All photography by Sue Brisk.
On April 20, 2021, a group of Amazon workers at the company’s Staten Island warehouse complex independently formed the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). On the group’s first anniversary, we went out to the complex to check in on how their union campaign is going.
The ALU won a union election by 10% on April 1 at the largest warehouse in the complex, JFK8, where an estimated 6,500 employees work. Another National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election is now being prepared at the second-largest warehouse, LDJ5, which employs around 1,600 workers. LDJ5 workers will vote on whether or not to unionize April 25-29 in an in-person election at the work site, the results of which the board says it will announce by May 2.
The outcome of this election will have a weighty effect on the momentum of ALUs ground-up, worker-led union drive. If the union wins a second warehouse, it will build on the momentum from the first victory and likely result in more Amazon workplaces around the country petitioning to unionize with ALU’s worker-led model. If the union loses, this could be a noteworthy impediment to their momentum, both nationally and at JFK8, where the ALU is hoping to begin contract negotiations in May, although Amazon’s contestation of the election results is slowing that down.
The shipping and logistics corporation is well aware of how crucial a second win is for the greater movement and has been aggressively union busting since the win at JFK8. In recent days, LDJ5 management has written up ALU members for talking to their coworkers about the union on the clock, activity that the union’s lawyers say is protected by the First Amendment and Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, says the ALU. On Tuesday, organizer-worker Julian Mitchell-Israel was pulled over by the NYPD on his way to work. While in front of the warehouse on Wednesday, Indypendent reporters were asked to leave the premises and escorted to the property line by management. Despite having reported in front of Staten Island facilities in the past, this was the first time we were told to leave.
This comes amid an uproar around Amazon’s anti-labor measures as the election was brought into the public eye with the April 1 win. (The Indypendent reported earlier this month that both Amazon and a prominent Democratic Party consulting firm flouted federal transparency law while working on union-busting campaign.) The ALU wrote a letter just yesterday demanding that New York Attorney General Letitia James look into an alleged $400 million that it says Amazon should pay back to the state for violating worker protections and provisions of the New York Excelsior Jobs Program.
Back on the ground at the Staten Island facilities, a heightened tension was palpable in front of LDJ5 on Wednesday, with organizer-workers appearing worn out, but headstrong. The union has a table set up between the main entrance to the warehouse and the NLRB voting tent that most workers pass by as they enter and exit the building. From there, they serve food, play music, give out t-shirts and informational flyers, and, most importantly, try to get coworkers to commit to voting yes.
We spoke with worker-organizers and workers at both JFK8 and LDJ5 about how things have been on the ground in the wake of the last election and as the next one approaches.
Jason Anthony; JFK8 worker-organizer
[Amazon CEO] Andy Jassy said a couple of days ago that we don’t need a union, the same thing that Jeff Bezos said a few years ago. And now [the NLRB] has set up tent just like this one over here, where workers can go unseen by the media to go inside to vote either yes or no for Amazon Labor Union starting next Monday.
The union-busting tactics there have been very aggressive. And they’re using whatever it takes to tell 1,600 people to vote. They’re using the same people that they had in Bessemer and at JFK8 they’re bringing them here to tell 1,600 people to vote no. But guess what? In 2021, Amazon paid all these people in cash. And how do we find this out? Through through Amazon’s LM-10 form that Amazon has to disclose to the Department of Labor for these, “independent consultant.” They never disclosed it to the Department of Labor. That’s something that we call fishy work. But we have to fill out our taxes to the IRS every single year. Or if we were if we do delivery work, we have to report out 1099 forms. Even if we earn more than $600 a year.
Eric, LDJ5 worker hired in January
I sort. Moving baskets, sorting stuff off the conveyor belt. Almost everybody in LDJ5 has the same job. Same job, different areas in the warehouse.
I work from 11:45 to 3:45. I work part-time. I think it’s half and half, half of the workers work part-time and half work full-time. I take four buses. It takes maybe like an hour and a half. I take the 82 SBS to the B1. I take the B53 to the S90 and the S40.
I wasn’t working for at least 20 years before I started working. I was on disability. Working again has been okay; It’s been good. It’s been helping me.
Everything’s still the same, they’re just notifying you what’s going on. The ins and outs. I’m getting phone calls from the union to my house, asking me how I feel about it. And then Amazon lets you know what the union can do for you what they can’t do for you.
I worked for Transit Workers Union in the past. I worked for New York City Transit. I was a track worker. I stopped in ‘98, I think. The TWU was good. When I worked in transit, it was already a union shop job. We didn’t have to go through this process.
Most of this is good for young people. I’m 63 years old. It’s not gonna benefit me. It’s gonna make a career for the young people. But I’m still undecided.
William Weiss, 25; JFK8 worker-organizer
I’ve been participating in the union since May of last year. The first task I volunteered to help with was to convince my coworkers to sign union-authorization cards so that we could get the election.
At first a lot of my coworkers didn’t really know what a union was or why they would even want a union. But, you know, through, just like talking to people phone banking, and having consistent conversations with people, they do understand what a union is. So that’s a lot of our task here.
And at LDJ5 convincing people about the basic advantages of having a having a union, combating the company’s line that that, you know, these union organizers are just here to make money off of you. To that, I usually say, well, nobody does anything for free. We work at Amazon. So we want our own jobs to be better, we want our own pay to be better. And the only way that we can win that is all together.
So that woman was on the fence and she walked away saying she would vote yes, which is, I guess the second best sort of conversation to have. The best would be to flip somebody who’s against. But she was on the fence. So I just told her, the company is spending a lot of time and money trying to convince workers that a union is against their best interest. First of all, I said, don’t believe and if everything that company is saying. It’s in their interest to keep us without a union. So why would they be paying millions of dollars to convince workers that a union is not in their interest? Why would they why would workers around the world be inspired by the victory of JFK8, and they themselves want to organize into a union if it wasn’t something that was in the interest of workers?
So she nodded her head, and was thinking about it. And she said, Okay, I’ll vote yes. She said before she wasn’t gonna vote.
Well, one sort of worrying thing that I’ve been hearing a lot is that there’s LDJ5 workers who maybe are on the fence or even against the union, who say, we want to just wait until we see what you get at JFK8. So that’s worrying for obvious reasons. But you know, what I say, in response generally, is that if you lose here, either way, the workers at JFK8 are going to negotiate a contract. The contract that we negotiate if you lose here is going to be weaker, because we’re a weaker body. There’s less of us. And second of all, the workers at LDJ5 will not be a part of that contract, unfortunately, if you if you lose the election, if the majority of people vote no. You’d have to then go through an election process and negotiate a contract separately, which again, is an opportunity for Amazon to undercut any union.
Well, at LDJ5, they are definitely ramping up the anti-union activity and going harder than they were at JFK8, as a response to the their loss there. So they’re having more captive-audience meetings. I was talking to one worker, he said, in two weeks, he went to four meetings. They’ve been bringing the whole workforce into these captive-audience meetings. They’re slandering organizers. So it’s definitely more vicious even though it’s a smaller workforce. From Amazon’s perspective, it’s really important that they don’t lose this warehouse as well. Because the momentum that the union would have, after a victory would would be, you know, exponentially more than what we have right now.
The next step in the process after after, you know, the election at LDJ5 will be negotiating a contract, and that’s when the real organization and where mobilizing workers will be crucial,
because people may have to be ready to strike. That is our ultimate leverage. That’s our leverage as as workers. And another thing is that for for all Amazon workers to be unionized in the United States, it’s not going to be through election, after election, after election. It’s going to be through serious, militant organization. Amazon reports having over a million workers. So it’s going to take a nationwide or international, militant movement to unionize all Amazon workers, to organize all unorganized workers. Not through the NLRB and not through capitalist politicians.
The NLRB is a government body. The government works on behalf of the bosses on behalf of, of Jeff Bezos, you know, and all the other Amazon executives. You know, Amazon executives donated more money to the Democratic Party and to Democratic Party politicians like Joe Biden than they did to the Republican politicians. So if there is a real, militant organization, a labor movement to organize all Amazon workers, the government is not going to be behind it because they don’t represent the working class so again, it’s going to have to be through independent, organization and militant action.
I live in Brooklyn. So the commute takes two or two and a half hours. I take the train to the ferry. And then from the ferry, I take a bus here. So that is generally two and a half hours. Here and there, I would work 12 hour shifts. So that’s a total door-to-door of 17 hours. When am I sleeping? I don’t know.
Denee; 24; JFK8 worker since Jan. 2019
The union is not really something that I’m really personally into or interested in. I just think it’s pretty mixed. So the people that are obviously have issue with that they have an issue for a reason the people that don’t have an issue with it is because it doesn’t affect them. So they just don’t want to get involved or have an opinion.
I mean, there’s a lot of people out there that they feel some type of way about this facility. And so yeah, I could understand where they come from and why they want a union. Some people they want to union because firstly, Amazon has done something to them for them to feel this way. Some people just like, oh, I had a union before. It’s usually older people who have like, you know, they worked a job or had a union, they don’t like unions. So that’s why they’re against it.
Part of me is me is just like — they want a union, so it’s just like, clearly there’s something wrong — if Amazon can’t fix it when you speak to the managers directly, then there’s a problem.
Both of my parents are in unions. I don’t use Amazon’s insurance. I prefer my parents health insurance. I don’t mind the insurance here but you still have to pay out-of-pocket.
I don’t think a lot of people would go on strike, because the way Amazon is set up, they say like, you know, there’s no retaliation. But it’s very clear that if people came out to strike, you know, they wouldn’t get money. And that’s not what they want. They have like families and stuff to take care of. It feels better to sit and work and be uncomfortable and be unhappy than to go on strike.
People who are like, 60, and they’re retired. So as far as they’re concerned, they don’t really give a shit. They’re coming here to get a paycheck just to make ends meet just for the basic minimum.
I noticed there’s more people who have disabilities. It’s not easy for them. Amazon doesn’t really accommodate these people.
I’ve seen people get fired. for good reasons, I’ve seen people get fired for bad reasons. Again, it’s very mixed. You know, it’s like if you’re smoking in the bathroom, you shouldn’t be smoking in the bath. But if it’s just like, this person is clearly disabled, you know, they can’t keep up, you make an accommodation for them. Why is it that you’re bumping people off stages, this person is disabled? You’re supposed to make an accommodation. You can’t fire them. But they’ve done that in the past.
I want to go back to school. It’s what I’m paying for. This is what I’m interested in. I pack, and whatever else they asked me to.
The first day after they won the election, it was completely quiet [at work]. There was nobody in there. There were less people than usual. I don’t know what the reason was. I don’t know if they fired people, if they hired people. But it was pretty dead. That’s what I though, everybody thought it was kind of strange.
Most Daley; JFK8 worker-organizer
I’ve been on leave for seven days with which means this Friday is no paycheck coming to me. They put me on COVID eave Because they watched my my personal social media, right. I took a picture with the Mayor Eric Adams at a union luncheon Saturday, three weeks ago, in Albany. That Sunday, I had a shift. I came in. And they met me at the door and said I had to leave because I had been exposed [to the mayor]. They said, it’s on your social media. How did you get my social media and immediately they said, sir, you have to leave the building. That’s all because they know I’m an ALU member because they watch my media.
I understand yes, we have this election coming up. But at the same time, we still got issues that we got to fix at JFK8. Every day since I’ve been back from COVID leave, which was yesterday, I had to deal with 17 issues at HR for coworkers.
The vibe the day after the election was hostile because the upper management was feeling some type of way. And the low management didn’t care because they felt that it was party time because they felt that everyone was getting fired that voted yes.
There’sless workers. This is why for the past two weeks we’ve been getting nine, eight overtime shifts. We barely get that many in a month usually.
Everybody that I know that was here for the vote ain’t here no more. Everybody I started my job with January 16 is no longer here and they voted yes for the union. I’m still in contact with one of them that they force him to resign. They forced him to resign! He’s a home-health aid now. He tried to he tried to get his paystubs back from them. They would not release them — like I got a whole headache right now working on that right now. Yeah, this is the stuff that’s going on in JFK8 and everybody’s focused on LDJ5.
Will has a situation in his hand, he has a metal rod in his hand so certain days when it’s cold he can’t work as fast so they kept picking on him about his rate, his rate, his rate, his rate. He’s like, y’all know my medical condition. This like how are you gonna hire people and then expect them to supersede their medical conditions. Got blind people count and totes. How do you know they got the count right? You got people in wheelchairs doing what? You got to keep in mind these people have limitations. If you can’t respect the limitations, then how can you say you respect them as workers. They forced him to resign because they only give us 10 hours unpaid time off. And the whole winter he had to stay home. As soon as you get a negative UPT, you get an HR case, you might get fired the next week. He kept going to ERC to tell them about leaves. They didn’t want to do nothing. They forced him to resign.
They have 22 objections they’re they exact same objections that they use Alabama. Amazon must be really, really, really mad because you spent four-point-what million on union busters and you still lost to a baby organization with no funding. You spent how much? And we was using our paychecks, that’s how we were funding ourselves, our paychecks and GoFundMe. One of your top lawyers we can’t even pay for!
Gary; 18; LDJ5 worker hired in January
I commute from Bay Ridge. In the morning it takes maybe two hours but going home sometimes it can take more like three hours. Yeah. Sorting, scanning stuff into crates, unloading and loading trucks and stuff like that. Sometimes the packages are already in brown Amazon packages but sometimes you can see what’s in there, like a vacuum, or I saw a computer in there once, a PC. I work double shifts, so eight hours. Single shifts are four and a half hours. It’s different than at JFK8; shifts are longer there.
I don’t have any real big feelings toward the election. Whatever happens, happens, but I’m just glad that people get to express what they want to express, like actually have the chance to. I’m just happy for this to blow over. Literally every day I get asked 18 times, how are you going to vote?
I’m just in between at this point. I know that on Monday, when voting starts, I’ll just choose. But I’m definitely going to vote.
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