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Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island push for union vote

Amazon workers hold a walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island warehouse in March 2020.
Amazon workers hold a walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island warehouse in March 2020.

Some 2,000 Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island have signed a call for unionization, according to organizers who on Monday plan to ask federal labor officials to authorize a union vote.

The push in New York ratchets up growing unionization efforts at Amazon, which is now the second-largest U.S. private employer. The company has for years fought off labor organizing at its facilities. In April, warehouse workers in Alabama voted to reject the biggest union campaign yet.

As that vote ended, the Staten Island effort began, led by a new, independent and self-organized worker group, Amazon Labor Union. The group's president is Chris Smalls, who had led a walkout at the start of the pandemic to protest working conditions and was later fired.

"We intend to fight for higher wages, job security, safer working conditions, more paid time off, better medical leave options, and longer breaks," the Amazon Labor Union said in a statement Thursday.

Smalls says the campaign has grown to over a hundred organizers, all current Amazon staff. Their push is being financed through GoFundMe, which had raised $22,000 as of midday Thursday.

The National Labor Relations Board will need to approve the workers' request for a union vote. On Monday afternoon, Smalls and his team plan to file some 2,000 cards, signed by Staten Island staff saying they want a union vote.

The unionization push is targeting four Amazon facilities in the Staten Island cluster, which are estimated to employ over 7,000 people. Rules require organizers to submit signatures from 30% of the workers they seek to represent. Labor officials will scrutinize eligibility of the signatures and which workers qualify to be included in the bargaining unit, among other things.

Amazon, in a statement Thursday, argued that unions are not "the best answer" for workers: "Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes — quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle."

Over the past six months, Staten Island organizers have been inviting Amazon warehouse workers to barbecues, handing out water in the summer, distributing T-shirts and pamphlets and, lately, setting up fire pits with s'mores, coffee and hot chocolate.

"It's the little things that matter," Smalls says. "We always listen to these workers' grievances, answering questions, building a real relationship ... not like an app or talking to a third-party hotline number that Amazon provides. We're giving them real face-to-face conversations."

He says Amazon has fought the effort by calling the police, posting anti-union signs around the workplace and even mounting a fence with barbed wire to push the gathering spot further from the warehouse.

In Alabama, meanwhile, workers might get a second chance to vote on unionizing. A federal labor official has sided with the national retail workers' union in finding that Amazon's anti-union tactics tainted this spring's election sufficiently to scrap its results and has recommended a do-over. A regional director is now weighing whether to schedule a new election.

The International Brotherhood Teamsters has also been targeting Amazon. That includes a push for warehouse workers in Canada.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.