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As Historic Election Begins, Meet the Workers Who Built a Union at Amazon’s Staten Island Complex

Issue 270

Today kicks off the first day of a five-day union election at Staten Island’s largest Amazon warehouse, JFK8. Meet some of the Amazon workers who are determined to win the election and transform how the company treats its workers.

Amba Guerguerian Mar 25

The Amazon facility on Staten Island is suffocatingly vast. Four massive warehouses sit among parking lots and endless rows of truck-loading docks. In the parking lot of the 2.5-acre JFK8 warehouse sits a giant National Labor Relations Board election tent. Today is the first of five days for roughly 6,000 Amazon employees who work at JFK8 to vote on whether or not to unionize. 

The core group of about 20 deeply committed ALU organizers have become friends and created a sense of community and camaraderie necessary for a successful union.

If the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) — the independent group of Amazon employees leading the unionization struggle — is successful in this election, they will then have to bargain a first contract with the company in order to win demands for basic workplace protections. If the giant online retailer were to become fully unionized, it could galvanize labor organizing in a broad swath of low-wage jobs in the retail, service and logistics industries. The ALU says 70% of the workers approve of the union, based on its phone-banking data. However, the organizers know that number could shrink in the face of a ruthless anti-union campaign by Amazon. 

The ALU’s origins date back to the first month of pandemic frenzy, when workers Christian Smalls, Gerald Bryson, Jordan Flowers and Derrick Palmer led a walkout in protest of unsafe working conditions at JFK8 and managerial cover-ups. In retaliation, Amazon fired Smalls and Bryson

In the year since it launched in April 2021, the ALU hasn’t stopped to catch a breath. Its members have kept a constant presence at the S40 bus stop in front of JFK8, offering the workers the warmth of a small fire or home-cooked food. At union-hosted parties and rallies, they tell Amazon workers they deserve paid time off, wages of more than $19 an hour, and basic workplace protections. In every space employees traverse, ALU members are there, telling their coworkers about the benefits or organized labor. 

Chris Smalls on the first day of phone banking.

Meanwhile, Amazon has been ruthlessly breaking labor law. The company’s union-busting tactics over the past year included firing Staten Island worker Daeqwon Smith for his ALU affiliation (he now lives in a homeless shelter); forcing workers to attend anti-union “captive audience meetings” disguised as required trainings, during which they deploy scare tactics, threatening workers with misinformation about unions, like that if they unionize, they’ll be brought down to minimum wage; and having police arrest Smalls for “trespassing” twice. In the most recent arrest, Smalls was pushed around while cops demanded, “Where’s the gun?” 

Amazon, owned by the world’s second richest man, has annual sales of $470 billion, and is the second-largest employer in the U.S. after Walmart. It is a daunting foe.

“Amazon is the great American nightmare,” says Seth Goldstein, the ALU’s pro bono lawyer. The company has decimated countless bookstores. It is infiltrating the education system through contracts with K-12 schools and universities to provide fresh food. It designed and funded the Amazon Logistics and Business Management Pathway program at Cajon High in San Bernardino, California, where students are taught how to “brainstorm ways you could motivate your employees other than large bonuses and high salaries,” reported Vice in January. The corporation has gained a chokehold on the U.S. economy — its low prices can’t be beat by other companies, and it has set a low bar for working standards: Crank as much work out of your employees as you possibly can, surveil them, fire them quickly for “low productivity” and make sure they don’t have enough time to use the restroom, drink water or eat. 

The view from inside the warehouse. Photo: Amazon Labor Union.

Flanks of fencing topped with barbed wire separate some parts of the facility from others. When the sun beats down on the asphalt and concrete, heat waves emanate from the facility. The environment is hostile to human activity. The only bathrooms are inside the facilities. (This reporter found herself peeing behind a locked, MTA-use-only outhouse.) “Yup, this is the trench,” said Smalls. “We had the code to the bathroom the MTA drivers use, but we lost it when Amazon called the driver into the office.”

During shift changes, mostly young, overwhelmingly Black and brown workers get on and off the S40 buses. They take long commutes, usually from 90 minutes to three hours each way, to and from the warehouses where they work 12-hour shifts, often overnight. 

“It’s a mix of jail and a very strict school. You’re constantly being tracked.”

Things are looking gloomy if this is a template for our future. But it doesn’t have to be. Only 6.1% of private-sector workers in the United States are in a union, and it’s time for that to change, which the members of the ALU hope to do. Imagine what they picture: a tidal wave of labor organization, starting now. 

The roughly 1,500 workers at the LDJ5 warehouse, also in the Staten Island complex, will have their own union vote April 25-29. The NLRB will soon announce the results of the second union vote at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, with ballots scheduled to be counted March 28. (The board ordered the redo after it held that Amazon illegally interfered in last year’s election, which went against the union.). In February, workers at Seattle’s Amazon Fresh store declared they’d formed a union, which would be the first one in Amazon’s collection of grocery stores(Whole Foods, Amazon Fresh, and Amazon Go). And new Teamsters President Sean O’Brien, who took office on March 22, has doubled down on his promises to take on the challenge of unionizing Amazon. 

Through grueling days and sleepless nights, the core group of about 20 deeply committed ALU organizers have become friends and created a sense of community and camaraderie necessary for a successful union. Here’s what we learned from speaking with some of them.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

SETH GOLDSTEIN
Pro-bono attorney, ALU 

“It’s the right time. Young people want change, because this country is deteriorating for them. There’s a time for everything and this is the time for organizing. … [ALU members] see the labor movement not only as a mechanism to unionize. They’re gonna push further to greater social issues and demand more. They’re not just gonna stop at the contract. People are gonna use this to change the world and they should. 

“Independent, worker-oriented groups can be effective. If a group of workers wants to independently organize, then that expands labor.”

CHRIS SMALLS
President, ALU; Hired in 2015; Fired in 2020

“You see people get hired and fired all the time, so job security is our number one; higher wages is number two. We’re fighting for $30/hour. Amazon makes millions and millions off our labor and they don’t pay us enough. Some people work at Amazon and have two, three jobs. Unionized workers make roughly $12,000 more a year… Having a union is job security.”” 

“All these other companies are gonna start organizing and there’s gonna be a shift in the labor world. … We stand in solidarity with all the struggles across the nation. It’s all connected. Yesterday, I got a call from workers in New Mexico.” 

DERRICK PALMER
Vice President of Organizing, ALU; Hired in 2018

“Definitely having workers, Amazon workers, organizing other workers is a lesson that we learned by listening to the stories from Bessemer.” 

“Breaks in this building are a nightmare because by the time it takes to get to the place where you need to be, your break’s already half over, and then by the time the break’s over, you’re already late.”

ANGELIKA MALDONADO
Hired fall 2021

“I was going through my own stuff. It’s really sad to say but I was pretty detached from everything that was going on in the world. …I was sitting here one day. I’d just missed the bus. One of the organizers named Connor asked me if I wanted to sign a card. I was like sure, and he was like you can come sit by the bonfire and he broke down everything to me, and I was intrigued. …I met everyone and the time I would usually spend doing family stuff or hanging out with my friends, I started dedicating myself to organizing. From the time I started with the union in Oct. 2021, it’s been long nights, early mornings. Stepping out of my comfort zone drastically. I’m typically a very introverted person.

“I missed my son’s first crawl because I was working overtime. Then the other day, I was organizing, and I missed his first tooth falling out. So it’s things like that I have to sacrifice. But I think that as he grows older, he will be excited to talk about how his mom helped organize a union.”

“My mom is a part of the 1199SEIU union. … We had great health insurance; They paid for childcare. … When I said ‘Amazon having a union?!’ all these flashbacks start coming to me and I’m like, ‘do you know how many families would benefit from a union in amazon?!’ It would be amazing. It would be so amazing.”

“I don’t like the insurance at all. You pay for dependents. I pay $54 a week for medical, dental and vision for me and my son but I still have copays. It still feels like I’m paying out of pocket. I can only imagine what a single parent with three or five kids has to pay.”

“I would say it’s a mix of jail and a very strict school. …You’re constantly being tracked. They track you if you wanna use the bathroom, if you take too long to get water. We work 12 or maybe 10 hours a day. You have to stay hydrated so  You try to drink water but if you drink too much water but if you use the bathroom too much you’re gonna get TOT (time off task) and if you get TOT then you’re gonna get written up and if you get too many write-ups you get fired. … On the third write up you get fired, no discussion.”

“From afar, I might look like a quiet girl who may have foreign parents and she may be a single mom but if you see me in motion and you see how hard I go for the ALU and how fierce I can get when it comes to organizing. And I’m not the only one who’s like that. Everybody on the team basically has the same mindset and that’s to make it better for the workers at Amazon.” 

MADELINE (MADDIE) WESLEY
Tresurer, ALU; Hired August 2021

“This is on the huge scale of what a union campaign looks like. 100 people would usually be a large group. …The turnover rate being so high makes it extremely difficult. When people look at our campaign on paper, they may not realize what an accomplishment it is to even have gotten to this point or having an election. …We have to organize even faster than that 150% turnover rate. Basically, we have to get cards signed faster than the rate of people they’re hiring and firing and people that are quitting. But it’s not just people getting fired. People are quitting at high rates as well, just because the working conditions are terrible, too.” 

“This is a worker-led movement. We’re going against one of the richest companies in the world and they’re dropping millions of dollars on this anti-union campaign; meanwhile, we’ve spent about $100,000 total in the past year.”

BRETT DANIELS
Hired spring 2020, laid off; Rehired summer 2021

“Chris and I connected because he saw all the support I was giving the ALU on social media. When he called me and asked if I wanted to transfer up here and work on the campaign, that was the easiest, fastest decision I’ve made in my life.” 

“We need to take down the oligarchs. The people in power can’t have all of that power and treat us like nothing. People are dying. In Bessemer, just recently, two workers died within 24 hours of each other. And why? Because they didn’t have enough Unpaid Time Off (UPT). They were gonna go into the negative.”

JORDAN MALIK FLOWERS
Hired 2018; Robotics maintenance

“We make sure the robots are still actively working and that there’s no spills or any type of errors on the floor that could cause any problem so that workers can get their work done and be able to hit their rates. …It’s really scary, the technology they have is advanced. It’s crazy that they could even get their hands on that type of technology like that.”

“I haven’t been paid since we did the walk out. They put me on disability which I’m still fighting with them to get. They fired me before in 2019 and it was the same issue. I had a hospital note requiring me not to work but they terminated me. …I have a medical issue, Lupus Nephritis. It’s not often spoken of. It’s an auto-immune disease. I’m supposed to have a kidney transplant and they’re on the verge of putting me on dialysis. I shouldn’t be dealing with this. I’m 23. This is what I have to fight for. I have to fight for my health and then also deal with Amazon. They should just accommodate me. They don’t wanna do that.”

“Derrick, Gerald and Chris are my friends. We’ve been hanging out since before the pandemic. … These are dudes I would always fight wars with. Regardless of my medical issue or not, I would always walk out with them.”

GERALD BRYSON
Hired 2018; Fired for walk-out

“Well, I’m a single parent. It’s really hard to be out here and taking care of your nine-year-old at the same time. …What’s really stressful is not being able to buy him the things I wanna give him, being that I’m still waiting for Amazon with the decision to rehire me.”

“You get off your spaceship after you tell everybody, thanks to the employees.’ Well I was one of those employees that broke dirt here. I was one of those employees that made sure [Jeff Bezos] got up to space and I’m fired for nothing, wrongly. You say I did nothing wrong, but you don’t wanna give me back my job. And you owe me a ton of money, but you don’t wanna pay me either. They’re racist pigs and I don’t say that lightly.”

KAREN PONCE:
Secretary, ALU; Hired October 2020, laid off; Rehired February 2021

“I was here already when the union started. I did see them; however, I didn’t know anything about unions. I only knew Amazon’s side of the story. …It doesn’t take genius to know that a lot of things need to be fixed here. So I did reach out to them in November. I came to ask questions on behalf of a group of friends. … They even convinced me to organize with the union. The more time you spend with them, the more you learn. I learned about the NLRB and the NLRA — that our activity is all protected under the law.”

“And look at that. As we speak. What is that, an ambulance? You see, just a typical day at Amazon. That happens a lot. Either somebody faints — it’s hot in there. We’re working to the max — and it’s like, why is it normal to see ambulances at work all the time?”

Karen shows us what it’s like walking around the facility.

“Even I got written up for productivity. I told them, ‘I’m doing a two-person job.”

“Even with $19/hour, you can’t really do much. I’m 26. I’d like to move out. Good luck finding an apartment. So it’s like, I have to stay living with my parents. It’s a 2.5 hour commute from borough park. I take the D train, R train, I take the ferry and the S40 bus.”

“After I spoke with the ALU, it was an immediate relief. That’s what it’s like with everyone. Usually people are anti-union just for a lack of information. People’s responses to us are right off of Amazon propaganda. They make us sit in mandatory training sessions where it’s a pure anti-union meeting. … They make sure that each worker has been in one of those meetings seven times.”

“Look at the progress we’ve made without a formal union. Imagine what we could do with one.”

Voices of Anonymous workers who spoke with The Indy ahead of the election:

Worker 1: “I used to be in the army so it’s not that bad compared to that. I support the union. When I first started working, I saw people walking around with union t-shirts. I was like, what’s that? Sometimes I sit there and think about how Amazon does not care for me.”

Worker 2: “I could really care less because I think we will be treated the same either way. Amazon treats us pretty well.”

Worker 3: “Fucking yes of course I’m voting yes! I see Amazon’s scare tactics. We deserve this.”

Worker 4: “Amazon doesn’t treat us right. The hours are hell. I have a sprained wrist and tendinitis.” 

Worker 5: “Y’all gonna slave us with the union and y’all gonna slave us without the union.”

This article previously misstated that the ALU spent $1000,000 during their 11-month campaign. That number has now been corrected to the accurate $100,000.

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