In the six months Madeline Wesley has worked at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse, the long hours on her feet and repetitive motions have given her back pain she doesn’t think will ever go away.
Despite the difficult work, the 23-year-old said she’s feeling a sense of optimism. She’s a union organizer at warehouse LDJ5 where workers this week submitted petitions to the National Labor Relations Board, requesting a union vote.
“We put our bodies on the line for our job and we deserve pay that reflects that,” she said. “I feel really excited. We have a lot of support in the building.”
The announcement, made on Twitter this week by organizers, comes a week after the National Labor Relations Board authorized a first warehouse in the same Staten Island compound to call a union vote, which is expected in the coming months.
Kayla Blado, a spokesperson for the NLRB confirmed they’d received the petitions for the second warehouse, where an estimated 1,500 workers are employed. Blado said the NLRB would review the petitions in the coming days to determine if workers had passed the 30 percent threshold needed to move forward with a union vote.
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson said the company is skeptical that union organizers had enough “legitimate signatures.”
“We’re seeking to understand how these signatures were verified,” she said. “Our employees have always had a choice of whether or not to join a union, and as we saw just a few months ago, the vast majority of our team in Staten Island did not support the [Amazon Labor Union].” Nantel was referring to the first union drive last November, where workers initially withdrew their petition to call a union vote.
The latest efforts are part of a growing conflict nationally between low-wage workers and the tech behemoth that has shown no qualms in crushing union efforts at its many facilities.
Amazon raked in a record-breaking $386 billion in profits in 2020 and now employs more than a million workers across the country. But for years, the company successfully blocked unionization through campaigns of surveillance, intimidation and retaliation, a New York Times investigation found. Those tactics have continued on Staten Island, according to dozens of complaints filed with the NLRB.
Despite its aggressive responsive, Amazon is now facing multiple union votes at once. Warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama are slated to begin a new union vote on Friday, after the National Labor Relations Board found Amazon had interfered with the first election last fall.
The recent push towards unionization in Staten Island is two-years in the making. Employees say the work was always hard: long hours on their feet, tedious and repetitive movements that strained their arms and back, and micro-managing of their time, down to even their bathroom use.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rina Cummings, a lifelong Staten Island resident and single mother of two who’d worked at the JFK8 warehouse as a package sorter since 2018 recalled a sense of dread, every time she saw an unmasked employee. She walked off the job in late March of 2020 along with dozens of her co-workers to protest safety concerns. The walkout’s ringleader, Chris Smalls was fired hours later.
But Smalls's firing sparked a months-long effort to mobilize workers to fight for better conditions. He is now the president of the Amazon Labor Union, a campaign crowdfunded through GoFundMe, and not affiliated with any existing labor union. He told WNYC/Gothamist the labor group is aiming to bring in thousands of workers from all four warehouses at the Staten Island compound.
“There's two more and yes, [we’ll] have all four,” he said this week. “We're playing the long game. We're staying resilient, staying our course and we're building this union up from within.”
Staten Island union organizers have already faced a rocky road. In December, an organizer was arrested by the NYPD while talking to workers about the union’s efforts, Bloomberg reported. Another organizer, Daequan Smith, who was commuting to the Amazon facility from a Bronx homeless shelter, was abruptly fired that same month, New York Focus reported.
As organizers started to collect signatures to send to the NLRB, Amazon held a series of “training sessions” or “captive audience meetings” where corporate managers took aside small groups of employees and warned them against signing cards for the Amazon Labor Union. Vice obtained leaked audio of the meetings.
Cummings said she was also pulled into one of the sessions on December 5th, along with around ten of her coworkers in the JFK8 warehouse. A man from Amazon’s corporate offices who’d flown in from Seattle introduced himself only by his first name, Patrick. In a recording she shared with WNYC/Gothamist, Patrick urged managers and employees to communicate directly without a third party.
“I'm not telling you to sign this card. I'm not telling you not to sign this card,” Patrick said, adding if union organizers promised them better pay or benefits they should ask for it in writing. “There are promises that can be made that aren't delivered on and I would hate for you to regret that in the long run.”
Cummings recalled listening to him in shock.
“You have to pinch yourself,” she said. “You're like, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Attorneys working on behalf of the union effort have filed several dozen charges of labor law violations over Amazon’s behavior with the NLRB over several months, records show. Complaints reviewed by WNYC/Gothamist detailed allegations that management confiscated union literature, called union organizers “thugs,” fired organizers and prohibited them from talking to workers on public and private property. But the mounting charges and even a settlement agreed upon in December, hadn’t put the kibosh on Amazon’s tactics, according to attorney Seth Goldstein, who is representing the organizers pro bono.
“This is a company that doesn't seem to believe that the labor law applies to them,” Goldstein said. “Further action needs to be taken against Amazon because what they're doing is outrageous.”
Another spokesperson for Amazon declined repeated requests for additional comment on various allegations against the company.
Despite Amazon’s efforts, enough workers in the first warehouse signed cards calling for a union vote, surpassing the 30 percent threshold required of the 5,000 workers, the NLRB said. Amazon and union organizers are slated to meet before NLRB representatives on February 16 to discuss who the bargaining unit will cover in the first warehouse, according to the NLRB.
Cummings said she wasn't deterred and doesn't believe she and her colleagues are asking for anything unusual.
“The police department has a union, right? The fire department has a union. The nurses have a union. The doctors have a union, the bus drivers, the train operators have a union. The lady who takes care of my 92-year-old grandma, she has a union,” Cummings said. “So why don't I deserve a union?”