A former employee of Amazon's mega-warehouse on Staten Island says he was fired last month for speaking out about intolerable working conditions and attempting to organize his co-workers at the historically anti-union company.
Justin Rashad Long, who worked for Amazon as an overnight "picker," was terminated on February 12th over what the company claimed was a serious safety violation. But that reasoning is "bogus," according to Long, who alleged in a statement that his dismissal was "a clear act of retaliation" for his public advocacy on behalf of fellow workers.
On Wednesday, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed formal charges with the National Labor Relations Board protesting Long's firing. The complaint alleges that Amazon violated a federal law that, in most cases, prohibits companies from firing employees for union activity. Long's alleged transgressions—entering the robot "work" area to pick up a product that fell off a different robot in the human work area—was merely cited as a "pretext for being outspoken against the working conditions at the facility," per the complaint.
In response, a spokesperson for Amazon denied Long's charges, and argued that workers at the company did not need union protections. "What’s important is that Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry-leading pay — associates at our Staten Island facility make $17-$23 an hour, comprehensive benefits, opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern work environment (which, in Staten Island, is staffed by 100% full-time employees)," said spokesperson Rachael Lighty.
But according to RWDSU, which is also attempting to organize workers at the Amazon-owned Whole Foods, conditions at the newly-opened Staten Island fulfillment center are neither modern nor safe. Since the facility opened last year, employees have complained of being worked to the point of exhaustion, with pickers reportedly under strict pressure to package 400 items each hour. Prior to his firing, Long made multiple appearances at rallies held by the retail union, where he described his grueling 70-hour work week with few breaks.
"The third and fourth floors are so hot that I sweat through my whole shift, even when it's freezing," Long wrote in a letter read outside City Hall by union reps in December. "We have asked the company to provide air conditioning, but they told us that the robots inside can't work in the cold weather, so there's nothing they can do about it."
The complaint comes just a month after Amazon announced it was abandoning plans to open a corporate campus in Long Island City—the result of wide-ranging public outcry, including over the company's alleged union-busting, among other reasons. In that announcement, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos signaled plans to continue growing operations in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Manhattan (among them: a new administrative office in Hudson Yards, which will receive at least $20 million in tax credits).
Following news of the company's withdrawal from Queens, local activists said they were turning their attention to organizing the 5,000 employees who are currently employed by the e-commerce giant throughout the city.
Maritza Silva-Farrell, the leader of ALIGN-NY, reiterated that point on Thursday, telling Gothamist: "Our fight against Amazon is not stopping with the cancelling of their HQ2 plans for Queens...This clear retaliation for exposing Amazon’s atrocious working conditions in Staten Island is both outrageous and unacceptable but unfortunately consistent with how Amazon operates as an anti-worker and anti-union employer."
In a statement, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said he was prepared to file additional labor grievances against Amazon, and urged elected officials to condemn the company's alleged mistreatment of workers.
"Amazon’s leaders may have decided not to open a new corporate headquarters in New York City, but they are clearly expanding their fulfillment center operations here, and cracking down on any workers who speak out and try to organize," said Appelbaum. "That’s wrong and unacceptable."