by Lakshmi Gandhi
Last week, activists and organizers from Amazon’s Staten Island distribution center traveled to their regional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office to deliver the signatures needed to formally request a vote to form a union. Shortly after the signatures were delivered, Natalie Monarrez noticed an instant change in the moods of her coworkers.
“The people that want the union are really happy for us,” said Monarrez, one of the employees organizing for a union. “The people who are still unsure about it, I think are still in shock that we actually got to the point after six months of being able to file [the paperwork].”
The independent Amazon Labor Union was first created by former and current Staten Island-based Amazon employees in April. Employees have been working for months to collect the signed union cards necessary to call for a union vote by the NLRB. Unlike other efforts by Amazon workers to collectively organize, the New York union is an independent union in that it is not affiliated with a larger, more established organization.
Working at JFK8, a warehouse on Staten Island that serves as the only fulfillment center for all of New York City, is exhausting work, employees say, that requires them to be constantly on their feet as they create the thousands of packages that depart the warehouse each day. Speed and timing are also two of the biggest markers when it comes to employment with the company: Workers are evaluated on how many items or units they process per hour and the speed it takes a worker to process one item. Workers and union proponents say the constant pressure to work faster is a major factor when it comes to workers getting injured on the job.
Seth Goldstein, a labor lawyer working pro bono with the union organizers, says he has often heard concerns from Amazon warehouse workers about working conditions and their fears of getting injured on the job.
“There have been constant worker safety issues, OSHA violations, and issues about people not being able to go to the bathroom” at Amazon warehouses across the country, he said. “And that was before the pandemic. After the pandemic [started], those issues didn’t go away, they became much worse.”
Despite the rigors of the job, wages at JFK8 for hourly workers are about $18-$19 an hour, according to job advertisements and data posted on aggregated careers websites like Glassdoor. While that is above New York City’s minimum wage, workers say it is not enough to afford the region’s cost of living, especially for those with families to support. Amazon warehouse workers at JFK8 are overwhelmingly people of color. Internal documents from 2019 obtained by The New York Times revealed that 60% of the Staten Island workforce was either Black or Latino. The workforce at JFK8 is also sharply divided by race when it comes to those on the associate level and those in management. That same Times piece notes that managers at the Staten Island distribution center were 70% white or Asian. If the union vote passes, the Amazon Labor Union will be the company’s first-ever union and the first time the notoriously anti-union company would have to collectively bargain with employees over wages and other benefits.
Monarrez, 52, has been working for Amazon for four years as an associate, first at a distribution center in New Jersey and now at JFK8. As she has talked to coworkers about the benefits of a union and the ways collective organizing could improve working conditions at one of the country’s busiest distribution centers, she observed that those against or hesitant about a union almost always had the same major concerns.
“A lot of them are really intimidated by Jeff Bezos,” she said, adding that many employees are concerned about being terminated if the push to unionize succeeds. “So many of them have families to take care of and because the economy is what it is. It’s not as simple as it was a few decades ago to get a job and then to keep that job for a long time.”
The Amazon workers on Staten Island are aware of what happened when their counterparts in Bessemer, Alabama, called for a union vote in April. The Alabama-based workers voted strongly against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union after months of anti-union messaging from the retail behemoth. CNBC reported that Amazon’s union-busting tactics in Alabama included text messages about the harms of unionizing, fliers in bathrooms and other common areas about how expensive union dues are, and meetings with workers during their shifts that featured PowerPoint presentations meant to quell pro-union sentiment. Monarrez says many of those same tactics, particularly messaging about union dues and fliers in common areas, have been utilized at JFK8 for months.
“It’s just ridiculous. It’s basically fear tactics and intimidation and a lot of misinformation and lies,” she said.
In public statements, Amazon has maintained that unionizing is not in the best interest of their workers. A spokesperson for the company told The New York Times on Oct. 25 that the company was “skeptical that a sufficient number of legitimate employee signatures has been secured to warrant an election,” despite the fact that representatives for the NLRB determined that at least 30% of the workers were represented in the signatures collected.
But many pro-union workers believe the instability of working at an Amazon Fulfillment Center along with the often dangerous working conditions will push many workers based in Staten Island to support the union.
The working conditions at JFK8 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City were actually a key factor in the recent push for unionization. Former Assistant Manager Christian Smalls was so concerned that Amazon was not doing enough to protect workers from the coronavirus that he led a walkout at the Staten Island fulfillment center in March 2020. He was fired from the company that same day.
Since his dismissal, Smalls has been a key organizer on behalf of the potential new Amazon union and currently serves as its president.
“We know the ins and outs of the company. A lot of the lead organizers have been around Amazon for three-plus years—some of them even four, five, six, or seven years,” Smalls told Jacobin about the decision to form an independent union. “They’re all seasoned Amazon workers. They’re veterans. They have a lot of influence in the building.”
Goldstein compared the organizing by Smalls and other workers against Amazon to the Biblical story of David and Goliath, and also notes that they are part of a growing push of workers pushing for better working conditions.
“These Amazon workers are also tech workers. They’re not software developers or engineers, but they are tech workers,” Goldstein said. “Amazon, like other tech companies, was experiencing a lot of labor unrest before the pandemic, but after the pandemic I think that it became more substantial, especially with worker safety issues.”
Experts say the unionization push in Staten Island needs to be viewed as part of the larger push for safer working conditions and better pay and benefits at warehouses, factories, and farms across the country in the wake of the pandemic.
“There is a national mood shift where more and more workers are participating in strikes and other labor actions,” said Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center. “It is in this environment that there’s a lot of discontent among Amazon workers. Regardless of what happens with this Staten Island union campaign, we can anticipate that there will be many more organizing attempts at Amazon facilities across the country.”
Lakshmi Gandhi is a reporter, editor, and social media manager based in New York City. She is currently a freelance journalist who specializes in literature, identity, and pop culture.
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