After Landmark Victory at JFK8, Amazon Labor Union Loses 2nd Vote at LDJ5
By Argiris Malapanis and Mark Satinoff
BROOKLYN, New York, May 2, 2022 — “We lost this battle, but we’ll win the war,” Michael Aguilar told fellow Amazon Labor Union (ALU) members, union supporters, and the media this grey, rainy afternoon. An Amazon worker at LDJ5, the company’s sorting facility in Staten Island, New York, Aguilar spoke to those gathered outside the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office here today. The labor board had just announced the ALU lost the union representation election at LDJ5.
The final tally was 380 votes for to 618 against the union, with 2 voided ballots. Of the 1,633 workers eligible to vote, 1,000 cast ballots. This means 38% of the LDJ5 workers backed the ALU, compared to 55% at JFK8.
The LDJ5 election started three weeks after the ALU won a landmark vote at JFK8, Amazon’s fulfillment center next door employing 8,000 workers.
“The reality is we were so busy campaigning at JFK8, we lost a lot of ground at LDJ5 with the campaigns going on at the same time,” ALU vice president of membership Connor Spence told the media after the NLRB announcement.
“But also having lost JFK8, Amazon doubled the amount of union busting resources they were using at LDJ5. They broke the law twice as much, and we have numerous unfair labor practice charges that we’re in the process of filing,” Spence continued. “Regardless of the outcome… we’re going to build a union at LDJ5. Workers at LDJ5 will have just as much a part of building the ALU as JFK8 workers, despite the fact they’re not yet represented by the ALU. It was always going to be an uphill battle, but we’re just going to make the most of it from here. We’re all disappointed by the outcome, but we’re still optimistic about the movement going forward.”
The ALU’s successful effort to unionize JFK8 lasted 11 months. In contrast, ALU organizers had a little over three weeks between the news on April 1 of the ALU victory in the giant fulfillment center and the beginning of the voting at the smaller sorting facility across the street. In fact, “Amazon wanted to have it the next week, we had to fight to even get the three weeks,” ALU president Chris Smalls explained.
To maximize the chances of a victory at JFK8, the ALU had pulled all experienced organizers, including those working at LDJ5, into its first battle. Julian “Mitch” Mitchell-Israel, for example, the union’s field director who works at LDJ5, took a month off work to help the ALU’s campaign at JFK8. That weakened the effort to counter Amazon’s misinformation at his worksite.
“Amazon took all the resources they had at JFK8 and pushed them over to a building 1/7 of the size,” Mitchell-Israel told the press. “They were more willing to have intense union busting activity everywhere in the building. They were willing to break the law. And at the end of the day, we did everything we could to fight it. But while we were focusing so heavily to win JFK8, because it was the only thing on our minds for so long, they were able to plant a really deep anti-union seed into some of the workers here that three weeks was just not enough time to overcome. But as Connor said, this is a very small battle and a very large war, so if Jeff Bezos thinks he has won, he’s wrong. If Jeff Bezos thinks we’re not going to come back and win LDJ5 later, he’s wrong.”
Different set of challenges at LDJ5
The ALU faced a different set of challenges to convince workers at LDJ5 to vote in favor of the union than JFK8. LDJ5 has only been open since late 2020, and for most employees — up to 80% — the position is a part-time job and a second source of income. Organizers said both factors mean a larger percentage of workers had fewer grievances or were more vulnerable to the company’s anti-union propaganda. By comparison, JFK8 has been open since 2018 with a majority of workers working full time.
“Part-time workers may have a second full-time job, and their work at Amazon may be supplementary,” Mat Cusick said in an interview. Cusick, an ALU organizer at DYY6, a delivery station at Amazon’s Staten Island complex, works a part-time shift himself. “These are generally younger workers who may still be living at home, so they don’t have the same sort of commitment to a job.” There are also part-time workers who would like to be full-time, he noted, adding that it’s among these workers the ALU did find support at LDJ5. “But Amazon is building its model this way and bringing new part-time workers instead of turning part-time workers into full-time,” Cusick explained.
Between March 7, when the NLRB certified the ALU had collected enough signatures for a representation election at LDJ5, and April 25, when voting started, most ALU organizers who shouldered the day-day responsibility for countering Amazon’s relentless union-busting activities on the job at LDJ5 were relatively inexperienced.
“JFK8 organizers are Amazon workers that have been there for several years,” Smalls explained. “Organizers at LDJ5 have only been there for seven months… We talk about years of experience at Amazon compared to organizers that just had to get hired and learn the ins and out of the company and try to convince their coworkers. It’s a little difficult to do that.”
At LDJ5, Amazon doubled down on its anti-union campaign, disciplining and spreading smears of alleged corruption and other lies about union organizers. It forced workers to remove union banners and union literature from the break room, and at times shut down production to hold mandatory “captive audience” gatherings. During these anti-union meetings, Amazon workers were no longer invited to ask questions as they had been at such meetings at JFK8. This is likely because at JFK8 organizers succeeded in using such meetings to grill union-busting consultants.
How ALU neutralized union busters at JFK8
In an April 4 interview with the Huffington Post, Spence explained that Amazon ran a two-pronged campaign against the fledgling union at JFK8 — one “above ground” and the other “below ground.” The above-ground campaign consisted of the “captive audience” meetings where someone — often an Amazon manager — delivered scripted speeches and slideshows aimed at undermining support for the union.
The below-ground campaign belonged primarily to the consultants. Paid a typical rate of $3,200 a day apiece, these union busters worked the warehouse floor, pulling workers aside for one-on-one conversations. They stood out in their white-collar clothes and were usually white or Latino. Those who are bilingual focused on Spanish-speaking workers. Some said they were flying back and forth between New York and Bessemer, Alabama, where they were also trying to undermine a separate union campaign at the Amazon facility there led by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). (The RWDSU trailed slightly in that vote when results were announced on March 31. But 400 ballots challenged by either the company or the union can tip the balance, with the outcome to be settled in an upcoming NLRB hearing.)
“Their job is to operate in the shadows,” Spence said, referring to the union busters. “When you expose them for what they are, it makes it very difficult for them to do their job.” Some were nice. Some weren’t. Whatever their disposition, their goal was to turn workers against the union, he noted, and at JFK8 the union had more success exposing this.
Spence and his friends gathered whatever information they could. Consultants who have direct contact with workers in an organizing campaign have to report their fees to the Labor Department. Although these documents only shed light on past work, Spence and his friends were able to compile unflattering dossiers, to show workers that the consultants get rich “convincing poor people to stay poor.”
ALU organizers then created flyers identifying the most prolific union busters in the warehouse, listing where they’re based, typically far away, and how much money they had earned in anti-union campaigns. Union organizers put stacks of these flyers in break rooms throughout the facility to alert fellow workers to how much Amazon was spending on its anti-union campaign.
These paid union busters sometimes went out of their way to conceal their names on their badges. Spence said he urged union supporters to try to figure them out through chit-chat. When one consultant named David, for example, refused to divulge his last name, Spence found it on a warehouse list of third-party vendors: David Acosta. The union Twitter account then sent out a “union-busting alert” on Acosta, with his photo and disclosure forms listing his fees.
Spence said he would follow these union busters around JFK8, handing workers copies of the consultants’ Labor Department filings, showing their $400-per-hour fees.
“Their eyes would get really wide,” Spence said, referring to the workers. “ ‘What the fuck? How do they get this job?’ That was probably the best way to discredit them.”
Union organizers have evidence some of these consultants broke labor law by making threats or interrogating workers on their union sympathies, which is illegal. They started filing unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB.
A culture of boldness proved crucial at JFK8. “We were able to get lots of workers to do affidavits,” Spence said. “A major component of our campaign was being brave and not capitulating to fear.”
As support for the ALU grew in JFK8, more workers put their names to these charges — something workers are often afraid to do for fear of retaliation. According to Spence, the more aggressive union busters started moderating their behavior as the unfair labor practice charges piled up, talking less directly about the union and more about working at Amazon.
Amazon learned from the experience at JFK8 and shifted tactics on the kind of union busters it deployed across the street, Cusick said. Most of the union busters the company used at LDJ5 were Amazon managers brought from other facilities across the country, rather than outside consultants, making it harder to discredit them as the ALU did successfully at JFK8.
‘The union will keep on pushing’
Acknowledging the loss at LDJ5, ALU vice president of organizing Derrick Palmer said the union would keep on pushing. “It’s going to continue to advocate for the workers, making sure that their voices are heard,” he told the press outside the NLRB office today. “There’s no way we’re going to stop or let this bring us down. It’s going to do the complete opposite. We’re going to go 10 times harder.”
Meanwhile, the ALU’s victory at JFK8 is still awaiting certification.
Amazon has filed 25 objections to the results at JFK8. In addition to challenging the union’s tactics, claiming ALU organizers “coerced” fellow workers into voting for the union, Amazon also claimed that the regional office of the labor board based in Brooklyn acted in a biased way against it.
According to ALU attorney Eric Milner, once Amazon questioned the independence of the labor board officials, “they really had no choice but to transfer the case out of the region so that a different region could evaluate Amazon’s conduct.” The case has been transferred to the NLRB’s Phoenix-based region.
Milner also said the ALU has solid evidence of multiple labor law violations Amazon committed during the LDJ5 election. The union has a week to decide whether to file with the NLRB objections to the company’s conduct in this vote. If the ALU were to forgo filing such a challenge, and the labor board certifies the announced LDJ5 vote, the union would have to wait 12 months before filing a new petition for another representation election.
When asked by a reporter what the union was fighting for, Smalls stated, “Job security, higher wages, better medical leave options, longer breaks, a pension, and free college.”
Amazon workers at about 150 facilities across the country have expressed interest in learning the lessons the ALU has drawn from its experiences in New York and applying them at their worksites because they are fighting for the same goals, Smalls said.
“Nothing’s changed,” said Smalls. “We’re still going ahead with our national call.” This is a nationwide organizing conference call the ALU has scheduled for June.
After a long and hard fight, Smalls said the ALU will take a breather to assess its next steps, and then “we’ll get right back into the fight. We’ll get back up and wipe off our shoulders. This is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s going to be wins and losses, but we’re going to live to fight another day. I’m a fighter. I’m not going anywhere. My team are fighters. They’re not going anywhere. We’re gonna hold our heads up high and continue to push forward.”
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions