Bid to Unionize NY Amazon Workers Nears Milestone

Organizers say they have collected signatures from more than 2,000 employees at four Amazon facilities in Staten Island.

Amazon Van Ap
AP file

NEW YORK (AP) — A bid to unionize Amazon workers at a distribution facility in New York City neared an important milestone, as organizers prepared to deliver hundreds of signatures to the National Labor Relations Board as soon as Monday for authorization to hold a vote.

Organizers say they have collected signatures from more than 2,000 employees at four Amazon facilities in Staten Island.

The bid to establish the Amazon Labor Union in New York City is the second attempt in the past year to form a union at Amazon, the nation's largest online retailer. In April, workers at an Alabama facility overwhelmingly rejected forming a union in an effort led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

The union drive in New York City is working without the help of a national sponsor and is led by a former Amazon employee, Christian Smalls, who said he was fired just hours after he organized a walkout to protest working conditions.

Organizers need to collect signatures from at least 30% of the workers — about 7,000 in four Staten Island warehouses — who would be covered by the resulting collective bargaining agreement.

“We’ll have it by Monday. I’m going out there today, going out there tomorrow, the next day — until we get it,” said Smalls, who was elected Sunday as the nascent union's president.

Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the company's employees have a choice of whether or not to join a union but “we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees.”

“We’ve made great progress in recent years and months in important areas like pay and safety," Nantel said. “There are plenty of things that we can keep doing better, and that’s our focus — to keep getting better every day.”

If the NLRB approves the signatures in Staten Island, it would mark the second unionization vote at an Amazon warehouse in less than a year.

The first election, in Bessemer, Alabama, garnered nationwide attention and put a spotlight on how Amazon treats its workers. It was the biggest union push in Amazon’s 26-year history and only the second time that an organizing effort from within the company had come to a vote. However, there could be a do-over vote in Alabama.

A hearing officer for the NLRB found in August that Amazon potentially interfered with the election. And the RWDSU is now waiting for a decision from an NLRB regional director to see whether the hearing officer’s guidance will be sanctioned. But even with a second election, labor experts say a union victory is a long shot.

The unionization efforts at Amazon reflect a moment of reckoning and a call for change among hourly workers across Corporate America as the pandemic has given employees more leverage to fight for better working conditions and pay. Workers have staged strikes at Kellogg’s U.S. cereal plants as well as at Deere & Co., Frito-Lay and Nabisco facilities nationwide.

“Worker discontent goes far beyond Amazon," said Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center. ”Workers are feeling the pinch. They are feeling tremendous economic insecurity and they know that corporate leaders at Amazon are making record profits. There is a lot of discontent that may fuel support for this campaign.”

Workers at other Amazon facilities are closely watching developments in New York City. Smalls said he's been in discussions with other potential union organizers in about a dozen Amazon locations.

Amazon employees have complained about long work hours, insufficient breaks and safety, with Smalls and others likening working conditions to modern-day sweatshops. The employee turnover rate has also been a cause of concern.

“That's been our focus — creating a better working environment for Amazon employees,” said Derrick Palmer, another union organizer who has worked with Amazon for the past six years. “They’re working 10 to 12 hours a day and on their feet for 10 hours.”

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