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On the Clock is Motherboard’s reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.
Amazon warehouse workers at the company’s JFK8 facility on Staten Island voted in favor of the Amazon Labor Union, an independent union led by former and current workers. This is the first Amazon warehouse in the country to vote to unionize in the company’s history. More than 5,000 people work at the JFK8 warehouse.
The Amazon Labor Union―led by former JFK8 supervisor Chris Smalls and current JFK8 worker Derrick Palmer―filed for an election back in October 2021 after more than 2,000 workers signed union authorization cards. The union win is one of the most historic in American labor union history not just because it is the first Amazon warehouse to unionize, but because the Amazon Labor Union is not affiliated with any larger labor union—it is an entirely new entity spun up specifically to unionize these workers.
“We are making history,” ALU organizer and current Amazon employee Jason Anthony told Motherboard outside of the NLRB vote count.
In Staten Island, Amazon committed itself to union-busting as fiercely as it did with the first Bessemer, Alabama union vote, where tactics were so egregiously illegal that a judge called for another union vote. Early on before the union filed for an election, the NLRB had already found Amazon was illegally interfering with worker organizing by confiscating union literature.
“My team has been amazing, the way we’ve been organizing camping out for the last 11 months in front of the building, occupying the breakroom. I didn’t expect nothing less,” Christian Smalls, who was fired by Amazon after organizing an early COVID-19 walkout, told Motherboard outside of the NLRB vote count. “I know what these organizers have been doing, what they sacrificed, what I sacrificed to get to this point, and I’m just happy to see it come into this realization. Happy to be a part of this.”
Once the election was filed, union busting efforts entered full swing. At JFK8, workers were bombarded with “Vote No” messages and subjected to “captive audience meetings” where union busters warned “things could become worse” if workers unionized. Union organizers were dismissed as “thugs” by Amazon, organizers who are overwhelmingly Black. In an expose detailing how Amazon mishandled the pandemic at JFK8, endangering thousands of workers, the New York Times was able to obtain internal Amazon employment records for JFK8 as of 2019 and found that 60 percent of the warehouse’s associates were Black or Latino, 70 percent of management was white or Asian, and Black workers were 50 percent more likely to be fired.
Amazon called police officers to arrest union organizers, taking Smalls to court over accusations of trespassing on their property. Amazon hired a Trump Hotel union buster to crush the union drive and hired influential pro-union Democratic Pollster Global Strategy Group to help produce anti-union materials, all part of its failed bid to launch a comprehensive union-busting campaign.
The reasons for why workers wanted to unionize at JFK8 are myriad. The largest warehouse in New York City is, like most Amazon warehouses, can be a dangerous place to work. Over the pandemic, reports have surfaced detailing how hundreds of workers were out on COVID leave and how excessive heat led workers to file a federal complaint revealing they’d been “fainting out from heat exhaustion, getting nose bleeds from high blood pressure and feeling dizzy and nauseous.” Despite this, Amazon has sent workers “safety” warnings about union organizers who’ve been trying to talk to workers over the past few months.
The ALU’s demands are relatively simple: a $30 hour minimum wage, substantial increases to paid time off and vacation days, two 30 minute paid breaks along with a paid hour lunch, union representation at all disciplinary meetings, childcare payments or provision, and more.
Asked what they would do after they won, Smalls said the team would take a brief celebratory moment before starting to fight for a fair contract.
“I want to sleep,” Smalls said. “Something that I haven’t done in almost two years.”
Lauren Kaori Gurley contributed reporting.