After Initial Setback, Amazon Workers on Staten Island Refile for Union Election
Amazon Labor Union members during a protest. | Conner Spence

After Initial Setback, Amazon Workers on Staten Island Refile for Union Election

This time, workers are trying to unionize just one warehouse, where they say they've gotten a majority of workers to sign union authorization cards.

On Wednesday morning, for the second time in three months, Staten Island Amazon workers hand-delivered signed cards to a National Labor Relations Board office in Brooklyn, petitioning that the board authorize a union vote.

The refiling comes after six weeks of furious organizing by the Amazon Labor Union, which withdrew their previous petition in early November after they came up short on signed union authorization cards. This time, the union is targeting only the largest facility on Staten Island, JFK8.

The union says it has collected over 3,000 cards signed by workers currently employed at JFK8, which it estimates employs about 5,600 workers. (An NLRB spokesperson confirmed that the union had filed the necessary paperwork, and said that the board would be reviewing the union’s “showing of interest” to confirm it had enough signatures.) If the petition is successful, the workers will become the second Amazon facility in the country, after Bessemer, Alabama, to hold a union vote.

“It’s round two, so we are going to hit them harder than we did the first time,” said Derrick Palmer, a worker and ALU leader.

Chris Smalls, the president of the ALU, who came to national prominence when Amazon fired him last year after he protested unsafe working conditions, says that the union’s work has become even tougher since last time.

“Since we had to withdraw, the news from that—along with Amazon’s ability to have direct access to all the workers through text message and the captive audience meetings they have every day—definitely put a dent in our campaign,” he said.

Even with a slim majority of workers having signed union cards, the effort is an uphill battle. Some veteran labor organizers argue that the real test of support for a union is not how many workers are willing to anonymously sign cards, but how many are willing to engage in coordinated public action, such as posting photos or signing a public petition.

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Smalls claims that the reason the union had to withdraw the first petition was because of Amazon’s extremely high turnover rate. “The cards are not the issue, the issue is that Amazon fired some of the people that signed the cards,” he said.

When the union first submitted its cards to the NLRB in October, Smalls said, organizers were confident they had collected signatures from 30 percent of workers at the site, as the NLRB requires. As the ALU understood it, the sprawling Amazon fulfillment complex employed 5,500 workers. 

The ALU submitted 2,500 signatures. But they were told that many of those signatures were invalid, because the workers who signed were no longer employed at Amazon. Amazon also told the NLRB that they employed more than 9,600 workers, though that number is disputed. The NLRB told the ALU that it had just 48 hours to submit more cards. 

Hourly warehouse employees at Amazon have a weekly turnover rate of about 3 percent and an annual turnover rate of about 150 percent. With so many employees moving in and out of Amazon, union organizers are constantly swimming against the tide to secure the necessary number of signatures. The constant flux also makes it difficult to know how many workers are employed at any given time. 

“The board needs to recognize that there is a 150 percent burn of employees so it’s really hard to come up with the number, because nobody knows what the number of employees is,” said Seth Goldstein, a labor attorney representing the ALU. “It changes every minute.” 

Goldstein argued that Amazon encourages high turnover as a way to prevent seeds of a union campaign from germinating. 

“It is always movement with Amazon,” he said. “Why? It’s their business purpose to make sure unions don’t organize. So they keep their numbers fluctuating constantly.”

Nick Juravich, a professor of Labor Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that employers have a long history of fighting unionization drives by inflating the number of workers.

“Sometimes they’ll say there’s this whole other group of people you maybe never heard of that work in another facility, or work during a different time of day, and that they are part of the bargaining unit too,” he said.

Since the ALU withdrew its  petition in November, Amazon has intensified its push to quash the campaign for good. In October, homeless Amazon worker and ALU member Daequan Smith was abruptly fired. Smith alleges that he was fired due to his organizing activities, as New York Focus first reported

In November, Amazon began forcing workers at all four of its Staten Island facilities to attend anti-union meetings. During the same month, Chris Smalls and another union leader, Brett Daniels, were arrested outside Amazon’s warehouse after Amazon called the police on them. 

The ALU, meanwhile, has redoubled its own efforts. Nearly every day since the first petition was withdrawn, about half a dozen Amazon workers have manned a tent outside of JFK8, distributing food and rallying other workers to join the campaign. On holidays, the organizers fire up the grill and serve BBQ to their fellow workers.

“We were trying to show the workers that we actually care and we are not going anywhere,” Smalls said.

Inside the warehouses, ALU members distribute pamphlets and union t-shirts, and recruit new members on the shop floor and on breaks.

Palmer says his volunteer work for the union comes on top of the 65 hours he works a week as a packer, sorting items coming down a conveyer belt. Since the union launched its second petition drive in November, Palmer says he hasn’t been getting much sleep.

“It’s non-stop,” he said. “Amazon is 24 hours. The machines never stop. There’s not a lot of peace and quiet.” 

When he does manage to get some rest in his apartment in Elizabeth, New Jersey, aches from the warehouse follow him home. “Your back’s hurting, your knees are hurting. Your feet are on fire. It’s something I just kinda got immune to after a while,” he said.

The ALU is not connected to any of the U.S.’s major unions, and no paid staff are working on the campaign. Smalls portrayed this outsider status as an advantage.

“We know that we are misfits and a non-traditional style union. But it works in our favor. If it was that easy for established unions to organize Amazon, it would have been done already,” Smalls said.

The ALU has recruited more than 100 organizers from the facility’s workers, led by an executive committee of 5.

Smalls said that the ALU is taking pains not to repeat some of the mistakes made by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which led the unsuccessful union drive in Bessemer, including its dependence on phone banking and online outreach to gather signatures.Juravich said the ALU’s organizing style is reminiscent of the heyday of the union movement in the 1930s. 

“The UAW, the Steel Workers Union, the UE back in the day—they didn’t have a real coordinated set of organizers going to every single shop,” he said. “We should not dismiss grassroots organizing because it doesn’t have a structure or doesn’t have a plan like the way a highly staffed union campaign would.”

Goldstein acknowledged that the union faces an uphill battle, but says it has a fighting chance.

“Labor struggles are never one, two, three,” he said. “They take time. They are painful. Labor loses often. The whole history of the labor struggle is more defeat than victory, since the 1870s. The only harm is not to try.”

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