Young Amazon workers on Staten Island rattle the halls of power

A closer look at the organizing efforts of the Amazon workers in Staten Island that made history by winning the first ever union in the US at the multi-billion dollar corporation

April 04, 2022 by Jacob Buckner, Ani Toncheva
Members of the Amazon Labor Union celebrating after the vote on the union was finalized. Photo: Amazon Labor Union

The workers at JFK8 on Staten Island have made history by winning the first ever union at Amazon in the United States. This victory not only represents the energy of workers and supporters over the past week during the voting process but the sustained drive of the union, which has been working toward this victory since 2020. Of the total of 8,000 workers within the JFK8 facility, 4,785 cast their votes between March 25th-30th and the ‘yes’ votes represented the clear majority.

This victory not only has major implications for the success of the organizing efforts in other Amazon warehouses around the country but it will surely inspire workers at other major corporations to organize their workplaces and rebuild working-class power.

Amazon’s profits and exploitation

Amazon is one of the largest companies in the world. It made 469.82 billion dollars in global revenue in 2021, more than half the military budget of the US. Its former CEO, Jeff Bezos, the second richest person on Earth, made billions on the backs of Amazon warehouse workers’ labor, suppressing their rights and wages. At times the warehouse in Staten Island, JFK8, was the highest-earning warehouse of any in the country, while workers were not making enough money to survive. The company has used all of its reserves to accumulate profit for the few and to crush the efforts of any workers they deem a threat.

In 2021 Amazon avoided $5.2 billion in corporate federal income taxes, which should be considered money stolen from working people. Amazon also maintains contracts with the Israeli Military Forces, supplying drones which attack Palestinians at the border. According to a report in The Nation: “Since 2015, the state-owned weapons and aerospace manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has serviced Amazon’s cargo plane fleet, and now services 80 percent of Amazon’s aircrafts. IAI supplies the Israeli army and is at the forefront of experiments with autonomous “robo-snipers” and drones deployed along the Gaza border.”

Letter from Chris Smalls

On March 24, at the cusp of the historic election, the Amazon Labor Union sent a letter to every worker at JFK8: “For those who may not know me, my name is Chris Smalls. I am the Interim President of the Amazon Labor Union. My roots with this company are deep. For the last 7 years, my life has been affected by Amazon, whether it was positive or negative. I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to unionize.” This letter from Chris Smalls came after a 7-year struggle, resulting not only in hours of legal battles between Mr. Smalls and the company, but the loss of his job and an insistent campaign to smear his public image through racist remarks.

Many workers found Amazon to be oppressive, describing working at the warehouse as working in “plantation conditions.” They shared countless stories of being unable to get water or go to the bathroom because if they delay their work they will be severely penalized or fired. They asked the company to take time off for medical emergencies or children’s births and were fired instead.

Because of a policy of not being allowed to have your phone during shift, workers constantly worry about being unable to reach their families if an emergency were to occur. Even with severe events such as the tornado disaster in Edwardsville Illinois, workers were unaware of the danger because they did not have their phones to notify them. This resulted in the death of six people at the facility.

These disasters continued because, without a union to defend its workers, the company will not be concerned for employees’ wellbeing. They are only concerned with maintaining production and accumulating profit. With a union not only will these disasters be stopped, but bosses will be unable to prevent workers from demanding safer conditions for themselves, while on the job.

Amazon’s history of union busting

Even before the January 26th announcement that the ALU was eligible for a union election, Amazon had used all of its forces to destroy the possibility of success. Workers reported daily, twice a day, or by the end of the unionizing week once every hour to meetings where the company sat workers down and told them the negative effects of joining the union. Entire slideshows were displayed stating the need to say “no” to the union, in addition to anti-union propaganda plastered on the walls of the warehouse.

When a worker asked questions deemed “pro-union” the head of these “information sessions” would ask the employee to leave. Union busters were hired, earning anywhere from $2000-$3,500 a day in order to spread lies about the union. Millions were spent by the company on ads and on flying out corporate HR representatives to state the “negative consequences” of joining the union.

Polling and consulting firms were hired by Amazon to destroy the union effort and disseminate anti-union materials. Global Strategy Group, which served as a polling partner for a pro-Biden super PAC ahead of the 2020 election, has been working for Amazon since at least late last year to produce anti-union materials, according to documents viewed by CNBC. Videos and printed materials distributed by GSG attempted to discourage employees from voting to join a union. They used phrases like “One team, working together” and “Unpack it: Get the facts about unions,” a slogan repeated on Amazon’s anti-union website – One HR stooge known as “Tammy” was seen on video repeatedly stealing ALU literature and, when confronted, she denied she had any negative feelings or intentions toward the union.

Workers associated with the union have not only been fired but arrested by the NYPD outside of the front doors of the warehouse at JFK8, trying to intimidate and stop the union from continuing.

The most extreme examples of harassment involved the firing of both Chris Smalls and Daequan Smith in retaliation for their organizing efforts. Other workers have received threats and warning letters in response to their union activities.

Following his own firing in March 2020, Smalls had to endure a brutal smear campaign against his name. Amazon executives spoke about him using racist stereotypes, calling him a ”thug”, and falsely claiming he was in a gang.

ALU’s solidarity and fundraising Efforts

A central pillar of ALU’s organizing was fundraising. Overall, the ALU raised $112,000 in 11 months in donations. These funds went into creating t-shirts, lanyards, buttons, and other materials that the ALU gave away, as well as on essential services such as food for workers, other forms of worker mutual aid, financial support, and of course, lots of flyers. In addition, funds were used to pay for the database software to be able to contact all the workers at the warehouse.

The fund has also served as a way to protect ALU workers who were arrested or facing other legal battles. On February 23rd when Christian Smalls and two current workers, Jason Anthony and Brett Daniels, were charged with trespassing, obstructing governmental administration, and resisting arrest, (for the crime of bringing food over to other workers), the solidarity fund was there to help with legal expenses to protect their rights as workers.

The ALU’s Fired Workers Fund helped support a number of workers who were terminated from their positions at Amazon, often without any official warnings or HR representation.

Phone banking workers to vote Yes

After the announcement of the ALU filing on January 26th, organizers had only five weeks to contact workers and talk to them about the union. Through the NLRB, Amazon was forced to release all of the names of employees at the JFK8 warehouse. With this, organizers began the important task of contacting workers.

Phone bankers heard many stories of employees who felt that the company was not looking out for their best interests. There were individuals that were previously fired by Amazon without any kind of legal representation, as well as workers that had to travel many hours to the warehouse in order to get to and back from work. Some workers described their hesitation toward unionizing, stating they didn’t know what the union wanted, or didn’t believe the union could achieve its aims, but most were eager to learn more. All of this amounted to more trust within the workforce toward the union.

Workers express excitement toward unionizing

On the first day of voting, March 25, a tent was built in the parking lot of the JFK8 warehouse. NLRB representatives began administering the vote, with Amazon workers observing at each of the three tables, holding lists of JFK8’s 8,000 workers. Long lines formed as workers were eager to make history. Many workers expressed an excited energy throughout the line; voters were able to see their fellow workers overseeing the process which ensured the voting was fair and legitimate.

Workers grew more eager and emboldened as the election went on. Some who had been worried about expressing their thoughts on the union over the past months went up to ALU organizers expressing their solidarity. One employee exclaimed “We’re gonna do it! and if they try to mess with us during negotiations, fuck em, we’ll just strike!” and another stated, “If we don’t win, we can just try again!”.

Next building for unionization: LDJ5!

Amazon has 7 days to challenge the results by filing for a post-election hearing. Though they will do everything in their power to prevent workers from maintaining their legal rights, it is unlikely that they will be able to challenge this historic win. Once the union is certified, the ALU will also begin the process of bargaining a contract with the company.

There are major lessons learned that are being used in the organizing at LDJ5, the Amazon sorting facility also on Staten Island where workers will vote on unionization from April 24 thru 29.

The ALU is looking to not only secure better working conditions and higher pay for their colleagues in New York but for workers all around the country. During the Staten Island union election, 20 Amazon warehouses from all around the country contacted the ALU, stating they have their own intentions of unionizing.

The ALU inspires the Union Movement

Unions across sectors have experienced an upsurge in activity and capitalist owners are scared that their own companies could be threatened. This can be seen not only at Amazon, but other multinational corporations that considered themselves immune to organized labor.

During the pre-election period, many unions showed their concrete support for the ALU. Support came from across the labor movement including from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), United Steelworkers (USW), and Communication Workers of America (CWA) who offered to mobilize their members to help talk to Amazon employees about the benefits of unionization. There is likely to be a continued collective effort to fight oppressive bosses and oppressive working conditions.

As one worker shared during the process of unionizing, “Amazon wants to assassinate the character of our freedom fighter. By the grace of God history will be made. The people will speak and Amazon will be obliged to go into collective bargaining and that will be another battle that we will be ready for. Almost all immigrants I spoke to agree that the situation must change. This is why the majority are supporting ALU. Personally, I believe we shall win from the economic perspective of all workers. Those who are conscious about the improvement of their conditions will definitely vote for ALU.” The ALU will continue to fight for workers within Staten Island and all Amazon warehouses, while simultaneously providing experiences for other unions to start their movements. Onward to the next victory!

This article was first published in People’s World.