In the News April 11
In Action in Defence of Rights
Congratulations to New York Amazon Workers
on Historic Win
With well-earned joy, on April 1, workers at Amazon’s Staten Island JFK8 warehouse won their vote for a union. This is the first Amazon workplace to be unionized despite all the difficulties which result from the concrete working conditions at Amazon in general, and the Staten Island location in particular.
The turnover rate at the Staten Island warehouse, accessible for many mainly by ferry, is said to be about 150 per cent. This is equivalent to replacing their entire workforce every eight months. The injury rate is three times the national average. Amazon required attendance at weekly meetings denouncing unionizing, which the workers call captive audience meetings. Amazon also formed a “reaction team” involving ten departments, including its Global Intelligence Program, a security group staffed by many military veterans.
Amazon spent $4.3 million in 2021 on law firms to target the workers for arrests and smear them and their organizing. This included trying to portray the organizing as done by an outside “third party.” However, the union, Amazon Labor Union (ALU), is independent and created by the workers themselves. The claims of Amazon fell flat as workers knew the ALU organizers were co-workers ready to talk about concerns. The organizers knew their conditions and concerns. This was no perfunctory act by “third parties” and, furthermore, the suggestion that legitimate union organizing is a matter of “outside” agitators, which is the insinuation intended to scare the workers, is out of order. Far from succeeding, the allegation that some of the workers are communists and socialists and branded as “outsiders,” did not succeed, as they contributed to the organizing efforts alongside their peers. This included having group discussions to learn from earlier organizing to build the Congress of Industrial Workers (CIO), especially steelworkers, led by communists.
The Staten Island JFK8 warehouse is the largest in New York as well as the first Amazon warehouse in the U.S. to unionize. When the victorious vote count was announced, ALU president Chris Smalls addressed Amazon’s efforts to block the win. Speaking of Amazon’s long-time CEO and current Executive Chair, he said: “We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space, because while he was up there we were organizing a union.”
Smalls also made clear that the win was based on persistent organizing by the Amazon workers themselves, who carried out numerous actions beyond the required card signing to secure a vote. These included tabling right outside the warehouse, various protests and job actions, rallies, street meetings, barbeques, and spending many hours in the break room talking one on one and in small groups with fellow workers. Referring to rallies held right in front of the warehouse and other such actions, Smalls said, “We showed them that we’re fearless.”
Attention was paid to identifying advanced workers, able to mobilize others to join in support. The sprawling warehouse was mapped out, so the level of support in each department, and what was needed to gain more, was identified. Said one organizer, “We know in which departments, and on which shifts, we have strong support because of where our organizers are.” A massive phone banking effort leading up to the vote also took place with the support of various political and community organizations.
Smalls and others among about 20 core organizers and a committee of another 100 more mobilizers, emphasize it was a collective effort. As one young woman worker put it, “It’s the hard work, every day: workers talking to workers. Not just media games, but solidarity, daily analysis, and adjusting as needed. It’s working as a collective, learning together, and teaching each other,” she said.
ALU operates on democratic principles, with all those participating in the work voting on decisions.
The results of the vote in such difficult conditions was 2,654 in favour of forming a union to 2,131 against, with 8,325 workers eligible to vote. The vote still needs to be certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). On April 6 the NLRB received an official objection from Amazon to the results of the vote alleging that the union threatened workers. Amazon has been given until April 22 to present its evidence. The workers are demanding higher wages, safe conditions, more sick time, vacation time and other basic demands. Another warehouse at the same complex, LDJ5, will begin a vote to unionize with the ALU on April 25.
The independent ALU came into being as a result of persistent organizing over the past two years. This included a walkout demanding safe working conditions and COVID protections in 2020. Protests were also held at the Manhattan penthouse and Washington DC mansion of Bezos, whose net worth is about $200 billion. In COVID conditions, Amazon secured tens of billions in profits, up 84 per cent for 2020 and up another 22 per cent for 2021. Staten Island workers demanded $30 an hour given their hard work in what produced these billions.
The organizing campaign was launched in March 2021. For the next year, alongside organizing throughout the warehouse, outreach was done to various political and community organizations, who joined in supporting the ALU. These efforts included students, migrant workers, anti-racist activists, housing activists and trade unionists who organized banner drops and a series of street actions where ALU members were speakers.
The Amazon workers are well aware that the vote for the ALU is a first step as Amazon will no doubt make every effort to intimidate and fire organizers and block negotiation of a contract. They are persisting in their organizing and striving to ensure the unity and fighting spirit achieved continues to advance.
Canadian Amazon workers who are also working very hard to defend the rights of warehouse workers are very encouraged by the result. Congratulations to their fellow workers on Staten Island. Working as a collective, learning together and taking up social responsibility are indeed what is required in this historic fight to uphold the dignity of labour so as to humanize the natural and social environment!
Workers’ Forum, posted April 11, 2022.