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Amazon Labor Union Update: Workers to Vote in Albany & Three Warehouses on Fire

Issue 274

Workers at Amazon warehouse ALB1 near Albany prepare for union vote next week and at JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island workers sit in after fire.

Amba Guerguerian Oct 5

Amazon workers at the ALB1 warehouse near Albany will vote on Oct. 12, 13, 15 and 17 on whether or not to join the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in a National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned election. If they win, they will be the second warehouse to unionize after JFK8 in Staten Island on April 1.

This will be just the fifth time that an Amazon warehouse in the United States votes in a union election. Two elections organized by RWDSU in Bessemer, Alabama, in March 2021 and March 2022, that labor lost; the election won by the ALU at JFK8 in Staten Island on April 1 and a second ALU campaign at JFK8’s sister warehouse, LDJ5, which lost its election in May. Additionally, workers across the country have participated in solidarity unionism at an unprecedented rate since the launching of the ALU in April 2020.

“People are tired of the union-busting on the floor. A worker came up to me the other day and said, ‘Hey, when are we voting? I need to vote’,” said Heather Goodall, who has led the unionization effort at ALB1, about 10 miles southeast of Albany in Schodack, NY.

Goodall, whose son died in 2014 while on the job at a GlobalFoundries semiconductor plant, started working at ALB1 in February. “When Amazon came to our area, we were getting excited because I have a 15- and 17-year-old that attend school in that district and could potentially get a job to save money for college. When I heard that there were these working conditions, I wasn’t willing to take a chance with my other children. So I took the job to do investigating on my own as a mom, actually,” Goodall told The Indypendent.

Goodall and the other workers she had corralled for the ALB1 campaign immediately gelled with the Amazon Labor Union’s worker-led model.

With over 1.1 million employees, Amazon is the second-largest employer in the United States after Walmart. Founded in 1994, the retail behemoth has become notorious for poor working conditions and demanding dangerously fast productivity rates. Computers constantly track employees’ movement, and if the monitor senses them standing still, stretching, or taking a bathroom break, it flags them for “Time off Task (TOT).” Workers who accumulate too much TOT are fired. This results in employees doing things like peeing in water bottles and frequent injury. Ambulances arrive at Amazon warehouses multiple times a week (according to a report from New Yorkers for a Fair Economy, ALB1 has an annual  injury rate of 19.8 per 100 full-time workers, 900% higher than the national average), and nationwide workers are dying on the job with disturbing regularity.   

By the end of March, Goodall was talking to other workers about unionizing. In June, she learned about the ALU, the independent union formed by Staten Island Amazon workers in 2020 that succeeded in winning the union election at JFK8. Goodall and the other workers she had corralled for the campaign immediately gelled with the ALU’s worker-led model. (Before teaming up with the independent Amazon Labor Union, Goodall met with RWDSU and the Teamsters, but felt that a push to unionize Amazon must be led by Amazon workers themselves.)

By July, ALB1 ALU Local 2 had gathered enough signed election card signatures to initiate the NLRB election process. According to the company, around 900 people work at the location, but worker-organizers say the number is probably closer to 600. 

As the election approaches, more workers are showing support for the union. The core organizing group in Albany consists of about 10 workers, with dozens more participating in support efforts.

Heather Goodall (left) and Kim Lane (right) from the Amazon Labor Union’s Albany local join a rally in front of Jeff Bezos’s Midtown penthouse during the Labor Day rally. Photo by Nina Berman.

Michael Verrastro, who worked at ALB1 from since December 2020 until August, was on the fence about whether to vote yes or no to the union when he was abruptly fired by Amazon at the beginning of September while being treated for prostate cancer with chemotherapy for prostate cancer. According to Verrastro, he was disciplined after he kicked an empty cardboard box out of frustration that a scanner was repeatedly not working. The ALU’s lawyer immediately filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB on Verrastro’s behalf. 

“I’ve been accepting of the fact that my life span has been shortened. I may have four or five years left. So my position now is…hopefully to help others and to open the eyes of other people there at Amazon and hopefully even around the country to see that companies like Amazon run people into the ground, take advantage of them, and then discard them like yesterday’s newspaper,” said Verrastro, who is now facing unmanageable medical bills without Amazon’s health insurance. 

Campaigning ALU members have been calling ALB1 employees ahead of the union election to secure Yes votes. “In a group of ten, for every two hard Nos, we have five Yeses and the rest are on the fence. So now it’s just about educating people that are on the fence,” said Goodall. 

A group of around 90 law student volunteers amassed by ALU pro-bono lawyer Seth Goldstein are vigorously filing unfair labor practice charges against Amazon.   

Amazon has responded by using aggressive union-busting tactics. The company flies in trained union-busters from out of town that are paid $3,200 a day to cosplay as workers wearing orange vests. “​​Amazon has people approaching people in the warehouse, calling workers, texting workers, emailing them, broadcasting on TVs in the warehouse, flooding the break rooms and the bathrooms, even our work stations,” says Goodall. 

Even though the NLRB has ruled that employers cannot require workers to attend captive-audience meetings before voting, ALU Local 2 reports that the company still is not making it clear that the meetings are not required, and that some workers walk out once they realize that it is an anti-union session. (Amazon may not be learning its lesson, because the over-the-top union-busting at JFK8 definitely pushed some workers into the arms of the union.) 

Additionally, Amazon gave workers a $1 per hour raise on Sept. 28, which labor law states is not to be done during a union election. Goodall says the raise proved to workers how much the union has already done. It’s just a taste of what they demand, though: $30 per hour, an end to mandatory overtime, an end to the inhuman TOT system and more. 

“If amazon made $12 billion on Prime Day while [workers] were dying, why can’t the workers get a bonus? Goodall asked. “You think a $1 raise is gonna shut down our union efforts? You’re completely wrong! If they took the $12 billion and divided it by the workers in the U.S., we would each receive a $12,000 bonus.”

As occurred during the Staten Island campaigns at JFK8 and LDJ5, the union has filed multiple unfair labor practice charges (ULPs) with the NLRB to constrain Amazon’s anti-union messaging and other violations of labor law. ALU pro-bono lawyer Seth Goldstein has amassed a group of around 90 law student volunteers — with more incoming — who are vigorously filing ULPs for the union.  

As many as 650 workers, say ALU members who were on-site, participated in a wildcat sit in and work stoppage at JFK8 after a cardboard compactor caught on fire on Tuesday, Oct 4.

The NLRB will tally the votes from ALB 1 on Oct. 18. If the workers unionize, it will confirm that ALU’s victory at JFK 8 was not a fluke but a harbinger of things to come.

• • •

If ALB 1 workers vote to unionize, Amazon will make every effort to avoid contract negotiations. After the April 1 JFK8 win, the company objections to the election results, forcing an objections hearing that was decided on Sept. 1 in favor of the union. The company is currently appealing that decision.

At a Labor Day protest in front of Jeff Bezos’ penthouse on 5th Ave. and W 26 St., ALU members were joined by members of Starbucks Workers United and Trader Joe’s United and many other supporters. Standing under a burning sun, ALU Vice President Derrick Palmer spoke about Amazon’s inevitable hostility to organized labor, to the fact that the company is unwilling to take a seat at the negotiating table but will have to be forced to do so. (Listen to Palmer’s speech.)

“So what are we gonna do?!”, he shouted to around 500 energized ralliers.

The crowd, ready for the question, roared back, “Strike!” 

Just a month later on Tuesday Oct. 4, as many as 650 workers, say ALU members who were on-site, participated in a wildcat sit-in and work stoppage after a cardboard compactor caught on fire at JFK8 and the company refused to send night-shift employees home. Workers went on strike at around 9 p.m and by 10:30 p.m. had crowded into the human resources office demanding paid time off for the night. Since then, Amazon has suspended up to 80 workers involved, including Palmer and Connor Spence, another ALU core organizer. 

While Staten Island workers were protesting the fire at JFK8, another warehouse 1,000 miles away in Madison, Alabama was evacuated after a fire broke out. This came just a week after the same part of the warehouse caught on fire. “Our plant caught on fire again. This time it was in the same area, but it was a couple aisles over,” an employee told WAFF 48. “We opened up Sunday again after being closed for almost a week. You could still smell smoke in there. Half the warehouse was off limits.”

Addendum: Around midnight on Oct. 5, the day this article was published, a third Amazon warehouse went ablaze. Workers at ALB1 in Schodack were evacuated after a cardboard compactor caught on fire. In Staten Island, a cardboard compactor was also the source of fire the night of Monday, Oct. 3. There has been no word on the source of the fire in Alabama.

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