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Labor Unions Face Historic Votes at Amazon

Bradley Moss is having a busy year. A consultant with union-avoidance firm The Burke Group, Moss has been paid by Amazon to traverse the US from Bessemer, Alabama, to Staten Island, New York, holding meetings and canvassing the warehouse floors to try to convince 12,000 workers at two warehouses to vote against unionizing.

Friday marks the end of voting at the election at BHM1, the Bessemer warehouse where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is getting a do-over after Amazon was found to have violated labor law during last year’s election. In the first vote last March, the union lost by a more than two-to-one margin. Meanwhile, another election starting Friday runs through March 30 at the JFK8 facility in Staten Island, where the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU), composed of current and former employees, is facing its first challenge to represent Amazon warehouse workers.

Both face tough odds, in part due to weak labor law in the US that favors employers. Amazon has poured millions of dollars into an anti-union campaign, flying in anti-union consultants like Moss, who was paid $375 an hour, according to his National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) testimony last year. Union organizers say the company has been holding round-the-clock mandatory anti-union meetings, dispatching consultants to talk to workers one-on-one, papering the warehouse with anti-union fliers, and buying up anti-union Facebook ads. The unions have filed dozens of unfair labor practice charges during their campaigns, accusing the company of activities ranging from illegally removing pro-union fliers to retaliating against pro-union workers.

​​“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union,” wrote Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel in a statement. “They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

Workers at both warehouses complain about low pay, job insecurity, a high churn rate, and insufficient breaks during physically taxing 10-hour-plus shifts. The minimum hourly pay at JFK8 is about $18, which some employees say is a pittance given the cost of living in New York. ALU organizers say some workers sleep in their cars in the parking garage, while others work multiple jobs to make ends meet. “The first thing I'd like to see change is the basic recognition of us being human, and not just a means to make them more money and get as many packages out the door as possible,” says Isaiah Thomas, one of the workers at BHM1. “Because it comes at the expense of people. People have died there.” In May, a worker died after reportedly collapsing at the facility. 

ALU organizers in Staten Island, which went public with their union last April, say they saw what went on in Bessemer and learned from it, building a union that Amazon would struggle to fight. They noticed that one of the company’s strategies during the BHM1 election, common in anti-union campaigns, was to characterize the union as outside interlopers rather than a worker-driven group. “That’s the reason we chose to organize independently,” says Connor Spence, an ALU worker-organizer. “Because when you bring in an established union, Amazon just paints them as like a greedy third party that's preying on the Amazon employees. But when the union is Amazon employees, just grassroots organizing within the warehouse, it's harder for them to attack us. They still try. But they kind of lose credibility when people find out that we're just workers.”

Although both unions are taking on the same mammoth company in back-to-back elections, they are not equivalent. Some in the labor movement wrote the ALU off when it first started, notes San Francisco State University labor studies professor John Logan. As a new union with an all-volunteer staff and no income from dues-paying members, they had fewer resources than an established union, limiting their ability to do labor-intensive work like door knocking. Their main funding source was a GoFundMe page. Organizers had to retract their original election petition in November when it fell short of the 30 percent signature threshold because so many signatories had left the company. (Amazon’s companywide annual turnover rate is reportedly 150 percent, a major challenge for organizers. Nantel, the Amazon spokesperson, attributes some of this to short-term hires who signed on for extra income.) They had yet to organize a single workplace, let alone “the wealthiest and most sophisticated anti-union company on the planet,” says Logan.

While Logan thinks victory is a long shot, “anyone who thinks that they don't know what they're doing, I think that's just dead wrong,” he says. “I think there is a strategy there, which involves quite sophisticated use of media and social media to generate an atmosphere of excitement and energy around the campaign.”

Over the past several months, organizers have blanketed Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok with images of swagger, combativeness, and camaraderie. They call out union busters by name. They post videos from inside the warehouse of alleged labor law violations. The crow about shutting down anti-union meetings. They advertise their celebrity support. “If they say something that’s optically super heinous, we’ll leak it online,” says Spence.

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Chris Smalls, president of the ALU, is used to being underestimated. After repeatedly passing him over for promotions, Amazon fired him in March 2020 after he marshaled a walkout to protest the company’s handling of Covid-19 safety. The company says it fired Smalls for violating social distancing guidelines and a quarantine order. During an internal management meeting attended by Jeff Bezos, executives reportedly strategized about making him the face of the union effort, calling Smalls, who is Black, “not smart or articulate,” according to a Vice report.

Amazon appears to be taking him seriously now. The company has rolled out the same anti-union blitz it ran in Bessemer, targeting Smalls in particular. Last month, he says, when he was dropping off food for the workers outside JFK8, the same manager who fired him in 2020 appeared and threatened to call the police. Soon after, a group of NYPD officers showed up and arrested Smalls and two other workers. Smalls was charged with trespassing and resisting arrest, and all three were charged with obstructing governmental administration. It was the second time ALU members found themselves in handcuffs while organizing.

“Mr. Smalls—who is not employed by Amazon—has repeatedly trespassed despite multiple warnings,” wrote Nantel. “When police officers asked Mr. Smalls to leave, he instead chose to escalate the situation and the police made their own decision on how to respond.”

Jason Anthony, one of the workers who was arrested after stepping in between Smalls and a police officer, says, “I suffer from mental disabilities. I went through so much emotional trauma.” He says the three workers sat in a cell for six hours before being released on six months’ probation. "It's normalized for the cops to be at our workplace," Brett Daniels, another arrestee, told a crowd.

Research backs this up. Tamara Lee, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, is studying Amazon’s use of policing at its warehouses. This includes not just calling the cops but the more pervasive experience of being “isolated and hyper-surveilled under the constant presence of private security and off-duty police officers.” In her preliminary research, Lee found a disproportionate tendency to employ off-duty police officers in areas of the South with higher percentages of Black residents. “People who had been formerly incarcerated described their everyday working conditions as jail-like because of all of these things,” she says.

In contrast with the ALU’s dramatic confrontations, the RWDSU has been running what appears to be “a low-key nuts-and-bolts organizing campaign,” says Logan. Last year’s loss prompted some soul-searching, and the union decided to focus less on media outreach and splashy celeb-studded rallies and more on talking to workers and getting them out to vote.

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Last year’s campaign played out during the height of the pandemic, limiting face-to-face interactions. This year, organizers have held more group meetings and have gone door knocking, an effective staple of organizing campaigns. During these visits, they’ve photographed “Why I’m voting yes” testimonials and plastered them on posters and Twitter. “People are more educated about the union now,” says Jennifer Bates, a worker who organized during both campaigns. “In the meetings, we have more people speaking out. At one point, they had to shut the meetings down” when workers challenged the consultants, “because they realized, oh, these people have got an education now.”

They were assisted by a December settlement Amazon reached with the NLRB. As part of the agreement, the company began allowing organizing in non-work areas such as break rooms, a departure from prior policy. Workers in Staten Island were able to relocate their operations inside from a bus-stop-adjacent tent and began regular food deliveries to the break room to appeal to workers. Likewise, Bessemer workers began holding union meetings inside their break area.

While the ALU has been trumpeting its Unfair Labor Practice filings throughout the campaign, the RWDSU is being more cautious about the timing of its filings. (Unfair Labor Practice charges are allegations of labor law violations adjudicated by the NLRB.) It plans to wait until the end of the election to file many of them, especially those that include retaliation charges, because the union doesn’t want to discourage workers from displaying support.

Some workers are certainly spooked. One JFK8 worker, who asked that his name be withheld for fear of jeopardizing his job, says that a lot of people are afraid of losing their jobs. “I’m just scared that Amazon scared all the people into voting no,” he says. Rumors have circulated that Amazon would close the warehouse if the union won, which, if retaliatory, would be a labor law violation.

Another worker from Bessemer says that during anti-union classes, Amazon “makes everything [the union does] seem so spooky.” This associate, who also requested anonymity to protect his job, thinks this fear led people to vote no last year and may again this time around. “Coming from a state where the minimum wage is $7.25, $15 to $16 per hour is pretty good. For a lot of people, it’s probably the most money they've ever made. And the benefits are comparatively pretty good. So some people really don't want to mess those things up. And then we have Amazon saying things like, in collective bargaining you can end up with less, the same, or more. Obviously, people’s minds are going to go through the possibility of ending up with less, which I don't necessarily think is true, because why would a union negotiate for less?” (Collective bargaining agreements have to be ratified by a majority of union members.)

“I think the union has more people engaged and pushing for the union who don't even work for Amazon than people who actually do,” the associate says.

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The associate plans to vote for the union, even though he doesn’t think conditions are as bad as some media portrayals. He gives the company credit for inclusivity, noting that they hire and accommodate workers with disabilities and recently eliminated THC screening. But the associate thinks the culture lacks empathy. When a worker had a heart attack at BHM1 last year, “they took him out through the back. From our perspective, the way Amazon was handling it, you would have thought they put a knife in that guy's back themselves,” he says. The associate claims he never found out who the man was or saw a remembrance on any of the screens lining the warehouse. “They didn’t ever memorialize the loss of life,” he says

Another worker from JFK8, a packer who preferred to remain anonymous, plans to vote against the union. He’s not necessarily against unions, but he doesn’t think the ALU has enough experience or professionalism, and he doesn’t like its use of the slogan “Shut down Amazon.” “Amazon isn’t perfect,” he says, “but the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”

As the first ballots are cast in Staten Island, and the last are filled out in Bessemer, organizers know that no matter the outcome, they’ve unleashed a groundswell that can’t be reversed. “Amazon is like the white whale of organizing,” says Spence. “We know if we're successful here, we're not just successful in Staten Island. We’ll have opened the floodgates so that every building is going to want to unionize, and it's going to show people at other employers that they can do what we did. Hopefully it sets off a wave of organizing across the country. When we keep that in mind, we don't mind putting in the work. We know it's so important.” They’re already gearing up for their second election in April, at another Amazon warehouse just across the street.

Updated 3/31/2022 1:00 PM ET: This piece has been updated to correct the name of Amazon worker Jason Anthony.


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