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These Are The Workers Who Took on Amazon, and Won

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) / Twitter

Against all odds, Amazon workers in New York organized a successful union against one of the biggest companies in the world. Here’s how.

Hey, Jeff Bezos, I’m going to let you know something today: We are just getting started,” Chris Smalls declared at an August 2020 protest in Washington, D.C. August 2020 was the month Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became the richest person in recorded history.

Outside of his $23 million, 27,000-square-foot pied-à-terre, a group of Staten Island Amazon workers and a crowd of supporters erected a mock guillotine.

“Give a good reason why we don’t deserve a $30 minimum wage when this man makes $4,000 a second,” Smalls went on.

After leading a walkout over Covid-19 safety at Amazon’s mammoth JFK8 warehouse in March 2020, the first month of the pandemic, Smalls and his coorganizers took their rebellion on the road that summer. Outside Bezos’ mansions?—?a $165 million Beverly Hills home, a waterfront estate outside Seattle and a Fifth Avenue Manhattan penthouse?—?the group staged demonstrations denouncing income inequality and demanding wage hikes and protections for workers given the pandemic designation of ?“essential.”

At each stop, they quietly grew the ranks of supporters who also sensed that the scrappy movement was the start of something big. 

Those early supporters included Cassio Mendoza, then 23, who decided to show up to the October 2020 protest in Beverly Hills after connecting with Smalls on Instagram. 

“Wow, this is really different,” Mendoza remembers thinking at the protest. 

“Talking about billionaires, ?‘They gotta go.’ Damn! This is really radical.” 

Mendoza would soon move across the country to take a job at JFK8 and ultimately help win the first-ever union at any of Amazon’s U.S. warehouses. 

Since the Amazon Labor Union’s stunning win in April, much of the media analysis around the victory has been centered on Smalls. Just as important, however, is the collective story of the workers who charted their own path against one of the world’s biggest companies. 

What became the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) brought together an organic group of leaders demanding safety and dignity at Amazon?—?some with prior union experience?—?and a diverse, roving band of socialists in their 20s seeking to join a righteous labor fight. After setting their sights on a union election at the JFK8 warehouse, the group was joined by veteran warehouse workers who brought a deep bench of experience and relationships to the campaign. All of them were essential to the ALU’s upset win to represent more than 8,000 warehouse workers. 

In May, Amazon’s union-busting efforts dealt the ALU a defeat in its second union election, this time at LDJ5, a smaller sort center across the street from JFK8. Out of roughly 1,633 employees eligible to vote in the election, nearly 1,000 cast ballots, with 380 workers voting in favor of the union and 618 against. 

The outcome is disappointing but not entirely surprising for ALU leaders, who say they faced even steeper odds at LDJ5, a newer facility comprised largely of part-time workers. After the union’s first win sent shockwaves through the U.S. labor movement, the ALU says that hundreds of Amazon workers nationwide have reached out for support in their own organizing efforts. There’s every reason to think that the ALU is still just getting started.

ESSENTIALLY DISRESPECTED

It’s fitting that the last day of voting at JFK8 fell on March 30, marking the two-year anniversary of the walkout that jumpstarted the organizing effort there. 

Staten Island’s first case of Covid-19 case was confirmed March 9, 2020. Things escalated quickly in the following weeks. 

While infections rose, ?“They weren’t giving us masks,” says Gerald Bryson, a warehouse picker in his 50s who had been a union member at previous jobs. 

Instead of responding to the pandemic, Amazon organized what Derrick Palmer, 33, describes as a ?“mini-carnival” to recruit workers to racial and ethnic affinity groups, crowding employees into a small room and handing out plates of food while people milled about maskless. 

“They totally disregarded Covid,” Palmer remembers. Worker Jordan Flowers, then 21, has lupus and was awaiting a kidney transplant, which put him at high risk for Covid complications. As Flowers saw stories of people dying across the country that March, he grew increasingly concerned about the lack of personal protective equipment at work. 

“I’m my mom’s only child,” Flowers says. ?“I wasn’t gonna risk my life to work for this company.” Amazon had already fired him once anyway, when he took short-term disability in 2019, but the company reinstated his employment shortly after he challenged the termination.

Chris Smalls’ job as a process assistant at the warehouse, a training role adjacent to management, gave him responsibility for approximately 60 people. Alarmed that managers weren’t properly notifying employees when someone they’d worked with tested positive for Covid, Smalls took it upon himself to warn workers of their possible exposure. 

Jason Anthony, 36, was one of the workers under Smalls. ?“Our relationship evolved from a worker-supervisor thing to a brotherhood, a bond that will never be broken,” Anthony says. ?“We call each other brother and sister. We care about each other. That’s something that Amazon doesn’t even do?—?care about their own people.” 

In the afternoon of March 30, 2020, workers filed out of the New York warehouse, led by Bryson, Palmer, Flowers and Smalls. They demanded Amazon close the facility for cleaning and offer employees paid time off in the meantime. 

“Alexa, please shut down and sanitize the building,” one of their protest signs read. 

Amazon fired Smalls that day, claiming he violated the company’s quarantine rules. Amazon fired Bryson the next month, though an administrative law judge ordered the company reinstate him two years later in April 2022. Amazon gave Palmer a ?“final warning” and put Flowers on medical suspension. 

According to a leaked memo, Amazon’s chief counsel denigrated Smalls soon after, calling him ?“not smart, or articulate” and suggesting a press narrative of ?“us versus him.” Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. 

This narrow focus on Smalls ultimately backfired on Amazon, elevating Smalls to the status of a martyr while underestimating the depth of worker anger. The more that Amazon singled out Smalls, the more organizers could focus on talking to their coworkers and bringing new people into the union campaign. 

Meanwhile, Smalls’ story reached workers far and wide. Brett Daniels, 29, got in touch with Smalls via social media after the walkout. At the time, Daniels was working at a dine-in movie theater in a suburb of Phoenix. When he was laid off due to pandemic-related closures, he picked up a job as a seasonal hire at an Amazon facility in Arizona with the hope of organizing among fellow workers. The child of a union firefighter and flight attendant, Daniels hoped to organize a union after years of community organizing experience, including the Fight for $15 in Tucson, Ariz.“We know the ins and outs of the company. Derrick is a six-year vet. I worked there for almost five years. Who better to lead the fight than us?” — Chris Smalls

Inspired by the pandemic walkout, Daniels moved to Staten Island in November 2021 and was rehired at Amazon. ?“Almost all?—?if not all?—?of the organizers here were inspired by Chris, Derrick, Gerald and Jordan leading that walkout,” Daniels says.

Connor Spence, 26, also relocated from New Jersey to take a job at JFK8 in May 2021, shelving his aviation training to become an organizer instead of a pilot.

Smalls’ story ?“was emblematic of everything that’s wrong with Amazon?—?everything that’s wrong with society at the time,” Spence says.

Instead of backing down after his firing, ?“Chris was motivated to take the momentum and use it to fix the things he saw that were wrong with Amazon,” Spence says. ?“That was inevitably going to attract other people who wanted to actually step up, take action and change things.”

A UNION IS BORN

On May 1, 2020 —International Workers’ Day?—?Smalls, Bryson, Flowers and Palmer launched the Congress of Essential Workers, a predecessor to what would become the Amazon Labor Union. The group’s original goal was to unite frontline workers across industries in the fight for better conditions and pay. Jason Anthony joined up after he was fired from Amazon in July 2020.

The group envisioned a broad working class struggle against billionaires profiting from the pandemic?—?and they didn’t mince words. 

“The capitalist economy of the U.S. is built off the backs of a class of underpaid people who are degraded to wage laborers and valued only for what they produce, not for their intrinsic value as humans,” reads the Congress of Essential Workers’ website.

As they traveled the country to protest at Bezos’ mansions, the group forged stronger bonds with each other while welcoming newcomers, an approach Smalls describes as ?“all-inclusive” with a caveat. 

“It is Black-led, and we’re gonna keep it that way,” Smalls says he would explain as people joined. ?“Once we have that understanding, we let them in. And they’ve been with us ever since. There’s loyalty, and there is trust. They’re family members.”

In summer 2020, Spence traveled from his home in New Jersey to the Manhattan protest outside Bezos’ penthouse. ?“We really only talked for about two minutes,” Spence says of his first time meeting Smalls. Nonetheless, Spence was quickly added to an organizer chat group. He is now the ALU’s vice president of membership.

“One of the signs of a good organizer is believing fundamentally that working-class people are smart and capable,” Spence says. ?“So building an organization where you tried to make everybody have a part in the democratic process, let everybody have a role in it?—?that’s going to be a successful organization of working-class people.”

That’s the same ethos that drew in Cassio Mendoza at the October 2020 rally outside of Bezos’ Beverly Hills home. 

A committed socialist and the son of a videographer with Unite Here Local 11, Mendoza was skeptical of staff-led organizing. He saw in Bryson and Palmer genuine rank-andfile leadership and was especially impressed that Palmer had flown to Los Angeles after finishing up a shift at Amazon. The Congress of Essential Workers ?“didn’t seem manufactured in any way,” Mendoza says. 

A Los Angeles native, Mendoza typically wears a blue L.A. Dodgers hat, loose black T?shirts and beige khakis?—?wardrobe choices that match his understated personality. Despite his attempts to fade into the background, Mendoza became a pivotal campaign organizer. By June 2021, he had packed up and moved to New York. He began working at Amazon a month later, with the intention of helping the organizing effort. 

But at that point, the labor fight was still solely about garnering more respect for workers, and the group mostly wanted to convene Amazon workers across the country for a national conference. ?“They didn’t even say the word ?‘union,’” Mendoza remembers of those early conversations. 

“The idea was to have us all come together under one banner,” Spence says.

As members of the Congress of Essential Workers began reaching out to other worker groups through social media, they learned that most didn’t have a real organizing presence inside Amazon. One exception was Amazonians United, a loose network of worker committees in the United States and Canada. That group’s organizing model is based on ?“solidarity unionism,” in which workers begin acting like a union without any official, government recognition.

The organizers on Staten Island opted for a different approach when they formed the Amazon Labor Union, although members of Amazonians United have lent support to the union drive at LDJ5.

Bryson had been a member of multiple New York City unions, including the Service Employees International Union Locals 32BJ and 1199, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 37. And Smalls had once been a Teamster before working at Amazon, leaving what he describes as ?“a bad contract.” 

While the Congress of Essential Workers at first resisted the idea of a formal union, that changed after the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) lost its campaign to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., in April 2021. (As of press time, the outcome of the second election in Bessemer is still pending.) Put off by RWDSU’s approach, which leaned on politicians and celebrities to gin up support among Amazon employees, Smalls and the other organizers thought they could do better.

“We know the ins and outs of the company,” Smalls explains. ?“Derrick is a six-year vet. I worked there for almost five years. Who better to lead the fight than us?”

As they discussed the idea of a new, independent union to keep workers in the driver’s seat, they looked for examples of other militant unions. Mendoza was especially inspired by William Z. Foster, a Communist organizer in the steel industry in the 1930s. Spence turned to Labor Law for the Rank & Filer from Daniel Gross and Staughton Lynd, and he distilled lessons from labor studies and copious online research into presentations for the organizing committee?—?including how to take on union-busting consultants on the shop floor. For language on inclusion, the group referenced Unite Here’s national constitution. For union democracy structures?—?including how union officers’ salaries should be pegged to the average wages of the union membership?—?they looked at the United Electrical Workers. 

“I’m my mom’s only child. I wasn’t gonna risk my life to work for this company.” — Jordan Flowers

All of these ideas would be reflected in ALU’s constitution. 

“Let’s combine the union model with the rank-and-file committee model,” Spence recalls discussing with Smalls. ?“Each building has a worker committee that is the main decision-making body of the union.” 

Ultimately, the group eschewed abstract theories and rigid methods and looked to workers to act. 

“Screw it,” Spence recalls saying. ?“Let’s just go to JFK8, Chris’s old building, and organize workers there. It’s probably the best building to start a union campaign.”

THE DRIVING FORCE

It’s hard to overstate the odds stacked against an independent union taking on Amazon.

It’s not just that Amazon has a storied union-busting record. The company’s size and ubiquity make it an unavoidable part of modern American life, compunctions of conscience about the welfare of its workers aside. Amazon’s sprawling warehouse and logistics network delivers billions of boxes of stuff annually to its 153 million Amazon Prime members, with 40% of all online purchases in the country originating through Amazon, compared with just 7% at Walmart. More than 1.1 million people now work at Amazon’s more than 800 U.S. warehouses, and Amazon is projected to employ 1% of all U.S. workers in the next few years. 

What’s more, employee turnover inside Amazon facilities is constant. Amazon’s annual churn rate?—?representing the number of employees leaving the company each year compared to their total number?—?is about 150%, which Bezos has said is by design to prevent what he called a ?“march to mediocrity.”

That high turnover made Amazon warehouse veterans, like Michelle Valentin Nieves (who’s been there three years), invaluable organizers. Inside the JFK8 warehouse at the height of the pandemic, Valentin Nieves was growing increasingly frustrated. Managers would reprimand her on the shop floor while she was risking a Covid infection. 

In the first months of the pandemic, Valentin Nieves watched CNN for live updates on infections, hearing false reassurances from former President Donald Trump. ?“Then, come to find out, there were people actually coming up with Covid-19 already in the facility. And they were trying to keep it a secret.”

As Valentin Nieves waited to get vaccinated in 2021, ?“I was just losing my mind,” she says. ?“I’m like, ?‘I’m gonna get it. I’m gonna bring it back to the house. I’m gonna give it to my family.’ ”

When Palmer approached Valentin Nieves to sign a union card in 2021, she didn’t skip a beat. Valentin Nieves would go on to read Martin Jay Levitt’s Confessions of a Union Buster and become a fierce worker organizer, connecting especially with Latino workers for whom she was a familiar face.

Valentin Nieves, who is from Puerto Rico, says good organizing entails good listening, so she would take her time to hear workers’ grievances and provide feedback. During one of these chats, she talked with a worker who had foot spurs from standing for prolonged hours at Amazon. Eventually, Valentin Nieves helped the worker file multiple requests for medical accommodations until they finally got approved. 

Brima Sylla, 55, a widely respected immigrant worker from Liberia with a doctorate in public policy, started working at Amazon in January 2022 and joined the union campaign in March. He had come to Amazon after 10 years of teaching at a small private school on Staten Island, which laid him off during the pandemic. He quickly grew tired of the ambulances blaring to the warehouse entrance to ferry an injured worker to the hospital. Nationwide, workers at Amazon suffered 27,700 injuries in 2020 and 38,300 in 2021. The company accounts for nearly half of all injuries in the warehouse industry— a rate of 6.8 per 100 workers. 

Sylla says he organized to build the union to make Amazon a dignified workplace, because ?“the company just wants money, money, money. They forgot about the human side of the workers. The job is damn hard.”

Pasquale ?“Uncle Pat” Cioffi, a former longshore worker with the International Longshoremen’s Association for about nine years, had been reticent about supporting the union when he was first approached. He scolded organizers for making promises about wage hikes before even securing a contract. 

But when he saw cops arrest Smalls, Daniels and Anthony for trespassing as they delivered food to workers in February, Cioffi changed his mind. 

“At the end of the day, they were dropping off food,” Cioffi says. 

Cioffi occasionally wears Nike tracksuits and a yellow Amazon vest adorned with pins and the words ?“Italian G.O.A.T.” emblazoned on the back. Like Smalls, he is a process assistant. When he speaks, he jabs his fingers at your upper body to punctuate a point, evincing a self-confidence that enraptures listeners. Workers say he personally flipped hundreds to support the union

“People tend to go with people that they trust,” Cioffi explains. ?“Everybody knows me from day shift, any shift, any department. They know who I am because I’m always making that extra effort to help them out in whatever the situation is.”

“Amazon didn’t make this about the ALU,” Cioffi adds. ?“They made it about Chris Smalls. But this wasn’t really about Chris Smalls. This was about the people.” 

Karen Ponce, 26, is one of those people. She had started working at an Amazon delivery station in 2020, intending to save up money for a master’s degree in social work. After a layoff without warning, Ponce was rehired at JFK8. 

Though she had been active in immigrant rights causes in college, Ponce says she didn’t understand unions and initially bought into Amazon’s anti-union propaganda. ?“I was brainwashed, even scared,” Ponce says.

Her thinking began to shift after reaching out to her college sociology professor, who encouraged her to talk to the organizers. Connor Spence answered Ponce’s list of questions about dues and the union election, and they talked about working conditions. 

“They understood the toxic work environment because they were workers themselves,” Ponce says. 

As Ponce learned that some of her coworkers were living in their cars and homeless shelters, she began to connect the organizing drive to her social work calling. She began studying labor history and read Jane McAlevey’s A Collective Bargain. Not only did Ponce eventually join the union effort, she became the ALU’s secretary in December 2021.

Arlene Kingston, meanwhile, supported the union effort from the get-go. She grew up talking politics and had strong municipal unions in her native Trinidad and Tobago. 

Kingston and another coworker aided the union effort by offering free food in the break room, cooking peas and rice, chicken and macaroni pie to give out. ?“And if we have to do it again, we’re gonna do it again over and over,” Kingston says. 

She relishes how ?“a little person that you underestimated” defeated Amazon. ?“And that is just the beginning.”

SOLIDARITY & INDEPENDENCE

The Amazon Labor Union had no time to waste after the victory at JFK8. As messages of support poured in from Amazon workers nationwide, the priority quickly shifted to the vote at the next warehouse, LDJ5, where roughly 1,500 workers sort packages for delivery to the New York City metro area.

Less than a month after voting wrapped up at the first facility, workers at the second facility began casting ballots. In a May 2 vote count conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the union came up short. 

Compared to the first warehouse, relatively few of the ALU’s key organizers work at LDJ5. That posed a tougher challenge for those who do, including Julian Mitchell-Israel, 22, who first sent Smalls his resume after reading an article about the ALU in the socialist magazine Jacobin.“When it comes to organizing, you. have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. People need to have unlimited chances here.” — Julian Mitchell-Israel

Mitchell-Israel had been involved in electoral politics, including Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, but says he learned a crucial lesson about organizing over the course of a high-stakes campaign at LDJ5.

“When you’re up against misinformation, when you’re up against people that are violently anti-union, you have the instinct to sort of get on the defensive, to go?—??‘Screw you, you don’t understand you’re being brainwashed, whatever,’?” Mitchell-Israel says. ?“When it comes to organizing, you have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. People need to have unlimited chances here.”

Madeline Wesley, another LDJ5 employee, arrived from Florida in August 2021. Wesley, 23, had been a student activist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It was there that Wesley met ALU’s pro bono lawyer, Seth Goldstein, who was representing the university’s physical plant workers and clerical workers. After stints working for Unite Here union locals in Boston and Miami, Wesley joined the Amazon campaign on Goldstein’s urging and soon became ALU’s treasurer.

After the upset victory at JFK8, ?“some of us thought that LDJ5 would be an easy win,” said Wesley before the vote. ?“And what we realized was that we were absolutely wrong. Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8, they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything they’ve got here at LDJ5.”

Wesley says she and her fellow workers at LDJ5 faced a bruising campaign in which Amazon doubled down on its union-busting tactics. The company is also seeking to overturn the election results at JFK8 through an appeal to the NLRB.

On April 24, the day before voting began at LDJ5, national labor leaders rallied at Amazon’s Staten Island campus in a bid to boost support

The mood at the ?“Solidarity Sunday” rally was jubilant. Surrounded by Amazon workers and hundreds of their supporters, Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D?N.Y.) also delivered fiery speeches.

Many union leaders pledged their full support of the ALU?—?including Mark Dimondstein, president of the 200,000-member American Postal Workers Union; Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA; and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Earlier in April, Sean O’Brien, new president of the Teamsters, met with Smalls and Derrick Palmer, ALU vice president of organizing, in Washington, D.C.

“We work in the same industry as all of you?—?and we’re either going to rise together or we’re gonna fall together,” Dimondstein said at the rally. 

Smalls welcomes the support but remains unequivocal about the union’s independence. ?“Everybody knows that we’re gonna remain independent,” Smalls said at the rally. ?“And these bigger unions know?—?every time I meet with one of their presidents, I let it be known?—?there ain’t no strings attached.”

With hopes of unionizing a second facility postponed for now, the ALU still has another momentous task before it: winning its first collective bargaining agreement with Amazon. If the new union can channel its broad national support and deep connections inside JFK8 into improved conditions at that warehouse, it will make a clear case to Amazon workers elsewhere that they should join up.

“There’s no way we’re going to stop or let this bring us down,” said ALU’s co-founder Derrick Palmer at an impromptu press conference following the May 2 loss. ?“It’s going to do the complete opposite. We’re going to go 10 times harder.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 23, 2022. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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Amazon Bites Back in Vote at Second New York Warehouse

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) / Twitter

The Amazon Labor Union, after making history in April when it won the first-ever unionized Amazon warehouse, JFK8 on Staten Island, New York, was routed in May in a second election at LDJ5, another warehouse in the same complex.

Amazon waged a fierce union-busting campaign, and it worked. Out of 1,633 eligible voters, 998 cast ballots: 380 yes and 618 no. There were no challenged ballots, and two ballots were voided. The ALU’s lawyer, Seth Goldstein, has said the union will challenge the outcome.

Worker organizers faced an uphill battle in replicating their success at the second warehouse because it is relatively new, having opened in 2020, and its workforce is largely part-timers. LDJ5 also had fewer worker organizers than JFK8.

After the JFK8 vote, Amazon fired half a dozen senior managers. The company also fired warehouse workers and ALU organizers Tristan Dutchin and Mat Cusick. The union is launching a campaign to demand their reinstatement and that of other union supporters fired in what the union says is retaliation for their organizing.

Ahead of the vote count, I spoke with organizers Julian Mitchell-Israel, 22, and Madeline Wesley, 23, for In These Times. At the time they were hopeful about the outcome, but acknowledged they were in a tough fight.

“I think that after winning JFK8, some of us thought that LDJ5 would be an easy win,” Wesley said. “And what we realized was that we were absolutely wrong.

“Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8; they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything that they’ve got here at LDJ5. They successfully rallied some anti-union workers, so we had to fight a lot of misinformation and rumors and lies.”

Mitchell-Israel said the campaign had lost ground when he and Wesley took three weeks off from their jobs at LBJ5 to help win at JFK8.

“In that time, Amazon planted a seed of a very deep anti-unionism in a lot of the workers here,” he said. “They riled up the people that were already against us to be more vocal. So when we came back into the warehouse, although some people were more on our side than ever, a lot of people were more against us than ever. It was one step forward, one step back.”

‘UNLIMITED CHANCES’

Nonetheless, Mitchell-Israel said these organizing drives have reinforced in him the lesson that, “when it comes to organizing, you have to be vigilantly kind. It takes discipline, and it takes a sort of militancy and love.

“The one time I snapped during this entire campaign, I said to a worker, ‘Why are you bootlicking Jeff Bezos right now?’ And I saw the hurt in his eyes after I said that, because I think he was genuinely curious about things and he was genuinely trying to understand.

“I went into my car and I cried after that, because I was saying to myself that that is the mistake that has stopped this movement from happening for so long.

“People need to have unlimited chances here. One of my favorite things that one of the other organizers said is that there’s no such thing as an anti-union worker—there’s just a misinformed worker. And I think that’s a fact, because you’re never going to work against yourself.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on May 13, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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Amazon Workers Decide Not to Form Union at a Second U.S. Facility—But Organizers Pledge to Fight On

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One month after making history by organizing the first U.S. Amazon warehouse, workers voted against forming a union at another facility in New York.

Update (May 2, 2022): Following a hard-fought campaign, the Amazon Labor Union came up short at the LDJ5 complex, with 380 workers voting in favor of the union and 618 against. In response, ALU founder Chris Smalls wrote: “Despite todays outcome I’m proud of the worker/organizers of LDJ5 they had a tougher challenge after our victory at JFK8. Our leads should be extremely proud to have given their coworkers a right to join a Union. ALU will continue to organize and so should all of you.”

After a stunning victory last month when Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in New York became the first to unionize a company facility in the United States, the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is hoping to notch a second union win at a neighboring sorting center on Staten Island—the LDJ5 warehouse.

The results of the vote are expected Monday. More than 1,500 workers began casting ballots starting April 25 and ending on April 29. Worker organizers face an uphill battle in replicating their success at the second warehouse because it is relatively new, having opened in 2020, and is comprised of a workforce that is largely part-timers. The second warehouse also has fewer worker organizers than JFK8.

Organizers say that the company’s union-busting has been even more aggressive at LDJ5, attempting to wallop the nascent union movement at the corporate behemoth.

Ahead of the vote, In These Times spoke to organizers Julian Mitchell-Israel, 22, and Madeline Wesley, 23, about their experience in the campaign and how Amazon workers are making history. 

Julian Mitchell-Israel:

Can you talk about why you are organizing inside the LDJ5 warehouse?

When it comes down to it, what we’re doing inside the warehouse is talking about what’s been taken from us. It’s listening to other workers, and it’s spreading the love. We are making everyone realize that the reason we’re fighting for this [union] is not some ulterior motive. It comes down to the bread and butter issues. And it comes down to the fact that we’re all being robbed in the exact same way. And the only way that we stop them is together.

From the time that you sent ALU founder Chris Smalls your resume to now, what have you learned in this whole process?

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to talk to people that I would never have talked to before. I’m a born and raised New Yorker, I know how to talk to New Yorkers. But there’s a difference in terms of speaking to people about the issues. There’s a difference in speaking to people about overtly political issues and speaking to them about their day-to-day life, about their workplace, because it becomes very personal very quickly. 

And one thing that got reinforced for me is that when it comes to organizing, you have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. And that’s a hard thing to understand. But when when you’re up against misinformation, when you’re up against people that are violently anti-union, you have the instinct to sort of get on the defensive to go, “screw you.” The one time I snapped during this entire campaign, I said to a worker, “why are you bootlicking Jeff Bezos right now?” And I saw the hurt in his eyes after I said that, because I didn’t get it right then. I think he was genuinely curious about things and he was genuinely trying to understand. And it’s hard because, you know, Amazon has brainwashed all these people. I went into my car, and I cried after that, because I was saying to myself that that is the mistake that has stopped this movement from happening for so long. 

People need to have unlimited chances here. One of my favorite things that one of the other organizers said is that there’s no such thing as an anti-union worker, there’s just a misinformed worker. And I think that’s a fact. Because you’re never going to work against yourself. And so I think what I’ve learned here is that when you bring love to the table, and you focus on that as the prime motivator, there’s nothing that can stand in your way.

How do you feel about the vote? 

I think we could win this thing. I really do. I’m not confident, but I’m hopeful. We have an incredible amount of momentum on our side. I think if we had one more week, I would say we have it on lock. But we don’t. And so the question is just, “did we gain enough ground back?” 

Why do you think you’ve lost ground because of JFK8?

Maddie and I took three weeks of time off of work at LBJ5 to help run the campaign for JFK in the final couple of weeks. And in that time, Amazon planted a seed of a very deep anti-unionism in a lot of the workers here. They riled up the people that were already against us to be more vocal. So when we came back into the warehouse, although some people were more on our side than ever, a lot of people were more against us than ever. So it was sort of this one step forward, one step back kind of thing. 

Madeline Wesley:

Take me back to how you got involved in this campaign. And do you think you’re on the eve of, potentially, a victory?

Potentially? Yeah.

I got involved nine months ago or so. I spoke to Chris [Smalls] and I asked him a lot of questions. And he answered all of them. And so yeah, here we are.

What set of circumstances set you on the path to becoming a union organizer coming to New York?

I was a Wesleyan student in Middletown, Connecticut. And our dining hall workers are represented by Unite Here local 17. I got involved with a group called the United Student Labor Action Coalition. So that’s how I got involved with student labor organizing. And then I also got involved with Unite Here through that. I worked with local 26 in Boston and local 355 in Miami, and I was originally planning on staying in Miami. But I made a last-minute decision to switch gears and then do this campaign here in Staten Island with Amazon Labor Union after I got a call from my good friend, Seth Goldstein. Or, not one call—I got many calls from my good friend, Seth Goldstein, about this campaign. And I figured, at the end of the day, this is something that I probably only have one chance to be a part of. So I took it

What stood out to you about the campaign? 

I really saw the potential in this movement. I think one thing that really sold me was that it was a worker-led movement. This is the kind of thing that people like us only dream about—a truly worker-led movement against one of the richest companies in the world. It doesn’t come around that often. 

You wanted to be a part of history?

When I first started on the campaign, I figured that the odds were against us, and we probably wouldn’t win, but it was it was worth a shot anyways. And here we are.

How are you feeling about the vote today? I know the campaign has really heated people up. 

It was pretty intense for a while. But I’m so proud of my team. Because even though it was really discouraging a couple of weeks ago, and Amazon was throwing all of this shit at us, we stuck through it. And no one gave up. We all prevailed, and we chipped away at it one person at a time. And now we’re at this point where I feel like we’ve got a pretty good chance of winning. I mean, nothing’s certain. And it’s always kind of difficult to tell. 

What makes you feel confident about the win? 

Just people coming up to us and being like, “I was No [on the union], but then I saw that you guys weren’t just some outsiders, you were actually here in the building, you were actually Amazon workers.” And that made the difference for me, people coming up to us being like, I don’t say a lot, but I’m with you guys. I think over the past couple of weeks we’ve changed a lot of minds and hearts. And it’s the work of the whole team. 

Is there anything that has surprised you in this campaign at LDJ5? 

I think that after winning JFK8, some of us thought that LDJ5 would be an easy win. And what we realized was that we were absolutely wrong. Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8, they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything that they’ve got here at LDJ5. They successfully rallied some anti-union workers, so we had to fight a lot of misinformation and rumors and lies. You always have to change your tactics based off what’s going on. What we found is that we’ve had to fight for LDJ5 just as hard as we had to fight for JFK8.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 2, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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Union defeat at Amazon warehouse turns spotlight to the Hill

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The battle over organized labor’s clout will be focused more squarely on Capitol Hill now that workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama have soundly defeated an effort to form a union there.

Supporters and opponents of legislation that would significantly bolster unions were refining their arguments on Friday in light of the outcome in the Birmingham suburb of Bessemer, which was a bitter defeat for the nationally watched drive to establish the first union at the e-commerce giant.

Leaders of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, along with their supporters, accused Amazon of unfairly interfering with the vote and touted the legislation as a way to level the playing field between business and labor.

“Without knowing it, [Amazon is] igniting a movement to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and return workers in Alabama, Michigan and all corners of this land to their rightful place as drivers of broadly shared prosperity that represents America at its best,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) said.

Opponents of the legislation, also called the PRO Act, were just as quick to find justification for their position in the Bessemer outcome.

“Labor bosses should understand that when workers vote against forming a union, it signifies that the arguments made by organizers were not compelling or persuasive,” said Kristen Swearingen, chair of the business-backed Coalition for a Democratic Workplace said. 

“The PRO Act, which is also supported by the same union bosses seeking to organize businesses across the country, would hurt small businesses as they struggle to survive during the pandemic and strip employees of their privacy and vital rights to make a choice on their own if they want to join a union,” Swearingen said.

The fact that President Joe Biden included the PRO Act in the $2 trillion infrastructure plan he proposed last week will keep a spotlight on the issue. 

Labor leaders had hoped the time was ripe for a major victory in Alabama, amid an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic, concerns about the growing economic clout of Amazon and with pro-union Democrats in charge of the White House and Congress, who lent their support.

But workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer voted 1,798-738 against joining the union. Nearly 6,000 workers were eligible and roughly more than half cast ballots.

The union says it plans to challenge the results and ask the National Labor Relations Board to consider setting the vote aside, alleging Amazon “created an atmosphere” that interfered “with the employees’ freedom of choice.”

“We demand a comprehensive investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting this election,” the union said in a statement.

Amazon battled the organizing effort but denied any interference or wrongdoing in the election.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company wrote in a blog post following the vote tally. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us.”

Despite what looked like propitious timing for organizing the Amazon facility, the union faced an uphill battle in a traditionally union-averse state like Alabama. And the broader headwinds that labor has fought for decades, with a sharp drop in private-sector membership, apparently didn’t dissipate.

Among other things, the company touted its health care benefits and $15 hourly minimum wage to argue a union wasn’t needed.

The vote spanned seven weeks, beginning in February, and the NLRB spent nearly two weeks tallying the ballots, after disputes over ineligible voters slowed the process. Around 500 of the 3,215 ballots cast in the election were challenged and nearly 400 of the objections were raised by Amazon, according to a union spokesperson.

The union drive caught the attention of Washington, D.C., and put significant pressure on Biden to voice his support for workers exercising their collective bargaining rights. 

Biden eventually released a 2 1/2-minute video in early March backing the workers’ right to organize — which was billed by union leaders as “the most pro-union statement from a president” in history — although he omitted Amazon’s name from his remarks.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that Biden would wait “for the NLRB to finish its process and declare a result to make a further comment.”

“But I will say broadly … we know it’s very difficult for workers to make the choice to form a union,” Psaki said, plugging the PRO Act.

The legislation “would give more workers the ability to organize and bargain collectively with their employees,” Psaki said. “That’s a fundamental priority for him, something he’s fought for throughout his career.”

As the vote in Bessemer was under way, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union brought workers to Capitol Hill to testify at a Senate Budget Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who later went to the town to rally support for the union.

Jennifer Bates, a worker at the Bessemer fulfillment center, told lawmakers during the hearing in March that she was required to go to “union education meetings” hosted by the company, sometimes “several times a week,” that pushed anti-union messages. She said management put “anti-union signs and messages” all around the facility and even sent messages to workers’ phones.

Some of that activity would be prohibited under the PRO Act. 

Republicans and employers staunchly oppose the legislation, saying it would make businesses less competitive, and it’s unlikely to ever garner the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster. The fact that the bill would preempt state right-to-work laws like the one in Alabama, rendering them invalid, is particularly controversial.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Amazon defeats Alabama union effort after dirty, but predictable, campaign

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The union organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, appears headed for defeat after the first day of counting ballots. There were 3,215 votes, with the count standing at 1,100 against unionizing to 463 in favor. Voting ended March 29, but before the counting began, hundreds of ballots were challenged, most by the company. If those could be decisive, they will be revisited.

But on the day counting began, we learned more about how far Amazon went to stack the deck in its favor. The National Labor Relations Board had refused Amazon’s request to have a ballot drop box in the facility, citing coronavirus social distancing precautions. But documents obtained by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Amazon defied that by going to the U.S. Postal Service and asking for a mailbox to be installed on Amazon property—which it was, unmarked, the day before voting started.

One critique of the campaign and the decision to press forward to an election after Amazon successfully expanded the bargaining unit involved in the vote from around 1500 workers to all 5800 in the warehouse: 

“We have not heard anything back on the install of this collection box,” a Postal Service account manager emailed Postal Service workers in Alabama on Jan. 14. “Amazon is reaching out again to me today about the status as they wanted to move quickly on this.” 

Those emails directly contradict a Postal Service spokesman’s claim that the mailbox was “suggested by the Postal Service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point.”

”Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.” 

When the mailbox was installed, journalist Kim Kelly and More Perfect Union showed exactly why it functioned to intimidate workers:

Assuming the vote counting continues as it has begun, this will become the basis for a challenge by the union. It was, of course, only one of a string of intimidation strategies and efforts to rig the vote in Amazon’s favor—most of which were allowed under current U.S. labor law. So much of what’s happened in Bessemer is a case study in why we need the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, but also in why big business is so determined to keep U.S. labor law weak and tilted in favor of management.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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For union battling Amazon, victory could bring a stalemate

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For the union trying to organize nearly 6,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, a successful election in the coming weeks could only be the beginning of the struggle to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the company.

Workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer, a Birmingham suburb, have been voting since late February on whether to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — an election that has drawn nationwide attention because it could result in Amazon’s first unionized facility in the U.S. The National Labor Relations Board will begin tallying the votes on Tuesday.

But initial collective bargaining agreements usually take years to hammer out at the negotiating table. More than half of workplaces that form unions are unable to reach an initial contract within a year, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, and 37 percent of newly formed private-sector unions still have no contract after two years.

“It’s so difficult to hold an employer accountable,” said Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at EPI. And even if the union engages in “this protracted legal battle, you know the penalty that the employer is facing is quite frankly minimal.”

The outcome of the election is being so closely watched because the stakes go far beyond this warehouse. If the campaign in Republican stronghold Alabama is successful, it could spark more organizing efforts at Amazon and other large retailers across the U.S. If it fails, it could galvanize Democrats’ fight to push through one of the broadest expansions of collective bargaining rights in nearly a century. At the same time, it could embolden many companies to take an even harder line against organized labor.

That’s why the Amazon organizing effort has taken on such broad significance politically. Even before the votes in Bessemer are counted, President Joe Biden, other Democrats and their labor allies are using the election to push for their union-friendly overhaul of federal labor law.

If Amazon were to drag its feet on an initial contract, the union could call on the NLRB to order management to bargain with the workers. However, that legal process can span months, even years, especially if the company were to appeal any enforcement moves from the labor board.

Amazon can legally refuse to bargain with the union if it challenges an issue related to the election. The company already sought to delay the union vote and require that ballots be cast in person rather than by mail. The NLRB approved a seven-week mail-in ballot election, instead of an in-person election that typically takes place over a few days, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Heather Knox, a spokesperson for Amazon, said in response: “RWDSU membership has been declining for the last two decades, but that is not justification for its president, Stuart Appelbaum, to misrepresent the facts. Our employees know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encouraged all of our employees to vote and hope they did so.”

The company declined to say how it would respond if the workers voted to unionize.

Union leaders said they are prepared for Amazon to dig in for a fight and are already using their effort in Alabama to promote the legislation in Congress, known as the PRO Act, that would make it easier for unions to organize.

“I wouldn’t put it past Amazon to try to come up with any excuse that it could find to overturn an election where workers win,” said Appelbaum, the union president. “There has never been a greater argument for labor law reform and the PRO Act than this election.”

Whether the e-commerce giant could go as far as to shutter the facility in response to a successful union election is murky.

“The law is clear about one thing, and that is that a business can completely, completely, 100 percent go out of business, even just to avoid a union,” said Andrew MacDonald, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia. “But there’s a less clear line, more of a gray area, where the company, partially, says shut down a plant or shut down one facility while others remain open.”

Amazon could also face trouble if it were to transfer some operations from Alabama to a non-unionized fulfillment center elsewhere.

MacDonald pointed to a 2011 labor dispute with Boeing Co., which decided to transfer a second production line for its 787 Dreamliner from a unionized facility in Washington to a non-union shop in South Carolina. The acting general counsel of the NLRB issued a complaint against the company, alleging the move violated federal labor law.

In that case, “the union in Washington and the labor board saw that as being motivated to avoid the union, not just making a business decision of where to make the plane,” MacDonald said.

The union later withdrew its complaint against Boeing after striking a new deal with the company governing other production in Washington.

If a company and a union are unable to reach an initial collective bargaining agreement after a successful organizing effort, provisions in the PRO Act would require them to go to mediation and arbitration.

“The law permits an employer to bargain essentially in bad faith,” said McNicholas. “The remedies are so weak that you can essentially drag your feet through the bargaining and frustrate the workforce such that they’re not getting any contract in the first year.”

Opponents of the PRO Act, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that the legislation tilts too far in favor of unions and would harm the economy by costing jobs.

The unusual public attention on the Bessemer union drive has put both political and consumer pressure on Amazon that could keep the company in line, union and worker advocates say.

“Unlike most collective bargaining, this attempt to achieve a first contract is going to be the focus of a lot of public attention,” said Appelbaum. “I think that Amazon is going to be held accountable under the glare of the public spotlight. And that’s going to restrict what it is going to be able to do to prevent workers from getting a contract.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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Amazon touts high pay for warehouse workers, but $15 isn’t all that, this week in the war on workers

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As its workers in Bessemer, Alabama, seek to unionize, Amazon keeps touting its $15 an hour pay—more than double the federal minimum wage, which applies in Alabama. But it turns out that’s not such a great thing to brag about in that area.

“The most recent figure for the median wage in greater Birmingham, a metropolitan area of roughly one million people that includes Bessemer, was nearly $3 above Amazon’s pay there, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” The New York Times reports. Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker who earned more in a previous job, pointed to Amazon’s support for a $15 federal minimum wage, saying: “It looks to me like Amazon is admitting it’s only paying a minimum wage, and this is not a minimum-wage job.”

But “high” pay isn’t the only way Amazon tries to keep unions out. The company has a history of surveilling, threatening, and retaliating against worker activists.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on March 20, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Why Amazon Is Fighting So Hard to Stop Warehouse Workers From Unionizing

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Thousands of warehouse workers at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, are at the center of a potentially game-changing union vote taking place right now. On February 8, the warehouse workers were sent ballots by mail to decide over the next seven weeks if they want to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Just getting to this point was a major victory considering the aggressive union busting by the world’s largest retailer and the fact that employees are working during a pandemic. If workers vote affirmatively, they would have the first unionized Amazon workplace in the United States.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the RWDSU, described to me in an interview the shocking details of what he calls “the most aggressive anti-union effort I’ve ever seen,” aimed at the 5,800-strong workforce. “They are doing everything they possibly can,” he said. The company has been “bombarding people with propaganda throughout the warehouse. There are signs and banners and posters everywhere, even in the bathroom stalls.”

According to Appelbaum, the company is also texting its workers throughout the course of the day urging a “no” vote and pulling people into “captive-audience” meetings. Unsurprisingly, Amazon is resorting to the most commonly told lie about unions: that it will cost workers more money to be in a union than not. One poster pasted on the wall of the warehouse claims, “you already know the union would charge you almost $500 a year in dues.” But Alabama is a “right-to-work” state where workers cannot be compelled to join a union if they are hired into a union shop, nor can they be required to pay dues.

Complementing its heavy-handed in-person union-busting efforts is a slick website that the company created, DoItWithoutDues.com, where photos of happy workers giving thumbs-up signs create a veneer of contentment at the company. On its site, Amazon innocently offers its version of “facts” about a union that include scare-mongering reminders of how joining a union would give no guarantee of job security or better wages and benefits—with no mention of how Amazon certainly does not guarantee those things either.

On the company’s own list of “Global Human Rights Principles,” Amazon states, “We respect freedom of association and our employees’ right to join, form, or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or harassment.”

But in a page out of Donald Trump and the Republicans’ playbook, the company tried to insist that even in the middle of a deadly pandemic, the union vote must be “conducted manually, in-person, making it easy for associates to verify and cast their vote in close proximity to their workplace.” The National Labor Relations Board rejected Amazon’s appeal for a one-day physical election.

Ballots were mailed out to workers on February 8, and the union and its advocates are shrewdly using the seven-week-long voting period to campaign and encourage workers to vote “yes.” But Amazon is also continuing its efforts at countering the RWDSU. Organizers in Bessemer had taken to engaging the workers while they stopped at a red light upon leaving the Amazon warehouse. But the company, according to Appelbaum, “had the city change the traffic light so our organizers wouldn’t be able to speak to them.” (A statement from Bessemer city denies the claim.)

So aggressive are Amazon’s anti-union tactics that 50 members of Congress sent the company a warning letter saying, “We ask that you stop these strong-arm tactics immediately and allow your employees freely to exercise their right to organize a union.” Even the company’s own investors are so shocked by the tactics that more than 70 of them signed on to a letter urging Amazon to remain “neutral” in the vote.

The path to this union vote was paved by staggeringly high inequality that worsened during the pandemic as workers were stripped of their insultingly low hazard-bonus of $2 an hour while the company reaped massive gains over the past year. CEO and soon-to-be “Executive Chair” of Amazon, Jeff Bezos is the world’s second-richest man. He is now worth a mind-boggling $188 billion and saw his wealth increase by $75 billion, over the past year alone—the same time period that about 20,000 of his workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Bezos’ announcement that he was moving into a new role at the company came on the same day that the Federal Trade Commission announced Amazon had stolen nearly $62 million in tips from drivers working for its “Flex” program. Appelbaum speculated that “what Bezos was trying to do was to create a distraction just like Trump would do,” and that “instead of focusing on the $62 million they stole from their drivers, people would talk about the fact that Bezos was getting a new title.”

Appelbaum sees the historic union vote in Bessemer as more than just a labor struggle. “Eighty-five percent of the people who work at the facility are African American. We see this being as much a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle,” he said. Indeed, conditions at the warehouse are so shocking that they sound like a modern-day, technologically enabled incarnation of slavery. “People were being dehumanized and mistreated by Amazon,” said the union president. He explained, “people get their assignments from a robot, they’re disciplined by an app on their phone, and they’re fired by text message. Every motion they make is being surveilled.”

Union advocates are countering Amazon’s combative anti-union efforts with their own information war. In addition to organizers talking to the warehouse workers in Bessemer every chance they get, an informational website Bamazonunion.org shares data from various studies about the dangerous working conditions in Amazon facilities. The site reminds workers that unions are able to win contracts where workers can only be fired for “just cause” and not on the whim of managers; that complaints against the company can be filed via formal grievances; and that wages and benefits are negotiated collectively.

As a proud union member of SAG-AFTRA, my colleagues and I at KPFK Pacifica Radio have benefited regularly from such protections even against a small nonprofit public radio station struggling to make ends meet. When faced with a ruthless for-profit corporation that has built its empire on the backs of a nonunionized workforce, Amazon’s workers are on the front lines of those who most need the protections a union can provide.

“This election is the most important union election in many, many years because it’s not just about this one Amazon facility in Alabama,” said Appelbaum. “This election is really about the future of work, what the world is going to look like going forward. Amazon is transforming industry after industry, and they’re also transforming the nature of work,” he said. Indeed, the level to which Amazon has fought against unionization at just one warehouse in Alabama is an indication of how important it is to the company that its workers remain powerless.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

About the Author: Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.


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Warehouse Workers Are on the Front Lines of the Covid Crisis. They’re Worried They’ll Be Passed Over for the Vaccine.

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As Hal­loween approached, Ronald Jack­son spent his days at a Chica­go-area ware­house for the Mars can­dy com­pa­ny ?“get­ting Hal­loween can­dy to Amer­i­ca.” After co-work­ers got Covid-19, Jack­son com­plained to man­age­ment about a lack of safe­ty pre­cau­tions. Rather than improv­ing pre­cau­tions, he said, the com­pa­ny fired Jack­son for an alleged infrac­tion that occurred months ago.

Such sit­u­a­tions are why work­ers and advo­cates are demand­ing the state of Illi­nois des­ig­nate ware­house work­ers as essen­tial work­ers and pri­or­i­tize them when Covid-19 vac­cines are dis­trib­uted. Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice and oth­er labor groups on Tuesday pub­lished a peti­tion to Gov. J.B. Pritzk­er mak­ing these demands. 

They note that ware­house work is essen­tial to the econ­o­my, includ­ing by dis­trib­ut­ing clean­ing sup­plies, per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) and oth­er prod­ucts that are espe­cial­ly crit­i­cal dur­ing the pandemic.

Work­ers in ware­hous­es are espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble because the struc­ture of ware­house work?—?where employ­ees are gen­er­al­ly hired through tem­po­rary staffing agen­cies with few pro­tec­tions or rights?—?makes it easy for the own­ers and oper­a­tors of ware­hous­es to ignore risks and fire or silence work­ers like Jack­son who speak up. The peti­tion to Pritzk­er says the 650,000 tem­po­rary staffing work­ers in Illi­nois are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black and Lat­inx, mean­ing they are also among the groups at dis­pro­por­tion­ate risk for Covid-19infec­tions and com­pli­ca­tions. (There are also tem­po­rary work­ers in oth­er indus­tries, but many thou­sands are employed in the Chica­go area ware­house sector.)

“To devel­op an equi­table vac­ci­na­tion plan you have to ask who bears the brunt of the health and eco­nom­ic impact of the pan­dem­ic, and the answer will always be com­mu­ni­ties of col­or,” said Sophia Zaman, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the group Raise the Floor, a coali­tion of Chica­go work­ers centers. 

The Trump administration’s Depart­ment of Health and Human Ser­vices Sec­re­tary, Alex Azar, said last month that while the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will issue rec­om­men­da­tions on vac­cine dis­tri­b­u­tion, it will be up to gov­er­nors to decide how to dis­trib­ute vac­cines and pri­or­i­tize recip­i­ents. The Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health has pub­lished guide­lines for local gov­ern­ments to ulti­mate­ly dis­trib­ute the vac­cine giv­en them by the state; mean­while, Chica­go will also receive vac­cines direct­ly from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Right now, ware­house work­ers are list­ed as a ?“pos­si­ble group to include” in Phase 2 of Illi­nois’ vac­cine roll­out when a ?“larg­er num­ber” of vac­cine dos­es is available.

There are sprawl­ing com­plex­es of ware­hous­es in sub­urbs and towns south­west and west of Chica­go, and increas­ing num­bers of ware­hous­es?—?includ­ing for Ama­zon?—?with­in the city lim­its. Many of the ware­house work­ers employed in the sub­urbs live in Chica­go, com­ing pre­dom­i­nant­ly from Lat­inx and Black com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard-hit by Covid-19. 

The governor’s office and Illi­nois Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health didn’t respond to a request for com­ment about the peti­tion by the time this sto­ry was published. 

Dur­ing the governor’s dai­ly coro­n­avirus brief­ing on Decem­ber 8, pub­lic health depart­ment direc­tor Dr. Ngozi Ezike said, ?“While the vac­cine is com­ing, it’s not going to be as much as we want and won’t come out as quick­ly as we like. The first groups to receive the vac­cine will be our health care work­ers and also the res­i­dents of long-term care facil­i­ties… We’re pri­or­i­tiz­ing those at great­est risk of expo­sure and severe illness.”

Mark Balen­tine, a com­mu­ni­ty nav­i­ga­tor for Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice, also worked at the Mars ware­house until April, when an acci­dent and his con­cerns about Covid-19 caused him to leave the job, he said. 

“Peo­ple are com­ing up pos­i­tive. There’s a chance you work right next to them on the floor and (man­agers) don’t warn you,” he said, not­ing that he found out one cowork­er had Covid-19 only when he called her on unre­lat­ed Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice busi­ness. ?“The bot­tom line with Mars was the dol­lar?—?they were more con­cerned with the dol­lar bill than with people’s health. I don’t believe in play­ing Russ­ian roulette with people’s lives like that.” 

(The U.S. media office for Mars did not respond to a request for comment.)

After being fired from Mars, Jack­son got work at anoth­er sub­ur­ban Chica­go ware­house that ships prod­ucts ?“from fan­cy chi­na to per­fume and every­thing else” for Wal­mart, Ama­zon and oth­er retail­ers. A Covid-19 out­break occurred and the ware­house shut down for about a week, Jack­son said, and he was required to get a test on his own time in order to return to the job that pays $14.50 an hour with no health insur­ance. Jack­son said work­ers still wor­ry they are at high risk of con­tract­ing Covid-19 since, he said, man­age­ment does lit­tle to pro­tect them. 

“They’re just hav­ing us sign a piece of paper say­ing they took our tem­per­a­ture,” he said. ?“It’s real­ly an unsafe work area, they’re not lis­ten­ing to the work­ers, they just want to move these products.” 

Even if he or oth­er work­ers are exposed to some­one with Covid-19, he said, they would like­ly keep going to work because they are not paid if they are quar­an­ti­ning. Balen­tine said his broth­er con­tin­ues to work at the Mars ware­house despite feel­ing at risk, since he needs the money. 

“You make this mon­ey and put it in the bank and now you’re not here to spend it, so what good is it?” said Balen­tine about his deci­sion to quit. He doesn’t believe the com­pa­nies oper­at­ing ware­hous­es will improve pro­tec­tions any time soon, hence the urgency for vac­cines for workers. 

“We need our doc­tors and nurs­es in order to take care of us, we need the health­care work­ers to go by the elder­ly folks and see that they’re straight, and you need the ware­house work­ers because every­thing comes from a ware­house?—?hand san­i­tiz­er, toi­let tis­sue, clean­ing sup­plies,” said Balen­tine. ?“You want to pro­tect (ware­house work­ers) to keep them working.”

Jack­son said that while he thinks ware­house work­ers should be deemed essen­tial and giv­en pri­or­i­ty access to vac­cines, he would him­self be reluc­tant to take it. 

“Me being Black and the way the gov­ern­ment has treat­ed Black peo­ple deal­ing with (med­ical care), I’m not sure I would take the vac­cine,” he said, cit­ing the infa­mous Tuskegee syphilis exper­i­ment, in which Black men were not giv­en ade­quate care or ful­ly informed about the trial. 

Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice has long tried to raise aware­ness of abus­es in the indus­try and demand reforms. The tem­po­rary staffing struc­ture means that work­ers have lit­tle oppor­tu­ni­ty to advance or earn high­er wages, and can be fired for any rea­son. As a result, there has been lit­tle recourse for work­ers to address report­ed­ly ram­pant health and safe­ty prob­lems, dis­crim­i­na­tionand sex­u­al harassment. 

As with many inequities and injus­tices, the pan­dem­ic has just ampli­fied and cast light upon the long­stand­ing prob­lems with the ware­hous­ing indus­try, advo­cates and work­ers say. 

“It’s not just about Covid, it’s the way we’re dis­re­spect­ed and mis­treat­ed in these ware­hous­es,” said Balen­tine. ?“They look down on us. We’re treat­ed as invis­i­ble. But with­out ware­house work­ers, noth­ing happens.” 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on December 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.


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Meet the Warehouse Worker Who Took On Amazon Over Inhumane Conditions and Harassment

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Hibaq Mohamed has worked for Ama­zon near­ly as long as she’s been in the Unit­ed States. In 2016, the twen­ty-some­thing Soma­li immi­grant land­ed in Min­neso­ta by way of a refugee camp, join­ing one of the largest East African com­mu­ni­ties in the coun­try. She soon joined the legion of work­ers who fuel the state’s main Ama­zon facil­i­ty, the MSP1 ful­fill­ment cen­ter in Shakopee, near the Twin Cities.

“This was my first job,” Mohamed says. “They were hir­ing work­ers … East African and peo­ple like me. [These work­ers] didn’t have a lot of expe­ri­ence, they don’t know a lot.” 

The Shakopee facil­i­ty employs rough­ly 1,000 work­ers to exe­cute Amazon’s high­ly mech­a­nized work reg­i­men every day, pack­ing orders at a fren­zied rate of around 250 units per hour. While items zip down a con­vey­or belt, the work­ers are mon­i­tored, through an auto­mat­ed sys­tem, to track their speed and any errors that might dam­age their per­for­mance ratings.

On top of the pres­sure to meet quo­tas, Mohamed says man­age­ment decid­ed to “fire a crazy num­ber of work­ers” short­ly after she start­ed work­ing there. “And they are not telling us what they fired them for,” she recalls. She says the work­ers were immi­grants who did not speak Eng­lish fluently.

Though Ama­zon says these were sea­son­al hires—and were there­fore dis­missed once their tem­po­rary stints end­ed, the seem­ing lack of trans­paren­cy trou­bled Mohamed. “I feel like this was unfair,” she says.

Around 2017, Mohamed and oth­er East African immi­grant work­ers start­ed meet­ing with the Awood Cen­ter, a Min­neapo­lis work­er cen­ter. As fledg­ling com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers, Mohamed says, “We have to be smart, we have to have the train­ing to do this.” Over the past two years, East African work­ers have spear­head­ed a num­ber of walk­outs and protests at Ama­zon against what they per­ceive as incom­pe­tence, inhu­mane pro­duc­tiv­i­ty stan­dards and a lack of diver­si­ty among the man­age­ment. Images of hijabis walk­ing the pick­et line and ban­ners pro­claim­ing that work­ers are “not robots” gar­nered nation­al headlines. 

Fol­low­ing ini­tial protests in 2018, Ama­zon man­age­ment sat down with MSP1’s East African work­ers to dis­cuss work­ing con­di­tions—high­ly unusu­al for Ama­zon, which had pre­vi­ous­ly avoid­ed such direct talks with workers.

Ama­zon even­tu­al­ly agreed to make some accom­mo­da­tions at the facil­i­ty, such as com­mit­ting man­agers to meet quar­ter­ly with work­ers and respond to com­plaints with­in five days, accord­ing to the New York Times. But work­ers have con­tin­ued to com­plain about the intense pro­duc­tiv­i­ty pres­sure, which often leaves them with­out time for dai­ly prayers and bath­room breaks, despite Ama­zon claim­ing that work­ers can pray at any time. MSP1 also has one of the high­est injury rates among Amazon’s ful­fill­ment centers.

Awood has become a hub for the East African work­er com­mu­ni­ty, teach­ing orga­niz­ing tac­tics and build­ing mutu­al sup­port. Awood oper­ates as a grass­roots group and not a for­mal union, but oth­er unions—includ­ing the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union and the Team­sters—have been sup­port­ing Ama­zon work­ers at MSP1 and oth­er facilities.

Just over a month after Min­neso­ta issued stay-at-home orders, Ama­zon elim­i­nat­ed unlim­it­ed unpaid time off for those who opt­ed to stay home for health con­cerns, which trig­gered a walk­out by more than 50 MSP1 work­ers. The work­ers also protest­ed what they said was the retal­ia­to­ry fir­ing of two work­er activists, Faiza Osman (who Awood claims was ter­mi­nat­ed after stay­ing home with her chil­dren to avoid infec­tion, but was lat­er rein­stat­ed) and Bashir Mohamed (who appar­ent­ly was dis­ci­plined for vio­lat­ing social dis­tanc­ing guide­lines, which work­ers say are selec­tive­ly enforced).

Work­ers’ fears about the virus were con­firmed in June, when about 90 ware­house employ­ees test­ed pos­i­tive for Covid-19. Bloomberg report­ed that Ama­zon had care­ful­ly tracked the Covid-19 infec­tion rate at MSP1, but did not dis­close details on the num­ber of cas­es to workers.

Man­age­ment “want[ed] to hide it,” Mohamed says. But while the high­er-ups were not exposed like the front­line work­ers on the ware­house floor, “We are the ones who are going togeth­er to the bath­room, to the break room. We are the ones get­ting the virus.”

Ama­zon has boast­ed about its Covid-19 response, claim­ing it has tak­en exten­sive mea­sures to keep work­ers safe while eas­ing up on quo­tas. But Mohamed says Amazon’s lead­ers “focus more for the mon­ey than the work­ers and people.”

Last week, work­ers’ fears about their risk of infec­tion were real­ized when the com­pa­ny report­ed that more than 19,000 of its 1,372,000 employ­ees at Ama­zon and Whole Foods had test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19. Though it claims that the infec­tion rate at its facil­i­ties was about 40 per­cent low­er on aver­age than in sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ties, labor advo­cates denounced the com­pa­ny for need­less­ly putting work­ers’ health at risk.

The man­age­ment seems focused on Mohamed, how­ev­er. Amid ris­ing fears of Covid-19 risks at work, Mohamed was writ­ten up in July for tak­ing too much “time off task,” Amazon’s term for inter­mit­tent breaks. But she con­tends she had rarely received any dis­ci­pli­nary write-ups until the man­age­ment “clear­ly made me a tar­get” after she had protest­ed work­ing conditions. 

She wrote to Min­neso­ta Attor­ney Gen­er­al Kei­th Elli­son seek­ing pro­tec­tion under an exec­u­tive order shield­ing whistle­blow­ers from retaliation. 

“Ama­zon man­agers have tar­get­ed me and open­ly harassed me before,” Mohamed wrote, “but increas­ing­ly dur­ing the pandemic.”

Ama­zon denies Mohamed and her cowork­ers’ claims of retal­i­a­tion. Ama­zon spokesper­son Jen Crow­croft states via email, “We do not tol­er­ate any kind of dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place and we sup­port every employee’s right to crit­i­cize their employ­er, but that doesn’t come with blan­ket immu­ni­ty to ignore inter­nal poli­cies.” Sim­i­lar­ly, Ama­zon attrib­ut­es Bashir’s dis­missal to vio­la­tions of work­place rules. It also states Osman still works at Ama­zon and was not fired.

Mohamed’s alle­ga­tions reflect a broad­er pat­tern of fir­ings and pun­ish­ment of work­er-orga­niz­ers dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, which has prompt­ed law­mak­ers to inves­ti­gate Amazon’s labor prac­tices.. Last week, 35 work­ers at MSP1 staged yet anoth­er walk­out to protest the alleged fir­ing of one of Mohamed’s cowork­ers, Farhiyo Warsame, for “time off task” vio­la­tions, after she had voiced con­cerns about safe­ty pro­tec­tions at work.

For now, how­ev­er, Mohamed’s out­spo­ken­ness might pro­tect her, as the work­ers’ upris­ings have put Amazon’s labor prac­tices in the pub­lic spotlight. 

Ama­zon esti­mates about 30% of its Shakopee work­ers are East African, many of whom live in the Twin Cities Soma­li refugee com­mu­ni­ty, which has his­tor­i­cal­ly strug­gled with racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and socioe­co­nom­ic hard­ship. Now, these bonds have trans­formed into orga­niz­ing pow­er against a cor­po­rate empire. Hav­ing built a diverse com­mu­ni­ty of mil­i­tant work­ers at MSP1—Soma­li, Span­ish and Eng­lish speak­ers alike—Mohamed knows there is safe­ty in numbers.

“We have one goal, and we can under­stand each oth­er,” Mohamed says. “We have the pow­er to change pol­i­cy. … We have the right to exer­cise that in the Unit­ed States.” Although the com­pa­ny “give[s] us a lot of fear,” she adds. “[we] still have the courage to fight back and work for the change we want.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 5, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the “Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.


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