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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Amazon Labor Union Loses Ground in Staten Island Push

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island have voted against unionizing, marking the first loss for the fledgling, worker-led Amazon Labor Union (ALU). When the tally concluded Monday, workers at the LDJ5 sortation center had voted 618 to 380 against union representation. The defeat marks a major letdown for the ALU, which had been riding high on momentum from its first victory last month. The ALU says it will contest the results and call for a new election. 

As the company cemented its lead in the vote count, the ALU tweeted, “No matter the outcome of the election, workers are uniting for change at LDJ5, JFK8 & around the world. Mega-corporations continue to spend millions in union-busting + fear tactics & we continue to organize for a society not based on exploitation & greed.”

After the ALU’s stunning win at the JFK8 fulfillment center across the street in April, which Amazon is challenging, the company cranked its heavy-handed anti-union campaign into even higher gear, according to workers.

“We’re glad that our team at LDJ5 were able to have their voices heard,” said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel in an emailed statement. “We look forward to continuing to work directly together as we strive to make every day better for our employees.”

Organizers say all the anti-union consultants from JFK8 walked across the street to LDJ5, where the workforce numbers 1,600, or less than one-fifth that of JFK8. Amazon used common tactics like mandatory anti-union or “captive audience” meetings, one-on-one conversations, social media ads, mailers, signage, texts, and in-app messaging through the company’s internal A to Z app. Alongside these measures, the union says the company prevented workers from hanging a pro-union banner in the break room, which they had permitted at JFK8. 

The company also hired at least one anti-union consultant as Amazon staff, says Seth Goldstein, a lawyer representing the ALU. This allowed them to blend in as they canvassed the floors, says one LDJ5 worker who prefers to use the pseudonym Maria out of fear of retaliation. “It's kind of like The Art of War by Sun Tzu,” she says. “One of his methods is to infiltrate, pretend like you're part of the group, and then divide and conquer. They're doing that.” Labor consultants are required to file paperwork with the Department of Labor outlining their fees, although they are often filed after elections, too late for voters to learn the details of their employers’ arrangements with these firms. Last year, Amazon spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants, according to federal filings.

Amazon gave anti-union consultants free reign of the warehouse during shifts, but cracked down on workers who promoted the union while working. Goldstein says that one worker was written up because supervisors heard her discussing the union during work hours. This relegated campaigning to before and after shifts, lunchtime, and one 15-minute break period. “We're tired, but we just keep at it. We’re dedicated,” Maria said last week during the election. “We're basically running on coffee, fumes, and morale right now.”

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Maria didn’t initially plan to get involved with the union, but she decided to join after attending captive audience meetings where she heard leaders spreading what she called “misdirected answers” and “half-truths.” “They were saying, if you go against the union, they’ll put you on trial. They meant it figuratively, but it sounded literal,” she says. “It angered me. I grew up in a union family, so I know what unions do for employees.” Once she started wearing her ALU shirt around the warehouse, she says she stopped receiving invitations to anti-union meetings.

Workers wanted the union to help create clear paths to promotion free of favoritism, and to bargain for increased sick leave, stronger protections against harassment, and pay raises for taking on additional responsibilities. Maria says many part-time LDJ5 workers complain about being denied full-time hours, then watching the company turn around and hire new workers. Maria says the union also intended to use part of the dues they would have collected to launch a shuttle bus from the Staten Island ferry station to save time for many workers who live in the other outer boroughs and face three-hour commutes in each direction.

On Saturday, the day after voting concluded, Amazon announced a change to its Covid-19 policy. Employees who test positive for the virus will no longer receive paid sick leave; instead they can take up to five days off, unpaid. The company will also cease notifying workers about Covid-19 cases inside its warehouses, unless required by law.

The ALU has filed dozens of unfair labor practice charges with the labor board during the campaigns at LDJ5 and JFK8 over issues ranging from retaliation to the removal of pro-union literature. Last month, an administrative law judge ruled that Amazon violated labor law when it fired a worker named Gerald Bryson in retaliation for protesting unsafe working conditions. (The company denies this and is appealing the ruling.) Last week, Goldstein sent a letter to the New York attorney general demanding that—because of the company’s alleged violations—the state rescind $400 million in tax subsidies Amazon has received or been deemed eligible for. As of Monday, 21 elected officials and candidates had signed on to this demand.

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While the campaign faces long odds, the approach reflects a frustration with the meager punishments for federal labor law violations. The penalty for Bryson’s firing, for instance, was reinstatement with two years of back pay. “Amazon has all the money in the world,” says Goldstein. “Unless there is a sizable, several-hundred-million-dollar fine, they are not going to behave.”

Employees from over 100 warehouses have contacted the ALU since it won the JFK8 election. One Amazon worker drove all the way from Cleveland, Ohio, to Staten Island to attend an April 24 rally where former US presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke. The ALU plans to host two two-day training sessions over Zoom from June 13 to 17, where they’ll teach other Amazon workers about how to form a union. “After they meet certain criteria [like a threshold of signatures gathered], they're going to be awarded. Maybe an ALU organizer might go and visit their facility,” says Jason Anthony, an ALU organizer who works at JFK8.

ALU members have also taken their message to Amazon shareholders. At an April 21 event, several ALU organizers spoke in support of an upcoming shareholder resolution asking Amazon to conduct an independent audit of its warehouse working conditions. Such resolutions often face long odds and are typically nonbinding, but if a sizable enough portion of shareholders supports a measure, companies may feel pressure to respond. That vote will take place on May 25.

At least one of Maria’s demands has dropped off her list: During the pandemic, Amazon temporarily suspended a cell phone ban on the warehouse floor. When the company recently started to phase it back in, many employees protested, arguing that it was a safety issue and a crucial lifeline for caregivers.

Last week, Amazon reversed course. “We are making the temporary phone policy permanent, worldwide, in all our Operations facilities,” it wrote in a message to employees.

Workers saw this as evidence of the success of collective pressure. Responding to a post about the news on the ALU’s LDJ5 Instagram page, one commenter typed, “This is just the first step towards the changes an organized workforce can make.” Despite today’s setback, that resolve remains.

“It’s not a fair election. It never was,” says Goldstein. “But Amazon can’t stop the rising tide of union activity that’s occurring throughout the country.”

This story has been updated to add a statement from Amazon and further comment from the ALU.


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