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NYC Amazon workers form company’s first US union

Employees formed an independent union to target Amazon-specific tactics and operations, like a sky-high turnover rate that thwarts union efforts, organizers said.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Amazon union organizers cheered, hugged and popped champagne in celebration of their historic voting victory Friday, which created the company’s first-ever union in the United States.

“Today, the people have spoken. And the people wanted a union,” said Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union. “This is a prime example of the power that people have when they come together.”

Fellow organizers swarmed the union leader as he stepped out of the National Labor Relations Board office in downtown Brooklyn, where votes were counted. He became one of the most visible union leaders when organizing efforts began around a year ago.

Smalls, who worked for Amazon for five years, was fired after leading a March 2020 walk-out of Amazon employees in protest of inadequate protections against the spread of Covid-19. His firing is part of the basis for a retaliation and workplace safety lawsuit filed last year by New York State Attorney General Letitia James. 

The final tally was 2,654 yes votes, about 55% of the votes, to 2,131 votes against unionization. Both Amazon and the newly formed union can dispute ballots over the next several days. 

The hard-earned win for the independent union owes thanks to consistent efforts to build relationships and trust with employees, Smalls told reporters. Organizers helped raise money for fired workers to help pay their bills and aide those who were homeless and living in shelters. They gave out food — pizza, chicken, pasta, meals cooked by Smalls’ aunt — and held 20-something barbeques. 

“Giving out books, literature — giving out free weed ’cause it’s legal,” Smalls said, followed by laughs in the crowd of union members and supporters who gathered in Brooklyn. 

“We did whatever it took to connect with those workers, to make their daily lives just a little bit easier, a little bit less stressful,” Smalls said. “When they got off, they saw us right there at that bus stop. Having a bonfire, lighting up s’mores. Whatever it took, we were right there for them every day, and I think that resonated with the workers — something that no established union could do.”

The union’s treasurer, Madeline “Maddie” Wesley, echoed that sentiment in an interview with Courthouse News. Union members and their attorneys have cited Amazon’s sky-high turnover rate as a particular challenge, which the company uses as a tactic to crush union efforts. An independent union, where workers know the ins, outs and grievances of employees, was necessary, according to organizers. 

“We believe it’s the only way to organize Amazon, because Amazon has specifically designed their employment system to ward off unions,” Wesley said. “We had to be creative.” 

Wesley works at LDJ5, another Staten Island facility, which will hold an election of its own later this month. The two teams are working together ahead of that vote; the initial chapter would have included all four Staten Island facilities, but ultimately broke out into separate chapters. 

In the future, Wesley plans to hold webinar training sessions for workers in other parts of the country interested in creating their own chapters. She noted that even though Amazon is in a league of its own, it’s setting standards for employment practices all over. 

“Amazon is the future of labor in the United States and around the world,” Wesley said. 

Friday’s tally was announced as a separate Amazon union effort in Bessemer, Alabama, is underway for the second time. The results are too close to call, but if successful, the chapter will be part of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. 

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Several Staten Island organizers said they weren’t sure whether they had it in the bag as the polls closed, but remained optimistic. As results were announced starting Thursday afternoon, the union took the lead, and held onto it. 

Labor advocates were clear that it was going to be an uphill battle for the union, given the resources of the e-commerce and data services giant. 

“We started off with two tables, two chairs and a tent,” Smalls said; while Amazon had millions to spend on lawyers — “the same lawyers I just shook hands with while we kicked their ass.” 

Next at JFK8, union organizers will head to the negotiation table with Amazon. Priorities will depend on what workers want, organizers said, but near the top of the list are higher pay, better working conditions and time off, and job security. 

Tristan “Lion” Dutchin, 27, started working at Amazon in March of 2021 and joined the JFK8 union a month later after experiencing mistreatment at the company. 

“I’d been going through bad treatment, managers writing me up. I used to feel that I was being racially targeted, maybe because I was Black, or maybe because I had dreads, or I looked a certain way,” Dutchin, 27, told Courthouse News. “But I’ve learned that this is not a race thing — a lot of people from all different backgrounds go through the same treatment, and I had to join this union to help fight for workers to have a voice.” 

Amazon frequently encouraged members to vote no on the union, holding meetings and handing out literature to counter organizers’ efforts. That push was successful in getting some of Dutchin’s co-workers to side against the union, he said. 

“Workers will approach me in a hostile, negative way, giving me some hard questions that I don’t have the answer to,” Dutchin said. “That all comes from what Amazon’s been telling them.”

Amazon does not support the union and accused the NLRB of improperly influencing the election. The labor board recently filed a federal petition against Amazon demanding that the company reinstate another worker, Gerald Bryson, who was fired after protesting sub-par pandemic protocols.

“We’re disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” the company said in a statement Friday.

“We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”

Smalls, meanwhile, answered a reporter’s question about his message to Amazon workers across the country in a single word: “Unionize.”

Though workers have long demanded better wages and working conditions, the pandemic brought new life to organizing efforts.

“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,” Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, previously told Courthouse News.

The astronomical wealth gap between Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is nearly $190 billion, and his warehouse employees also came into focus. 

Organizer Julian “Mitch” Mitchell-Israel wore a pink Amazon Labor Union shirt on Friday — and held an unopened bottle of champagne that would later be ceremoniously popped open by Smalls. 

“Jeff Bezos must be shaking on his satin leather couch,” Mitchell-Israel joked. 

Smalls, wearing sunglasses and dressed in an all-red sweatsuit, offered a zinger of his own. 

“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space,” Smalls said, “because when he was up there, we was signing people up.”

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