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Amazon workers kick off first NY union election

A union vote is underway as the retail giant faces labor lawsuits from the New York attorney general and National Labor Relations Board claiming retaliation against workers who protested against lax Covid-19 safety policies.

NEW YORK (CN) — Amazon workers in New York City may be days away from creating the company’s first-ever union. 

Employees at a Staten Island distribution center began voting Friday on whether to form the Amazon Labor Union, as supporters hope to create a domino effect that sparks a bigger movement across the e-commerce and cloud services giant. 

The election is a culmination of two years of protests and organizing that followed alleged retaliation against employees who spoke out against working conditions that they said failed to keep them safe during the pandemic, including poor contact tracing and alerts and not having enough time to ensure proper hygiene. 

Known as JFK8, the facility is the second in Amazon’s history to hold a union election, the first taking place last year in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers there voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. But organizers were granted a do-over after a regional director for the NLRB found that Amazon “hijacked” the process by installing a mailbox at the employee entrance, giving the impression that the company itself was controlling the election.  

Unlike the Alabama mail-in election, Staten Island employees will show up in person to cast paper ballots until March 30, skipping Sunday. Vote-counting is expected to take two or three days. 

Only full-time and regular part-time fulfillment center associates at JFK8 are eligible to vote. More than 8,000 employees are on the voter list, an Amazon attorney said, but observers for both organizers and Amazon will have an opportunity to challenge individuals’ eligibility — if someone no longer works at the facility or now has a job that doesn’t qualify them as a union member. 

If organizers win, they will form bargaining committees and hash out specifics, but they are generally asking for better pay, benefits and representation.

“Looking for higher wages, and just generally being treated with respect,” said attorney Eric Milner, who represents the Amazon Labor Union. “I think they’re looking for a voice in how things run.” 

In the early days of the pandemic, Amazon fired and disciplined employees who protested lacking Covid-19 safety protocols. New York Attorney General Letitia James accused the company of retaliation in an ongoing lawsuit in Manhattan state court. 

James’ suit calls for Amazon to offer to rehire Christian Smalls, who was fired after leading a worker walkout and protest. Smalls is now president of the Amazon Labor Union. 

Meanwhile, the termination of employee Gerald Bryson is the subject of a pending federal petition by the National Labor Relations Board seeking an injunction that would give Bryson his job back and require Amazon to publicly post and read out the decision to JFK8 employees. 

The NLRB claims that Bryson’s firing chilled union efforts and asked a Brooklyn federal judge to reinstate Bryson before Friday’s vote kicked off, but the motion is yet to be decided. 

A second vote is planned at Amazon’s second Staten Island location, known as LDJ5, on April 25, the union announced last week. 

“It's kind of like dominoes falling,” Milner said of the individual facility votes. “If you can get workers to say, ‘Hey, it's actually possible,’ it can kind of catch on like a wildfire.” 

Patricia Campos-Medina is the executive director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She is hopeful about Amazon’s upcoming votes, but said the model for organizing “shop-by-shop,” established by the National Labor Relations Act, needs updating. 

“Now companies have shops in 20 countries,” she noted.

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She proposed other options like the sectoral bargaining model used in Europe, which would set standards for an entire industry. 

Headline-making union activity goes beyond Amazon. On Tuesday, a unanimous vote formed the seventh Starbucks union at a Seattle location. Union members at Kellogg held an 11-week labor strike in late 2021 after their contract expired, seeking higher pay and a clear path for lower-tier workers to move up the chain. 

Kellogg threatened to permanently replace the striking workers, a move that “deeply troubled” President Joe Biden

"Collective bargaining is an essential tool to protect the rights of workers that should be free from threats and intimidation from employers," Biden said.

Amazon doesn’t support unionizing in Staten Island. 

“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have,” the company wrote in a statement. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

The short response did not address a question from Courthouse News about how Amazon will respond if the JFK8 vote is a success. 

Union activity bubbling up amid the pandemic isn't a coincidence, Campos-Medina said.

“The demand for better wages, the demand for better working conditions, has been ongoing for a long time,” she said. “What is new, though, is that during the pandemic, most of these workers became essential workers. And consumers and society began to see them as essential — and began to see that the work that they were doing ought to be paid more, ought to be respected more.” 

Employees face an uphill battle against massive, well-resourced companies. Amazon, valued at well over $1 trillion, stands out because of its tight control over employees, Campos-Medina said. 

She compared Amazon to historic “company-owned towns” where a significant number of residents worked for a single employer. 

“They’re setting the standards for the conditions for the whole industry because of the power that they have,” said Campos-Medina, who advocates for splitting up Amazon’s retail and cloud services branches.  

According to a study by Rutgers University researchers and advocacy group jobs With Justice, Amazon uses local police departments to create “prison-like” work environments and subdue workers. 

A Staten Island worker said Amazon threatened to call the cops on him for giving out union literature on site, and others said they were kicked out of break rooms and parking lots after 15 minutes before or after their shifts to hamper organizing — claims that led to a 2021 settlement with the NLRB under which Amazon pledged to allow employees to freely organize and to email current and former workers to notify them of their organizing rights. 

Legally, Amazon can and does hold mandatory captive audience meetings during work hours, where they can present and hand out anti-union materials, according to attorney Seth Goldstein, who represents the union in unfair employment practice cases. 

Goldstein is fighting against the meetings, which can occur up to 24 hours before a union election. But the tactic didn’t stop the Staten Island election.

“Now in New York, if you have a captive audience meeting, someone is going to record it and put it on Twitter,” Goldstein said. Spectators can judge the activity themselves, Greek audience-style. 

The Amazon Labor Union’s Twitter account in February posted a flier with Amazon’s logo on it, warning workers against union dues: “A union is a business. Every business needs money,” it reads.  

Another unique challenge at Amazon, which employes more than 750,000 in the United States alone, is constant staff upheaval, the union’s attorneys said, citing a weekly 3% turnover rate. 

“Getting fired? At Amazon? That’s an everyday occurrence,” Goldstein said. “They purposefully fire people. That’s their business model.” 

Goldstein agreed with Campos-Medina that reforms are necessary to the National Labor Relations Act, which couldn’t possibly have predicted that a company may fire workers to get them not to organize. 

“A steel plant in 1935 wasn’t thinking about that. The laws are obsolete to deal with the situation,” he said. “The tactics are not like you’ve ever seen. But then, Amazon’s a company not like you’ve ever seen.” 

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