Some 8,000 workers will begin casting their ballots Friday morning to decide if they want to form a union at their Amazon warehouse on Staten Island — and the outcome of the vote could have a ripple effect throughout the tech behemoth’s empire.
The warehouse, known as JFK8, is one of four in the borough’s complex and workers there have been trying for years to unionize amid fierce pushback from the company. If the union wins a simple majority of those who cast ballots, it could become the multi-billion dollar company’s first unionized warehouse in the country. Workers in Bessemer, Alabama are still voting in a mail-in union election there, though the results are expected to come in after Staten Island’s. And another warehouse at the Staten Island campus has already begun to mobilize toward unionization.
Months of campaigning have led up to this point. Organizers have been talking to workers in break rooms, passing out flyers, knocking on doors and making phone calls by the thousands ahead of the vote, which concludes March 30.
“I haven’t slept in two years,” joked Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls on a recent afternoon. He’s spent most of his days and nights over recent months at the bus stop in front of JFK8 chatting up workers who pass.
Organizers say this is just the beginning. As soon as the votes are tallied for JFK8, they have to ramp up a campaign for workers at the LDJ5 warehouse across the street, where 1,500 more workers will start voting on April 25th.
There are four warehouses on the sprawling Staten Island compound that’s wrapped in a twist of highways and surrounded by wetlands. More than 10,000 workers sort goods, pack boxes and load trucks across all four buildings, an Amazon spokesperson said, and Amazon Labor Union organizers said they aim to unionize them all.
“Amazon says every day is 'day one.' And it is 'day one' for us, cause we ain’t going nowhere,” Smalls said, at a recent rally across from the warehouse. “We’re here to stay.”
The roots of this week’s union vote stretch back two years to March 2020, at the height of New York City’s first COVID-19 wave, when a group of workers walked off the job, protesting dangerous conditions.
Some were fired soon after. Smalls, the would-be president of the new union, was among them.
Amazon treats these workers like pawns on a chessboard. But I guarantee you, if we win this election, they gonna treat us like kings and queens.
The Amazon Labor Union is asking for hour-long lunch breaks instead of the 30 minutes they get now. They want higher base pay, more paid time off and paid sick days.
They want just cause to protect against layoffs. Workers said the company regularly fires people without warning and then rehires them months later, sometimes at a lower salary.
While Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos is one of the richest people on Earth, with a net worth of $177 billion, his Staten Island employees earn a starting salary of $18.25 an hour.
The workers are also asking for basic policy changes, such as allowing them to have their phones while working on the floor so they can listen to music or take emergency calls. They said they want the company to provide shuttle service for workers with excessively long commutes from other boroughs.
“Amazon treats these workers like pawns on a chessboard,” said Derrick Palmer, 33, who’s worked for the company since 2015. “But I guarantee you, if we win this election, they gonna treat us like kings and queens.”
But the organizers face a tough battle. Labor experts cited the large number of workers at the JFK8 warehouse and the high turnover among them as major challenges for union organizers.
“In union elections with this number of workers involved with big companies, the track record is not good for unions,” said Joshua Freeman, a history professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.
“The resources of large corporations that are determined to keep out unions are very large and very impressive and mostly effective,” he said.
Experts also noted that the Amazon Labor Union, which is a new group formed by current and former employees, isn’t affiliated with any pre-existing union — one that might have more resources and a track record of successful drives.
“It’s not a sure shot, that’s for sure,” Freeman said.
Though he added the union may have a better chance in labor-friendly New York, citing other recent wins for organizing efforts at Starbucks in Buffalo and at REI in SoHo.
Amazon has met union organizers with fierce opposition. Some said they had been targeted with performance write-ups. Others have been arrested. The company also recently hung massive ‘VOTE NO’ banners all around the JFK8 warehouse, according to pictures shared with Gothamist.
Employees are being pulled into mandatory training sessions where they’re dissuaded from voting for the union, sometimes multiple times a week. Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, denied any violations of federal labor law, though attorneys for the Amazon Labor Union have filed dozens of charges against the company.
Companies are not supposed to fire, threaten or retaliate against union organizers according to federal labor law, though they’re allowed to express their opinions about the union.
“It’s our employees’ choice whether or not to join a union,” Nantel said. “It always has been.”
Organizer Justine Medina, 32, said she’s hopeful Amazon’s heavy-handed tactics will backfire. She said she’d been hearing as much from workers she’s been talking to for months. Some had been on the fence until just the last few days, when they told her they were ready to back the ALU, she said.
“The buzz on the inside is that the union’s gonna win,” Medina said. “You can tell that the company is scared. They’re just getting so desperate.”
On a recent afternoon during a shift change, workers marched down the sidewalk across from the warehouse, to and from the bus stop across the street. ALU organizers wished them a good shift, while passing out yellow key chains that said “vote yes.”
Some said they were undecided, while others have made up their mind.
David, 27, a Staten Island resident who declined to give his full name citing professional ramifications, said he didn’t see the point of a union.
“For what, if everybody’s just packing boxes?” he said, adding in his four months at the company he hadn’t had any issues. “You wanna get paid like a manager, work to be a manager.”
But Shade Clarke, 33, who commutes for two and a half hours to the warehouse from her Harlem apartment, said she disagreed. She said she thought a union would help her get a raise, and potentially advocate for Amazon to provide shuttle buses to ease her commute.
“They told me to vote 'no,' and I don’t trust any corporation telling me what to do anyway,” Clarke said. “Voting 'yes' of course. I’m all for the union.”