Amazon Warehouse Workers In New York To File For Union Vote

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Chris Smalls, who runs the self-organized worker group Amazon Labor Union, has been gathering signatures from Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island in support of a union election.

Seth Wenig/AP

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Seth Wenig/AP

«We want better working conditions,» Smalls told NPR on Thursday. «We want higher wages, we want longer breaks, we want better medical leave options.»

The Staten Island campaign faces an uphill battle as Amazon has for decades successfully fought off labor organizing at its U.S. warehouses. The company is now the second-largest U.S. private employer after Walmart, with 950,000 full- and part-time employees as of last month.

So far, the closest an Amazon warehouse has gotten to unionizing was this spring, when workers in Alabama voted on whether to join a retail union and overwhelmingly rejected unionizing. Later, a federal labor official found that Amazon’s anti-union campaign tainted that election, and Alabama workers now await a ruling on whether they get a re-vote.

Amazon in its latest statement argued that unions were 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.»

The Staten Island warehouse cluster has been among the most active Amazon facilities. Since the walkout and protest in March 2020, workers have also filed ten labor complaints, alleging Amazon has interfered with their organizing efforts. The National Labor Relations Board says its lawyers have found some merit in three of them and continue to investigate others.

New York’s Attorney General is also pursuing a legal case over Smalls’ firing. Smalls alleges Amazon fired him as retaliation for his activism. Amazon says he had violated quarantine and safety measures. A top corporate executive also had to apologize after Vice News reported on leaked notes from a meeting with founder Jeff Bezos, in which Smalls, who is Black, was described as «not smart, or articulate,» prompting accusations of racism.

Since April, Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union have been collecting Staten Island worker signatures in favor of a union vote, holding barbecues, handing out water and coffee as people leave work and setting up fire pits with s’mores.

Smalls says Amazon, for its part, has begun posting anti-union signs around the warehouses and even mounted a fence with barbed wire to push organizers further from the buildings. The company did not comment on those allegations.

Labor rules require organizers to show support from at least 30% of the workers they seek to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board officials will scrutinize eligibility of the collected signatures, among other things.

Editor’s note: Amazon is among NPR’s recent financial supporters.

  • amazon warehouse
  • voting to unionize
  • labor organizing
  • warehouse workers
  • unions

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