On Friday afternoon, a stream of Amazon workers exited a sprawling warehouse on New York’s Staten Island after wrapping up the daytime shift. Many of them packed into city buses to head home. On their way, they walked past a large, white tent stretching across a chunk of the parking lot.
That tent will be a crucial site for the next five days.
Workers at the facility, known as JFK8, just started voting on whether to join the Amazon Labor Union, a group made up of current and former company employees. The results will carry significance well beyond New York City’s smallest borough, and affect workers at all of Amazon’s warehouses, where two-day Prime shipping is made possible.
The buzz was palpable on Friday as employees at JFK8 milled around a nearby bus stop chatting about the election. Some sported yellow “vote yes” lanyards, while others wore blue “vote no” t-shirts.
The election runs through March 30, and the National Labor Relations Board will begin counting votes the following day. ALU has called on Amazon to raise wages, along with other demands. Amazon recently raised its average starting pay to $18 an hour.
It’s the second union vote at an Amazon warehouse in a year, a potentially concerning sign for a company that’s long shunned organized labor. Employees at Amazon’s facility in Bessemer, Alabama, were the first to try and unionize last spring. That effort failed, but workers there are at it again after the NLRB ordered a do-over because of improper interference in the prior union drive.
In Alabama and New York, workers are voting on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Organizing efforts are underway at other facilities, including at another Staten Island warehouse, where an election is slated to begin later next month.
The more national labor unions have targeted Amazon, the more aggressive Amazon has become in discouraging employees from joining.
At JFK8, Amazon papered the walls with banners that proclaim “Vote No.” The company even set up a website, telling employees, “The ALU is making big promises but offering very little detail on how they will achieve them.” Amazon has also held weekly meetings with anti-union presentations that employees are required to sit through.
Kevin Pardee, who’s worked at JFK8 for two and a half years, said it’s been hard to ignore Amazon’s “overwhelming union-busting” while walking throughout the facility.
“You can’t go anywhere without some form of anti-union propaganda in your face,” Pardee said.
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, referred CNBC to prior statements the company has issued on the matter.
“Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes — quickly,” Amazon has said. “That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle.”
ALU organizers have also been vocal. Last year, they set up a tent near a bus stop outside the facility to hand out flyers and collect union authorization cards. More recently, they’ve delivered meals to employees in JFK8’s break room, while drawing attention to their cause on Twitter and TikTok.
‘We didn’t get this far by accident’
Activism among Amazon employees has picked up since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Deemed as essential workers, delivery and warehouse employees labored on the front lines while many white-collar employees worked from the comforts of their homes.
As the pandemic dragged on, Amazon workers staged protests and spoke out about workplace safety. The tightening labor market in the U.S. further galvanized support for unionization, and workers have seized the moment to demand higher pay and better benefits from their employers.
JFK8, which sits just off the bustling Staten Island Expressway in an office park with two other Amazon warehouses, serves as a major distribution point for the e-commerce giant’s operations in the region. More than 2.4 million packages are delivered every day in New York City.
During lockdowns, the roughly 6,000 workers at JFK8 helped keep packages flowing to the city’s residents, who were staying home and wanting more stuff sent to their doorstep.
In March 2020, shortly after the pandemic hit the U.S., workers at the facility staged a walkout, voicing their frustration with what they viewed as Amazon’s failure to keep them safe.
Soon after that, Amazon attracted national attention for firing Chris Smalls, then a management assistant who led the protest. A leaked memo obtained by Vice revealed David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel, had referred to Smalls as “not smart or articulate” in a meeting with the company’s top executives, an incident that further angered critics of Amazon’s labor practices.
In October, the ALU filed a union petition with the NLRB to unionize. After refiling its petition earlier this year, the NLRB gave the ALU the green light to move forward with a vote. Smalls is president of the ALU.
The election is somewhat unusual, as the ALU is a grassroots, worker-led organization, not a national labor union. But organizers say that makes it more relatable to employees.
Angelika Maldonado, chairwoman of ALU’s worker committee, returned to Amazon in September after she quit her job at JFK8 in 2019. She soon met some ALU organizers, who were huddled around a bonfire near the bus stop outside the warehouse.
Maldonado, a single mom with a young son, said she’s learned a lot about the struggles that her colleagues are facing. One of the organizers is homeless and some workers are sleeping in their cars, she said.
The ALU is gathering outside support. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the New York City chapter of Unite Here, a hospitality union, have both assisted with the campaign.
“We have experience from unions that are guiding us,” said Derrick Palmer, an ALU organizer and worker at JFK8. “We didn’t get this far by accident.”