By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business
After a historic union victory at an Amazon warehouse in New York City earlier this month, a grassroots labor organization is hoping it can notch a second win at a facility just across the street.
Hundreds of Amazon employees at a Staten Island sorting facility known as LDJ5 began casting votes Monday on whether or not to organize with Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the newly established union started by a group of current and former Amazon warehouse workers in the area.
ALU successfully organized a union at a larger Amazon facility just weeks ago, in a first for Amazon’s US workers in the tech giant’s 27-year history. Since then, leaders of the group have taken a victory lap — meeting with a range of labor leaders and visiting the US Capitol — while also gearing up for another battle at the polls this week.
In a last-minute push on Sunday, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez met with a small group of Amazon warehouse workers behind closed doors at a hotel on Staten Island before making their way to a makeshift stage outside the LDJ5 building to give public remarks. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez each took turns joining ALU president Christian Smalls to speak to members of the press, labor organizers and Amazon workers.
“What you have done in taking on Amazon … is an extraordinary achievement,” said Sanders, who has long been a vocal critic of Amazon. “[Amazon] spent millions of dollars trying to defeat you … and you beat them,” he said, in an apparent reference to Amazon hiring anti-union consultants. “This is the struggle that is taking place all across this country. Working people are sick and tired of falling further and further behind while billionaires like [Amazon founder Jeff] Bezos become much richer.”
Ocasio-Cortez remarked that the victory at the company’s JFK8 warehouse was “just the beginning.” She added: “It was the first domino to fall, the first one. What we need Amazon to do, first and foremost, is to recognize the union that won their election fair and square.” (Amazon has laid out a number of objections to the previous Staten Island union vote and called for a do-over.)
Shortly after Ocasio-Cortez spoke, Smalls — clad in a bomber jacket that read “Eat the Rich” — told onlookers: “This is the revolution.”
A grassroots group gets embraced by big names
Smalls was fired from Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in the early days of the pandemic after participating in a walkout over pandemic-related health and safety concerns. While he says his firing was retaliation, the company claims he was terminated for violating its policy that required him to quarantine after being notified of a possible Covid-19 exposure.
The ALU organizing grew out of tensions between Amazon and Staten Island workers over its pandemic response on top of existing frustrations about workplace conditions. As the country’s second largest private employer, Amazon’s workplace has been under scrutiny for its high turnover rates and on-the-job injuries in recent years.
Leaders of the Democratic party, including President Joe Biden, offered their support for an earlier attempt by an established labor union to organize Amazon employees at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. (The results of the first Bessemer union election, held in early 2021, were tossed after an NLRB regional director found Amazon illegally interfered. Amazon called the decision “disappointing.” A tally of votes in the reelection began around the same time as the JFK8 election tally but the outcome of Bessemer remains too close to call.)
Smalls had previously noted that the same attention wasn’t paid to his group’s efforts. Sanders’ and Ocasio-Cortez’s visit to Staten Island on Sunday marked a possible new beginning.
“Just the fact that they came here … I think that’s going to resonate with the workers … It is not just the ALU speaking out, now we have people like Bernie [Sanders] who have a powerful voice,” ALU vice president Derrick Palmer told CNN Business. Palmer noted that he’s confident in the union’s chance of scoring a second win.
Two warehouses but ‘the core issues are the same’
One LDJ5 worker, Andrew Perez, who was in attendance Sunday, told CNN Business that he worked at JFK8, a warehouse where workers pick and pack items into boxes. Six months ago, he transferred to LDJ5, which sorts the boxes for delivery.
Perez said he plans to vote in favor of the union this week and is curious about getting more involved. Similarly, ALU’s treasurer and LDJ5 employee Madeline Wesley told CNN Business that “the core issues are the same — we get the same starting pay, the same benefits… JFK8 and LDJ5, we are one,”
Wesley said she has seen a ramp up in anti-union sentiment inside the facility, both from workers who oppose the union and from the company’s representatives. Outside the facility, a bus stop that JFK8 and LDJ5 share is peppered with pro-ALU signage, from stickers to a New York Times article covering the JFK8 victory.
Wesley said she was pulled into a so-called “captive audience” meeting as recently as Saturday, a tactic employers like Amazon use where employees are required to attend meetings during which it conveys its anti-union messaging. Such meetings have been legally permissible but in recent weeks, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo issued a memo calling for the agency to reconsider its stance on the legality of such meetings. Amazon previously declined to comment on Abruzzo’s memo.
Amazon has repeatedly said in statements that its “employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union,” but also that it was “disappointed” with the Staten Island results and filed an appeal. The company alleges that the independent federal agency’s regional office that oversaw the election “unfairly and inappropriately facilitated the [ALU’s] victory.” A spokesperson for the federal agency has refuted the allegation.
In particular, the company took issue with the agency’s push for the reinstatement of a JFK8 Amazon employee named Gerald Bryson, who is now an ALU organizer, just before the election got underway.
Bryson was fired by Amazon in March 2020 after protesting pandemic-related workplace safety precautions. Days before the JFK8 election, an NLRB regional director called for Amazon to be forced to rehire Bryson — a move the company said in its appeal filing “painted Amazon in a misleading and negative light to voters.”
Amazon has denied retaliating against Bryson (who first filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB in June 2020) claiming he was fired for “sexist verbal assault against a female co-worker,” referring to an incident that took place during a protest. But in a blow to Amazon, last week an NLRB administrative law judge found that the company violated labor law, ordering that Bryson be reinstated and to be paid his lost wages.
In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said, “we strongly disagree with the NLRB judge’s ruling,” noting that “Mr. Bryson was fired for bullying, cursing at, and defaming a female co-worker over a bullhorn in front of the workplace.” Nantel said the company intends to appeal the judge’s decision.
Frank Kearl, a staff attorney at Make the Road New York who represented Bryson in his NLRB case, said in a statement, “this victory should give other workers who are organizing to demand better working conditions reassurance that Amazon is not above the law.”
Kearl added, “[Amazon] has been ordered to reinstate Gerald by May 2, these willfully false statements about him serve no purpose but to defame his character.”
Amazon Labor Union looks for a second win
While Amazon Labor Union’s leadership has stressed that it will remain an independent union, it has also been aligning with established labor to take on the company. Hours after Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez spoke on Sunday, a crowd reassembled for an ALU-led rally that included Sara Nelson, president of the AFL-CIO’s Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
Last week, ALU filed a complaint in tandem with the New York State United Teachers union alleging that the company violated workers’ rights and therefore should have to pay pack hundreds of millions in tax credits received as part of the state’s Excelsior Jobs Program.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez also hit at state tax breaks in her speech, suggesting that Amazon be held accountable should it not negotiate a contract with ALU. “They’ve gotta do their end of the deal, too,” she said.
Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this.
The outcome of the election at LDJ5 is likely to have broader implications for Amazon. While notching a second win would provide “a huge boost” for ALU’s efforts, Amazon has more to lose, according to John Logan, professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.
“A second loss for Amazon would be far more damaging to the company’s anti-union campaign than a loss for the ALU would be to future organizing efforts at Amazon,” said Logan, who noted that the support of Democratic labor leaders is also significant. “It sends the message that the workers won’t be alone in fighting to get a union and a contract at Amazon and makes clear that Amazon won’t be able to undermine the union with impunity.”
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