This article was first published on April 13, 2022, at 7 a.m. EST. It was updated the same day at 8:30 p.m.; videos with speeches by six Amazon workers were added at the very end.
By Argiris Malapanis and Mark Satinoff
STATEN ISLAND, New York — At an April 8 press conference — more like a workers’ rally — here, Amazon Labor Union (ALU) organizers called on union members and supporters to focus their efforts over the next two weeks on winning the upcoming union vote at LDJ5. This is Amazon’s sort facility across the street from JFK8, the company’s giant fulfillment center employing 8,000 workers, where the ALU just won a landmark union election. The ALU urged everyone to join an April 24 rally in front of LDJ5.
“2,654 votes Yes, 2,131 votes No, 67 challenged ballots, and 17 void ballots,” ALU secretary Karen Ponce told the media and the several dozen Amazon workers and supporters gathered near the bus stop by the entrance of LDJ5, referring to the outcome of the union vote at JFK8, announced April 1.
“We got 57% of the turnout in favor of the union. This may be the NLRB’s [National Labor Relations Board] largest bargaining unit,” Ponce continued. “We kicked Amazon’s management and union busters’ ass,” she said to cheers, laughter, and applause.
ALU organizers Tristan “Lion” Dutchin and Justine Medina then led the singing of “The Union Train” and other songs written by Dutchin (videos of the performance, along with the lyrics, are posted separately).
While describing the key lessons of how a team of rank-and-file workers organized Amazon’s first warehouse in the U.S., ALU members also drew attention to the main tasks ahead: the election campaign at LDJ5, beating Amazon’s challenge to the JFK8 victory, unifying the workforce to fight for a contract, and a nationwide organizing campaign.
“We shook up the labor movement,” said Derrick Palmer, ALU vice president of organizing. “This is history in the making. Now we got to bust our ass to make sure we get a union at LDJ5.”
“Since we won, we’ve been contacted by workers in over a hundred [Amazon] buildings nationwide and even overseas,” ALU president Chris Smalls said in opening the press conference. That’s about 10% of the company’s more than 1,000 fulfillment centers and other facilities across the country. Smalls said the ALU will share its experience through webinars and a “national call” it will host with fellow employees at Amazon who want to unionize their workplaces.
‘The ALU is coming’
The day before, Smalls and Palmer traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Sean O’Brien, the new president of the 1.2-million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). The IBT has expressed interest in organizing Amazon facilities. Smalls said the Teamsters promised help in the ALU’s push for a first contract in New York.
“The Teamsters are going to support us,” said Smalls. “That’s all we are asking for: resources, office space, manpower, strength, funds, lawyers, negotiators.”
The ALU — a grassroots group with no affiliation to any national trade union — has sought and welcomed solidarity from established unions, community and political organizations, as well as politicians. But a number of speakers emphasized that the leadership and direction of the fight will continue to come from the ranks of the ALU.
“I want to get that out of the way, we’re not affiliating” with the IBT or other established trade unions, Smalls said. “We will remain independent. We won this way, workers organizing ourselves. We won’t give that up.”
The ALU leader stressed the same point in referring to remarks by U.S. president Joe Biden. “Amazon, here we come,” Biden said on April 6, touting the White House Task Force on Worker Organization and Empowerment.
“You all heard Biden say that, but he should have said the ALU is coming for Amazon,” Smalls said to loud cheers. “Because we are.”
Hours before the press conference, Amazon filed 25 objections to the outcome of the union vote at JFK8 with the NLRB. The company argued that the result should be thrown out because the labor board conducted the election unfairly and ALU members had “coerced” workers into supporting their cause. The NLRB gave Amazon a deadline of April 22 to substantiate its allegations.
“These objections have no merit, and exist merely to stall certification of our union,” responded Connor Spence, ALU’s vice president of membership.
“Amazon makes claims that are either misleading, trivial, or downright false. These claims will be investigated and dismissed, but not before weeks or months of NLRB time and resources are wasted,” Connor added in a press release. “We are eager to work with the Board to set the record straight on each baseless objection and move forward with our certification.”
“The entire world knows that the workers won our election,” Cassio Mendoza, an ALU organizer who works the night shift at JFK8, said in an interview. “We look forward to sitting down with Amazon in May to negotiate a fair contract for the workers at JFK8.”
Unify workforce in fight for a contract
Unifying the workforce behind the fight for a contract is one of ALU’s immediate tasks, said Angelika “Angie” Maldonado, the chairwoman of the union’s Workers Committee at JFK8.
“If it wasn’t for the workers, there would be no victory,” Maldonado told the press conference. “I want to thank all the workers who voted ‘Yes.’ And even the ones that are misinformed, who voted ‘No,’ we’re here to inform you. This is not a war between us. Let’s unify and let’s bargain for the contract of our dreams. I thought I was fighting a battle from October to April. But the real fight is now. If we fight together, we can defeat the beast.”
“I wanna say thank you to my coworkers for being brave and facing the unknown, different, but better future of Amazon,” said Michelle Valentín Nieves, who joined the ALU a few months ago. She outlined key ALU contract proposals. “Amazon warehouse workers,” she said, “made Amazon the billion-dollar company that it is today. We deserve a living wage. We demand job security. We need paid sick leave. Together we will change Amazon forever.”
ALU organizers are aiming for $30 an hour from the current starting rate of $18.25. They want job security to prevent the company from constantly firing and rehiring people several months later, resulting in a turnover that exceeds 150% per year. They are also pushing for quality-of-life improvements, including allowing workers to keep their phones on the warehouse floor and pushing the company to provide shuttle buses for employees with long commutes.
The ALU is reaching out to recruit shop stewards to help defend workers victimized by management on the job and to volunteer for other union tasks. In response to a recent appeal, more than 300 workers have stepped forward since the union victory on April 1, Spence said in an interview.
A number of Amazon workers who addressed the media for the first time at the April 8 press conference gave examples of the union’s expanding appeal and organizers’ growing confidence in accelerating active involvement of the ranks in union affairs.
Pasquale “Pat” Cioffi is a middle-aged Process Assistant (PA) at JFK8. PAs train other employees and have close relations with hundreds of workers. Though they collaborate with supervisors and other managers, they are wage workers on an hourly rate.
“About a month ago I was looking for Cassio [Mendoza] and Brett [Daniels], and they were nowhere to be found,” said Cioffi, who has union experience as a dock worker and member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. He soon found that Amazon had called the police who arrested these ALU organizers, and Chris Smalls, for bringing food to other workers in the cafeteria.
“I didn’t like that. I started flipping ‘No’s’ to ‘Yes’s’ for the election,” Cioffi explained. “Next thing I know, I am under investigation from Amazon. I got pulled into the office, Human Resources, for allegedly cutting a wire into computers. I got suspended for a day. They soon realized they messed up with the wrong person. In the next three weeks, I must have flipped 400 to 500 ‘No’s’ to a ‘Yes’ for the union.”
‘One of the first steps in war is propaganda’
James DeVille described how early in the Covid-19 pandemic Amazon tried to hide facts about workers who got sick and could have infected others. “I knew one of the persons who passed away from Covid on my shift,” DeVille explained. “There was no mention of him. No memorial. They swept it under the rug.”
DeVille said he started thinking about a union when the company fired Smalls two years ago after he helped lead a walkout to protest unsafe job conditions during the pandemic. “It is the falsehoods and misinformation managers spread that got to me,” DeVille emphasized.
Amazon stepped up its attempts to smear union leaders during the election campaign. “One of the union busters, Emma, started spreading rumors that Chris [Smalls] is buying a Lamborghini,” Cioffi said. “I asked her for a loan, since her LM-10 [pay document] showed she was getting up to $3,000 a day! She disappeared.”
“One of the first steps in war is propaganda,” DeVille added.
“These guys spent millions and millions and millions of dollars to tell us to vote ‘No,’ ” he said, referring to company “captive audience” meetings where Amazon brought pressure to bear to dissuade workers from unionizing. “They shut down this entire building at least seven times,” DeVille continued, referring to management stopping production to herd workers to “training” anti-union sessions. “I work in a spot called Amnesty. When the floor shuts down, we get cursed up because it’s like $200,000 for every 10 minutes,” he explained. “They tried to force people who are immigrants, or young people with little job experience, away from fighting back. But it backfired.”
DeVille recently volunteered for the union’s outreach efforts. “I joined to counter Amazon’s propaganda,” he said. “I try to break down union information in layman’s terms. I wrote a couple of flyers.”
Most Daley works the night shift at JFK8. He told the press conference Amazon’s treatment of its workers as disposable parts of a machine and wages that do not allow working families to live decently in one of the most expensive U.S. cities, while executives claim to run one of the world’s best companies, were among the issues that turned him to the union.
“Managers see you as a number instead of a person,” Daley said. “They see a rate, they don’t see Most. They don’t see Jason [Anthony]. They don’t see Tristan [Dutchin]. They see a rate. But you say you better than other companies while you pay us pennies… Because that’s what it is. We live in a state where you gotta get six figures just to be comfortable.”
Daley also ridiculed Amazon’s objections to the union victory at JFK8. The company and its expensive lawyers claimed “we threatened workers to vote,” he said. “Yes. I am a worker. I ain’t threatening myself,” he added, to loud laughter. “I used common sense and saw what the union is. And then, when I saw it, I told other people about it…. Until Amazon realizes we are humans, not robots and rates, I’m gonna still fight.”
Brima Sylla, originally from Liberia, described his ongoing efforts to build support for the union among immigrant workers from Africa. (Videos with the remarks of Sylla, Daley, and several other workers are posted at the end of this article.)
Extending and receiving solidarity
Chris Smalls said the ALU has extended solidarity to other workers seeking unionization or a decent contract. These include Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, Starbucks workers organizing across the country, Met Coal miners on strike for more than a year and “anyone looking for dignity and a decent life.”
In a separate election at the Bessemer Amazon warehouse, the union trailed slightly in the initial tally of the votes announced on March 31: 993 workers voted against being represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), and 875 voted in favor. But more than 400 ballots have yet to be counted because they were challenged by either the company or the RWDSU. Those challenged ballots, enough to potentially affect the outcome, are set to be resolved at a labor board hearing in the coming weeks.
“Employees at six more Starbucks coffee shops in Upstate New York voted to unionize Thursday and Friday [April 7-8], delivering a string of wins for the nascent organization effort at one of America’s most ubiquitous coffee retailers,” reported the Washington Post on April 8. These successes pushed the total unionized Starbucks shops to 16. This is still a drop in the bucket of the more than 15,000 company-operated and licensed Starbucks stores across the country, but a drop that had not yet formed a year ago and one that could become a flood.
ALU members have also received solidarity from other countries. “We want to salute our colleagues in the United States who created the first Amazon union in the country!” said a message from Antoine Delorme of the CGT Amazon trade union at Châlons-sur-Saône, France. “What they’ve done is a victory for all workers!”
Delorme wrote that all Amazon logistics sites in France went on strike April 4, seeking better pay to make up for the impact of inflation on eroding wages. “At some sites, barricades were erected to slow down trucks from entering and exiting,” Delorme noted. “Many of these workers are on strike for the first time.”
Join April 24 pre-election rally at LDJ5
ALU treasurer Maddie Wesley painted a sobering picture of the campaign to win the union vote at LDJ5.
“I am an LDJ5 worker,” Wesley said. “It’s a war in there. They are really fighting us.”
Amazon took all its hired union busters who tried to thwart a pro-union vote among JFK8’s 8,000 employees “and walked them across the street to our little building of 1,600 people,” she said.
“They are spreading racist lies about Chris,” she explained, referring to ALU’s president, “and sexist lies about me, trying to undermine my authority as a young woman involved with the union. They are spreading things so horrible I don’t even want to repeat.”
Smalls added that one of the rumors union busters are spreading is that Wesley bears responsibility for a worker committing suicide. “That’s ridiculous, disgusting, and must be exposed,” Smalls said.
In December, Amazon reached a national deal with the NLRB agreeing to email past and current warehouse workers in the United States — more than one million people — informing them of their rights to organize within its facilities, the largest concession Amazon had made to date to organized labor. The settlement gave workers greater legal protection to organize in break rooms at Amazon warehouses, which played a role in the successful ALU campaign at JFK8. But now Amazon is not abiding by this settlement in LDJ5.
“Amazon is violating the national settlement agreement,” said Seth Goldstein, an attorney who represents the ALU and has filed more than 50 unfair labor practice complaints against Amazon on behalf of the union since May 2021. “These are blatant attacks on an agreement they were a party to. The core of the matter is Amazon agreed to something but they’re violating it because it suits their purposes for winning the election.”
According to an April 13 report on Vice, Amazon took down a union banner that workers had been allowed to display at JFK8 cafeterias and it is illegally confiscating union literature. At the same time, the company is holding mandatory meetings on a daily basis where union busters preach to workers they should vote “No.”
On April 10, two Amazon representatives called Wesley into a private meeting and presented her with a disciplinary write up for “soliciting” her coworkers to “Vote Yes.” In response to Amazon’s disciplinary action against Wesley, Goldstein filed unfair labor practice charges against Amazon for retaliating against a worker in order to discourage union activity. Goldstein also filed an unfair labor practice charge against Amazon for removing the “Vote Yes!” banner from the LDJ5 break room.
“We call on all those people who are in the news saying they support us, all over social media, the politicians, the celebrities, the labor leaders who are talking about our campaign, come shake hands with the LDJ5 workers, come meet the workers fighting for the union,” Wesley told the April 8 press conference.
“Our rally is on Sunday, April 24, starting at 3 p.m.,” she said, referring to ALU’s pre-election rally before the vote at LDJ5 scheduled for April 25-29. The rally will take place at 526 Gulf Ave. on Staten Island.
“I’m so proud of the LDJ5 team right now because they’re really stepping up,” Wesley continued. “We’ve got a great team of people, just workers, who have decided to take their livelihoods into their own hands and fight for this union and stand up against Amazon. Every LDJ5 worker who is out there speaking out for the union, despite all of the ‘Vote No’ propaganda, despite all the rumors and the lies, every LDJ5 worker fighting for the union right now is a hero.
“Come show your solidarity,” the union leader said. “Shake workers’ hands. Those who say you support us, actually do it.”
 For more information see “‘When We Unite Together We Win’: How a Team of Rank-and-File Workers Organized the First US Amazon Warehouse,” published by World-Outlook on April 8, 2022.
Videos of Speeches by Six ALU Members
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions