By Mark Satinoff and Barbara Mutnick
STATEN ISLAND, New York — “Be a part of something truly great,” said Amazon Labor Union (ALU) treasurer Maddie Wesley. “Be part of a movement,” she added, urging her 1,600 coworkers at LDJ5, Amazon’s sort facility here, to vote for the ALU in the representation election taking place April 25-29. “This is just the beginning. This is a call for all of you to join our brothers and sisters… at JFK8 and join ALU Local #1!”
Speaking at a spirited pre-election rally here on Sunday, April 24, Wesley was referring to Amazon’s giant fulfillment center, employing about 8,000 people, where the ALU won a landmark vote on April 1.
The victory of the ALU, an independent worker-led union, has inspired many in the labor movement and beyond. The atmosphere here on Sunday afternoon was electric. ALU president Chris Smalls chaired the rally of about 300 people who came together to urge a “Yes” vote the day before the election began. Four workers at LDJ5 addressed those gathered and expressed cautious optimism about the ALU’s chances of unionizing a second Amazon facility.
“I’ve got some bad news for you, Jeff Bezos,” said Julian “Mitch” Mitchell-Israel, the ALU’s field director who works at LDJ5, referring to Amazon’s CEO. “The workers got together, they squatted in the tent a while back, and you fucking missed it, bro. Now we’re here, we’ve got a whole building, and we’re about to get a second one.”
Mitchell-Israel was alluding to a passage in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. The 22-year-old ALU organizer explained he was reading the book when he started work at LDJ5. Addressing the powerful, “who hate change and fear revolution,” Steinbeck wrote that the real danger for the wealthy arises not when there is already a movement against them, but earlier when two people first pitch a tent in a field together after losing their homes and realize they have something in common. “Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other,” Steinbeck counseled the rich.
Many union leaders and some elected officials — old and new allies — joined the ALU members on the platform and pledged their support. They included Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson, American Postal Workers Union president Mark Dimondstein, and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Kshama Sawant, a socialist member of the Seattle City Council, announced during her speech a $20,000 donation to the ALU. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke earlier that morning, unable to join the afternoon rally because of a scheduling problem.
Charles Jenkins, President of the New York City chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), and Jean-Homére Lauture of UniteHere! Local 100, were among the speakers whose unions have consistently provided support and resources to the ALU.
Many unionists attended the rally, holding banners, wearing union jackets or caps, listening intently, and soaking up the new energy for labor radiating from the ALU members and speakers. Rank-and-file union members were present from numerous Teamsters locals, United Food and Commercial Workers, Transport Workers Union, UniteHere!, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Communication Workers of America, Service Employees International Union, CBTU, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Association of Flight Attendants, and others.
Powerful testimony by four LDJ5 workers
Amazon reacted to ALU’s victory at JFK8 by intensifying its union-busting efforts at the smaller building. After April 1, the company flooded LDJ5 with out-of-state anti-union “consultants.” Overall, Amazon spent $4.3 million last year on these union busters.
Wesley became a special target of the retail giant. “Maddie was accused of having been given a new car, bought by Chris [Smalls] using union money,” Michael Aguilar, one of Wesley’s coworkers who addressed the rally, said in an interview. “The company also spread the rumor that Maddie was responsible for the death of a 19-year-old worker who committed suicide this month shortly after Amazon fired him.”
In her remarks at the rally, Wesley explained that in contrast to the grueling 10-12 hour shifts at JFK8, “at LDJ5, 80% of the building is part-time and only 20% full-time. That is not what the workers want or need. It’s what Amazon has figured out is most efficient and it is at the expense of the workers, who can’t live off of part-time hours and who want to go full-time.”
Mitchell-Israel opened his remarks with a mock shout-out to the union busters Amazon hired, mentioning four of them by name. “They’re getting paid $400 an hour to tell us to vote no, to tell us we shouldn’t be objecting to $18.25/hr,” he said, referring to the starting wage at LDJ5. “I want them to know that we’re not afraid. The brutal working conditions at JFK8 have been well documented… all the horror stories you heard today, they are true in our building too. They’re true in every Amazon building across the country.”
The ALU field director estimated there is currently a 1-20 ratio of union busters to workers at LDJ5. He said the company has assigned two managers to follow him around the sorting center during his shifts for the past few days “to make sure I’m not talking to anyone about the union.”
Aguilar and another LDJ5 worker, Mark Saber, described in their remarks at the rally the impact these more experienced organizers have had on workers newer to the union — Amazon’s smear and scare tactics notwithstanding.
Aguilar, who started at JFK8 in 2019 when he was 19, now works at LDJ5. He described his feelings of isolation on the job and the difficulty of keeping up with the demanding production quotas in his earlier days at Amazon.
“A few months ago,” Aguilar said, he ran into Wesley and Mitchell-Israel. “Mitch was organizing right in front of me, and he was asking workers what they knew about the union, asking them to sign authorization cards. He invited me to watch a video about unions in his car. I was just so surprised to find out that people were actually fighting for things… I hated the fact that I’ve seen so many of my friends and family getting fired. And I saw that the ALU was fighting for job security, higher wages, and I was like you know what, fuck it, I joined.”
Aguilar proudly reported he had convinced ten coworkers to sign union authorization cards.
“I joined the union a couple of months ago after working in the warehouse for almost a year,” Saber told the rally. “During the past year, I noticed a lot of favoritism and I grew frustrated when the people working hard would suffer when Amazon made decisions that put profit over their employees. When I saw Maddie and Mitch and other fellow workers distributing the authorization cards, it made me realize that we do need a union to make this job worth keeping,” he said.
“We deserve better for the work we do,” Saber continued.
“We carry 50-pound boxes every day, only receiving 15-minute breaks, 5 minutes of which we have to spend walking to and from the break rooms. The managers’ favorites are allowed to just stand around while the rest of us are hurting our backs scanning and making ourselves dizzy wrapping pallets,” the young worker explained.
“We need a union so that we can fight for ourselves and our coworkers,” he said. “We need the union to have our voices heard and to make our concerns known.”
Countering Amazon propaganda post JFK8 vote
Because the JFK8 vote took place first, the ALU made a strategic decision to marshal its forces from both facilities to focus on that warehouse. ALU members at LDJ5 threw themselves into the fight at JFK8. This led to a weakened union presence at LDJ5, which Amazon exploited.
“Last week Amazon stopped production for one hour and gathered all the workers together to hear from the VP of Human Resources,” Aguilar reported. “She told workers that if the union is voted in, they would lose their voice to a third party.” The company forced the ALU to take down its banner, which the union had hung in the lunchroom, and has attempted to confiscate ALU literature.
“After JFK8 won their election and we went back into the building we found a lot of people believing the anti-union rhetoric and they didn’t want to join the union,” Aguilar continued. “The past week we’ve been talking to people, answering questions, and countering the lies. They see that we’re workers just like them,” he emphasized.
“The ALU has had success in turning things around,” Aguilar said. “This week it’s really been good. People are more supportive of the union than they have been in the past month. And now I do feel a little optimistic.”
Wesley described the atmosphere inside LDJ5 as a “roller coaster.”
“When we won JFK8 we thought it was going to be an easy victory at LDJ5, but we quickly realized that Amazon was very angry about the fact that we won JFK8,” she said. “All the resources that they put into union busting an 8,000-person facility, they have put into our little 1,600-person sort center. It was rough there for a while. We took a lot of time off from organizing LDJ5 in order to focus on JFK8, and, in the meantime, Amazon rallied a bunch of anti-union workers. We had to fight to get back to the point where we were before. The Amazon workers, my team of people, really stepped up. They weren’t discouraged even though it looked a little bleak there for a while, and now we’re at this point where we think we’ve got a good chance of victory going into this.”
The ALU has a workers committee of 25 people at LDJ5. It is distinct from, but coordinates with, the more established workers committee of 25 at JFK8.
Before the rally started, ALU secretary Karen Ponce, who works at JFK8, said in an interview she felt “pretty confident” about the election at LDJ5. “I’ve seen a different level of support this time around,” she noted. “I know that they were able to reach out to every worker with the phone banking, which is different from JFK8.” The ALU has received a lot of support from community and political groups that have sent volunteers to help staff literature tables, distribute flyers, and talk with workers, she said, which “we didn’t really see for JFK8.”
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has announced that the votes from LDJ5 will be counted at its Brooklyn office on May 2.
DYY6 is next
Mat Cusick works at DYY6, where he started six months ago. One of four buildings in Amazon’s Staten Island complex, DYY6 is a delivery station with 600 workers, where packages get loaded onto vans. Cusick said in an interview he knew from the start he wanted to help organize the union. His first day on the job he got off the bus, went straight to the ALU tent, signed a union card, and asked, “How do I start?”
Cusick explained that the ALU’s original strategy was to organize all four buildings simultaneously. Achieving the 30% threshold of signatures required from those working at Amazon as of the date of the filing with the NLRB in order to qualify for an election soon proved difficult. That was due to Amazon’s yearly turnover rate of 150% and inflated employment numbers the company claimed. “So, we had to scale back and focus on each warehouse, one at a time,” he said.
Cusick described the intense propaganda offensive by Amazon. “There’s the union busters walking around the building and having one-on-ones, the ‘captive audience’ meetings, the TV screens all over the building, and posters and flyers everywhere,” he said. “There are message boards in the bathrooms, in front of the urinals, and inside each bathroom stall. They send out emails and text messages.” According to a leaked memo obtained by The Intercept, Amazon has banned words like “union,” “pay raise,” “bathroom,” and “plantation” from a planned internal messaging app.
As soon as the LDJ5 election is over, Cusick said he is eager to start organizing at DYY6. “I’ve already met two other workers who are interested in organizing as well,” he noted. “I think each election will be easier than the last. After two victories, it’ll be easier to explain what the union is and convince people. We can say, ‘Now it’s your turn to do what all your coworkers have done in the other buildings and unite into one local.’ I’m very excited about that.”
Fight for certification at JFK8 is on
Ponce and Pasquale Cioffi, another JFK8 worker, said that management has called workers into the office, ordered them to sit down in front of an Amazon lawyer, and pressured them into signing affidavits against the union.
“We’re not waiting for [NLRB] certification to start acting like a union,” Ponce said. “We’ve started accompanying workers to Human Resources if they’re threatened with being written up. One time a manager was trying to speak to me, and I told him I wouldn’t speak to him unless [ALU organizer] Brett Daniels was present. That saved me from getting a write-up, although I did receive a verbal warning.” The ALU is currently in the process of taking nominations for shop stewards. “So, we’re advancing. While they’re doing this delaying tactic, we’re moving forward. I tell everybody it’s just a matter of time.”
Angelika “Angie” Maldonado is the chair of the workers’ committee at JFK8. “After the election at LDJ5 we’re going back to JFK8 full throttle again to let people know what their rights are, what they deserve,” she said in an interview. “We’re happy if you voted yes but we don’t care if you voted no, we’re still representing everyone. We appreciate all the support of all the other unions and all the other volunteers helping our coworkers. For me personally, it’s overwhelming to understand that we’re helping the whole country, the whole world.”
Other ALU organizers are already facing down Amazon inside JFK8. “Myself and [ALU vice president for organizing] Derrick Palmer saved a coworker from being fired today & helped another file an appeal to reverse her wrongful termination,” tweeted Michelle Valentin Nieves, a recent recruit to the union, on April 27. “Hey Amazon, recognize the ALU!!!”
An illegal firing and another victory
Days before the April 24 rally, an administrative law judge in Staten Island ruled that Amazon must reinstate and pay back wages to Gerald Bryson because the company fired him “unlawfully” two years ago. Bryson was among a group of workers who staged a walkout at JFK8 in March 2020 over safety issues during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. “For me to win and walk back through those doors changes everything,” Bryson told the New York Times. “It will show that Amazon can be beat. It will show you have to fight for what you believe in.”
Amazon claimed Bryson was fired for using “abusive, vulgar, or harassing language” against another worker. The NLRB ruled last month he was actually fired in retaliation for protesting safety conditions. In his ruling, Judge Desmond Green sided with the NLRB. The decision requires Amazon to post notices inside the warehouse affirming the right of workers to form a union and publicly acknowledge the remedies it must take. Amazon said it will appeal the ruling.
The ALU has also announced it is planning to hold a four-day nationwide phone conference in mid-June for Amazon workers who want to unionize their workplaces. The details haven’t been ironed out yet, according to Wesley, “but basically, it’s about how Amazon workers can charter ALU chapters on their own. Once they reach certain thresholds for cards signed, the ALU will start sending them resources. We’re working on creating the chartering process right now. At the national call we will train organizers how to start chapters DIY.”
 For more information see “The Workers Have Spoken! Amazon Labor Union Scores Major Victory in NY,” and the reporter’s notebook “When We Unite Together, We Win,” both published by World-Outlook on April 1, and April 8, 2022, respectively.
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions