‘Every Worker Needs a Union’
This article was first published on March 22 and was updated on March 25, 2022, to include an inadvertent omission. The updated portion includes the remarks of Amazon worker Brima Sylla, an immigrant from Africa, who speaks about the experience of immigrant workers and their involvement in the union organizing campaign led by the Amazon Labor Union in New York.
By Mark Satinoff and Argiris Malapanis
STATEN ISLAND, New York, March 20, 2022 — “We will win! We will win!” reverberated across the main entrance to Amazon’s giant JFK8 fulfillment center this afternoon. About 300 Amazon warehouse workers and their supporters rallied here to boost efforts by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) to win representation for more than 7,000 workers employed at JFK8. Workers will vote in person March 25-30 in a large tent set up in front of the facility.
In addition to ALU organizers, representatives of other unions and several politicians addressed the rally pledging support for the union organizing effort. They included Steve Lawton of Communication Workers of America Local 1102 and Jean-Homère Lauture of UNITE HERE Local 100. New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, and New York State Senator Jessica Ramos also spoke at the rally.
Lauture explained that Local 100 made its headquarters available for daily phone banking to reach Amazon workers and convince them to vote for the union.
Delegations from the Service Employees International Union Local 1199, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 342, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers also took part in the event. Nurses, teachers, and students, faculty and staff from the College of Staten Island, Baruch College, and other area schools participated as well.
Many Amazon truck drivers and other workers driving by slowed down, honked their horns, and gave thumbs up in solidarity as they passed by the rally.
Short, moving speeches by a dozen ALU organizers were the centerpiece of the event, describing the year-long effort culminating in the vote set to start within days. (Videos of these remarks by several ALU organizers are posted at the end of this article.)
Two years ago, Amazon fired ALU president Chris Smalls after he led a walkout over health and safety conditions at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Speaking at the rally, he described how the ALU — a grassroots group with no affiliation to any established national trade union — started less than a year ago with “no money, no resources, no real guidance, and a pro bono lawyer, Seth Goldstein.”
At first, the union’s resources consisted of two chairs, two tables, and a blue tent that workers set up every day at the bus stop across from JFK8.
“There were days where we signed up only one worker, and we thought all was lost,” Smalls said. “We had a setback when we had to withdraw the petition we submitted to the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board], because Amazon had fired a thousand workers in less than six months, and we didn’t have enough signatures. Then there were days when we came out here and signed up nearly 200 workers in one day. We had days where we came into the building, and everybody was happy to see us. We built a relationship with and earned the trust of the workers.”
Guarded optimism for a union victory
Even before the pandemic, which increased attrition across the labor market, the turnover in Amazon’s workforce was roughly 150 percent a year, almost double that of the entire retail and logistics industries. This means some workers who have signed union cards may no longer be working at Amazon by the time the union files its petition with the NLRB, or a representation vote takes place. This is one of the main challenges ALU organizers face.
Connor Spence, ALU vice president for membership, addressed this point at the rally. Workers are treated like disposable commodities, he said. “They might not need me, and they might not need you, but they need us,” he emphasized. “If we stand together and we fight together, we can win the victories that will change our lives.”
Rank-and-file organizers explained the reasons for their optimism that the ALU stands a good chance of winning the upcoming election. In less than a year, the ALU signed up over 4,000 workers at JFK8 and an adjacent warehouse, LDJ5.
Derrick Palmer, ALU’s vice president for organizing, has been working at Amazon for six years, which makes him among the most experienced workers. He has trained over 1,000 workers, has been a lead, and has worked in almost every department. Earlier in his employment, management even flew him to a facility in another state to train the workforce.
“Initially they told me if you work hard, you’ll be able to move up within the company, which is what I wanted to do,” he told the rally. “Well, it didn’t work out that way. I tried to move up and got denied a million times. Other workers who’ve been with the company for four months, five months, got promoted–just like that. All because they were cool with the managers. So, there’s favoritism in Amazon. There’s a lot of racism in Amazon and that’s one of the reasons why we decided to unionize.”
Palmer explained that many workers are scared to speak up because they don’t know their rights, so the ALU has focused on educating about the role of unions in giving workers a voice. “Amazon treats these workers like pawns on the chess board,” he said. “But I guarantee when we win this election, they’re going to treat them like kings and queens.”
ALU secretary Karen Ponce works the night shift at JFK8. She joined the union organizing drive recently. When she was hired, she knew nothing about unions, she told the rally.
“All I had heard was Amazon’s side of the story,” she said. “I saw the ALU outside hosting barbecues and I wanted a cheeseburger, but I was too scared to approach them. So, I did my research. I asked questions and found out that organizing a union is actually protected under the law. Amazon doesn’t want us to know that.”
Ponce continued: “I’m here for people with disabilities who don’t get accommodated. I’m here for the people that get fired left and right, including my sister. The first day I was hired she was fired. And you don’t get fired for being lazy. You get fired because you can’t keep up with their robots. Just the other week I got written up. When I asked who’s giving me this write up, I was told the system wrote me up! HR [Human Resources] is here to protect Amazon. We need somebody to protect the workers. We’re here for all the workers that don’t speak up. I want to thank the ALU for giving me that voice, for giving me that confidence, and for teaching me my rights.”
‘Inflation is eating up our paychecks’
Angelika (Angie) Maldonado has worked at JFK8 since 2018. She is a single mother who now chairs the ALU’s Worker’s Committee, which is responsible for educating and advocating for the union inside the warehouse. “Some workers are intimidated because they don’t know their rights,” she told World-Outlook in an interview. “Our job is to speak to their concerns and answer their questions.”
The committee distributes literature and posts ALU notices in every break room. “Since the ALU is a worker-led union, one of the committee’s most important jobs is for every organizer to recruit more organizers,” she said.
Michelle Arady Valentín Nieves, who has worked at JFK8 for three years, is one. “I was tired, overworked, exhausted,” she told World-Outlook in an interview. Nieves said she joined the union effort four months ago when ALU organizers helped her deal with harassment from her manager after Nieves spoke up against the fast pace of work that results in many injuries.
In addition, “inflation is now eating up our paychecks,” she noted. Even though Amazon has been boasting that hourly wages starting at $15 an hour is good pay, many workers find it harder and harder to make ends meet. “We can’t stay current with utility bills or pay for childcare. This is another reason support for the union is growing.”
Fighting sexual harassment
ALU treasurer Maddie Wesley works at the LDJ5 warehouse, which employs 1,600 workers. The NLRB recently certified that the ALU had gathered enough signatures for a union vote to be held there, and set April 25-29 as the dates for a representation election at LDJ5.
Wesley told the rally about overt sexual harassment she and another worker faced on the job shortly after getting hired last August. It took the form of verbal abuse, text messages, and attempted touching.
As new employees, the young women “didn’t want to cause any trouble” and they didn’t tell the company initially. They did report the harassment last November. Management didn’t take it seriously and said there was nothing they could do about it.
The harassment continued. Wesley said she had to “keep looking over my shoulder every day that I knew he was on shift because he would pop up right behind me and say something completely inappropriate and try to touch me.”
Three weeks after reporting the incidents to management with no resolution, Wesley informed Chris Smalls. “That’s when my union family got involved,” she explained.
“Chris and some of the other union people started protesting outside the building, demanding that Amazon address the multiple sexual harassment cases that we knew were happening in LDJ5. After I started talking to my coworkers and sharing my story, I found out that I was not alone. Other women had gone through the same thing. Two days after the ALU started protesting, the workers carrying out the harassment were suspended. It proves the union has power and that every worker needs a union.”
Connor Spence, the ALU vice president for membership, has worked at Amazon for four years. He said he knew a union was needed and waited years for “somebody to come unionize Amazon, for somebody to save us.”
Then, he told the rally, “One day I realized that’s not how it works. It can only be done by the workers themselves. Nobody’s coming to save us. The union is how you save yourself. The ALU is a way for the workers of Staten Island, and afterwards, the rest of the country, to save themselves, protect themselves, and protect each other.”
When Amazon workers cast a “Yes” vote next week, “We are making a commitment to work together,” he said. “That’s what unionizing is. It’s a commitment and a recognition that when we unite, we have power, and we can make powerful demands of the company that we built. You know it, I know it, and Amazon definitely knows it. That’s why they fight us so hard.”
Gerald Bryson is a case in point. Amazon fired Bryson in 2020 while he was also protesting unsafe company practices early in the pandemic. His case for reinstatement has sat with an administrative law judge for two years, even though the NLRB determined that Bryson’s firing was illegal retaliation for his workplace organizing.
In a rare move, the NLRB sued Amazon in federal court March 17 demanding an injunction to force the company to rehire Bryson before the upcoming union vote. The suit also demands that Amazon post notices at the facility that it is illegal to terminate workers for union organizing activities, and read aloud a statement of worker rights at mandatory employee meetings.
“I hope I will be back and vote yes for the union next week,” Bryson told the rally.
The immigrant workers’ perspective
Brima Sylla is an African immigrant from Liberia who works the night shift at JFK8. He is a new employee, who started two months ago. Like many workers, he found out about the ALU because of the union’s very public presence inside and outside the facility. He was one of the speakers at the March 20 union rally.
Amazon is notorious for its “captive audience” meetings, where workers are “invited” to hear a presentation from a highly paid union-busting consultant. In these meetings, the ALU has been vocal in challenging Amazon’s lies. This is where Sylla met Cassio Mendoza, an experienced ALU organizer. “It quickly became clear that this is a great fight and I needed to get involved,” Sylla told World-Outlook in an interview. Sylla and Mendoza now collaborate closely. This includes distributing flyers and talking with workers during the shift change after they get off work at 4:30 am. “It’s been a very encouraging experience,” Sylla said. “The overwhelming majority of workers voice support for the union.”
Sylla’s focus is on reaching out to the large number of Amazon workers from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. “The union is for the well-being of all workers, whether they were born here or are from another country,” he noted. Sylla said he has started a WhatsApp group geared to the concerns of immigrant workers.
Sylla is the General Secretary of the African Community Alliance of Staten Island (ACASI). Through his roots in the African community, he uses every opportunity to win support for the ALU. “Every Sunday there is a soccer match that draws players from Staten Island’s diverse African community,” he explained. “For the time being, I haven’t been able to attend the games because I work on Sundays. But I’ve been able to encourage players who work for Amazon to vote for the ALU through the WhatsApp chat room for the Sunday soccer practices. We have two soccer chat rooms: one for practices at Jersey Street and the other at Broadway, both in Staten Island. Those practices include diverse soccer players, most of them are Africans. They generally support the idea of the union.”
Intensive phone banking
For the past few weeks the ALU has been on an intensive campaign to call every worker at JFK8. The response has been “more than 60 percent in favor of the union,” Wesley said in an interview. ALU organizers and other volunteers are calling back those still undecided to discuss their concerns and answer questions.
As the election approaches, Amazon has been changing previously established policies in an effort to intimidate workers and make it harder to campaign for the union on the job. This includes altering clock-in and -out procedures, denying overtime to selected workers, and threatening to ban use of cellphones.
In response, the ALU has formulated a list of eight demands over health and safety issues, pay, overtime, transportation, and time off. You can see the demands here.
The rally ended with a spirited march through the parking lot and in front of the main entrance to JFK8. “ALU, Vote Yes!” workers chanted.
Videos of ALU organizers addressing March 20 union rally
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions