” he said. He now runs his own business and volunteers at the union organizing center regularly. The ALU has used the Amazon Labor Union Solidarity Fund to purchase the vehicle to transport their supplies, as well as buy food, T-shirts, and other organizing materials.
Chris and Ray set up a canopy with tables facing the bus stop. They spread ALU literature, union authorization cards, and clipboards on the tables that workers could use to sign up for the union. They also set up folding chairs in a semi-circle, surrounding a fire pit in the middle. “We keep this up all night,” said Connor Spence, another ALU organizer who arrived later. “We need the fire to stay warm.” It did get quite chilly after dusk.
ALU organizers first set up this tent in April, when the union organizing effort started. Union supporters have been hosting barbecues and collecting signatures from workers on cards calling for a union election. “We’ve been doing this 24/7, rain or shine,” Smalls said.
Pizza was on the menu this evening. Dozens of pies were delivered to the tent around 5 pm. “How much?” was a frequent question from workers walking or driving by. “It’s free,” was the answer. All workers were invited to enjoy a slice regardless of their attitude toward a union. “We’ve been doing this every night this week,” Connor said, “but it’s expensive.” Celebrating the filing of the signatures with the NLRB, a big step in the unionization effort, called for it, Connor and other organizers explained. Funds are raised through a GoFundMe account, which has so far raised more than $40,000 from over 600 donors toward a $50,000 goal.
World-Outlook encourages our readers to support this important union organizing drive. Visit the ALU website (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
Winning the Trust of the Workers
“I just returned to work, a year after Amazon fired me,” said Jason Anthony, another ALU organizer of Puerto Rican origin. He explained the company fired him claiming poor attendance. “Anyone terminated for that reason has to wait more than a year to re-apply,” he said. “But Chris, Connor, and the others kept up the pressure and today was my first day back.” Anthony said this has solidified his support for the ALU and his determination to widen backing for the union among other workers.
Anthony pointed out that Amazon has hired the union-busting outfit, the Burke Group, that it used to defeat the union organizing effort in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this year. Some of these union busters are Mexican or others who speak Spanish, trying to divide Latinos from other workers by peddling “company speak in Spanish,” he explained. “But there are many more of us, Hispanics, who support the union,” he said.
“Management sucks,” said Sativa Lopez, who is also Puerto Rican and has been working at JFK8 for about a year and a half. “The write-ups are ridiculous,” she added. “Managers will write you up for ‘poor quality’ or ‘productivity’ and they often won’t tell you for more than a week, which is against their own rules.” Lopez said she has signed a union authorization card but is not yet a full-fledged organizer.
Lopez explained she was injured on the job twice. The first time a box full of envelopes fell from the top of a truck while she was bent on the ground unloading the vehicle and hit her on her back, she said. Management tried to keep her working, rather than offering immediate medical care, she added. The second time she needed ice for a hand injury but the company insisted she go through a lengthy paperwork process before providing the needed relief. “I left and got my own ice,” Lopez said. “The union can help us improve these conditions,” she added.
“I trust the union,” said Kodah Ushiro, who worked for Amazon in San Bernardino, California, before moving to New York and getting a job in the company’s Staten Island facilities a year ago. It was a common sentiment expressed by many workers the day I visited.
‘The Union Is the Workers’
A fold-out sign, set up on the sidewalk next to the union tent, read: “Amazon Labor Union. Please Ask Us? Over 2,000 workers signed.” It drew the attention of many of the hundreds of workers who streamed by during shift changes. “The momentum is turning in our favor since we filed with the NLRB,” Connor said. “More people, including workers who had been reluctant to support the union, have approached me at work over the last week to ask for union cards.”
At the same time, Connor, Smalls, and other union organizers explained that the high turnover in Amazon’s workforce—roughly 150 percent a year, almost double that of the retail and logistics industries overall—presents a challenge to the union effort. It can mean workers who have signed union cards may no longer be working at Amazon when a representation vote takes place. That’s why the ALU filed the initial batch of signatures with the NLRB as soon as they estimated they had surpassed the threshold of 30% of the workforce, which labor law requires to trigger a union representation election.
In the two weeks since filing with the NLRB for union recognition, ALU organizers said they have collected an additional 300 signatures. They plan to file this new batch of union cards with the labor board if needed to secure a union vote.
This reporter witnessed about a dozen workers signing union cards the evening of November 3.
One worker was hesitant to sign. “I heard if the union wins we may lose the benefits we already have,” he said.
“It’s up to us to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Anthony responded. “The union is the workers.” That argument, in that instance, secured another signature.
“We will continue till we know that more than half the workforce supports the union,” Anthony told World-Outlook. “That’s why I am happy to be back on the job. I am needed. This is fun.”
World-Outlook extends its gratitude to Barbara Mutnick in New York for copy editing this article. Welcome to our volunteer copy-editing team!
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions