STATEN ISLAND, New York — Showing a growing desire to resist speedup, unsafe conditions, bosses’ disrespect and the need to win higher wages, workers at the massive JFK8 Amazon warehouse here voted 2,654 to 2,131 in favor of the Amazon Labor Union. It’s the first time workers at an Amazon facility in the U.S. have won a union election.
Worried that workers at its other warehouses will follow suit, Amazon bosses said they are considering filing to get the vote overturned, claiming the National Labor Relations Board had used “inappropriate and undue influence” in favor of the union. Amazon, owned by multibillionaire Jeff Bezos, is the second largest private employer in the United States.
“If anyone can claim the process was unfair, it’s us!” Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls told the Militant at the bus stop by the warehouse April 3, two days after the NLRB recognized the union victory. “They had anti-union meetings every day where we were not allowed to present the union side! How was that fair? They printed up ‘Vote No’ T-shirts. They fired an organizer. They spent millions of dollars to defeat us while we spent just $100,000. And we still won.”
Smalls helped launch the union drive after he was fired from his job as a supervisor at the JFK8 warehouse in March 2020 for raising concerns over working conditions as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.
As hundreds of workers walked by during the late afternoon shift change, many came up to Smalls and other leaders of the union to give them a hug, shake their hands and celebrate. Union supporters have been at the bus stop every day for a year, winning support for the effort.
While Amazon banned workers from talking about the union during work hours, union supporters won the right to pass out literature in the break rooms — including on their days off — and organized potluck meals there as part of winning support for their fight. They brought together workers who are Black, Caucasian, from Puerto Rico, Haiti, Africa and South Asia.
Smalls says he’s been getting calls from Amazon workers around the country who are inspired to launch organizing drives. Some 1,500 workers at a smaller Amazon facility across the street from the JFK8 warehouse will start voting on the union on April 25.
A similar vote at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, on recognizing the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is still up in the air. The initial results there showed the union losing by 118 votes, but 416 ballots are contested.
“I was surprised the vote here was so close,” Christopher Medina said as he waited for the bus home. “The work here is intense. And if you are five minutes late, they dock you an hour’s pay. Having a union will be beneficial.”
The standard workday is 10 hours. During the pandemic Amazon increased break time by five minutes but has since taken that back. The work pace is so brutal, that turnover is some 150% every year. Workers work under constant boss surveillance. Most workers get from $18.25 to $21.50 an hour, but CEO Andy Jassy took home $212 million last year, Amazon disclosed the same day as the union victory.
‘We’re not robots’
“We’re not robots, we need a union, that’s why I voted yes,” said Kamil Zurke who works as a “water spider,” scanning items and making sure work stations are fully stocked. “My father is in the Teamsters and gets benefits — we should too.”
Despite the union victory, some workers are still worried about company retaliation and asked their names not be used. “The pay is OK, but it could be better,” said one worker who voted for the union. “But it’s a fast pace. You rush in the bathroom because you’re always thinking, ‘I better get back so the supervisor doesn’t complain.’”
As part of its anti-union campaign, Amazon told workers they should vote no because the ALU is not affiliated to any established union and has “never negotiated a union contract.”
Smalls points out that ALU has been getting assistance from other unions, including UNITE HERE and the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Amazon told workers the new union will charge hundreds of dollars in dues each year but can’t guarantee any improvements.
“A lot of co-workers asked about the dues,” said longtime Amazon worker Angelika Maldonado, who is a member of the union-organizing committee. The ALU plans to charge $5 a week. “I tell them it’s like food in the freezer. You may not need it now, but you’ll need it later.”
Workers who come from other parts of the city and don’t have a car have to take public transportation to the Staten Island Ferry and then a bus — often standing room only — to the warehouse.
“In 2018 Amazon said they were going to put on their own bus from the ferry,” Maldonado said. “Now four years later there’s still no shuttle.”
Among the demands the union is raising are an immediate 7.5% inflation adjustment raise; reinstating 20 minute breaks; and a full day’s pay for anyone who has to leave work early due to an on-the-job injury.
Winning the union vote is just the first step. Maldonado is reaching out to workers who voted no. “I tell them ‘I don’t care how you voted. We won the union. Now we all have to come together and fight for our demands.’”