Amazon workers battle the corporate giant

Published on Dec. 2, 2023

In April 2021, over 2600 workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, New York, voted to form the company’s first U.S. union and join Amazon Labor Union (ALU).

The union effort began when workers Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer were alarmed by deteriorating working conditions, enhanced during  the first stages of the pandemic.

What began as protests at Jeff Bezos’ mansions, developed into a desire to launch a union campaign at the Staten Island warehouse. For months on end, the organizing team  handed out flyers in the break room and operated a sort of Union Hall at the M.T.A. bus shelter across the street from JFK8, where workers catch the S40 or S90 to the ferry terminal.

 A New York Times investigative article spoke to the company’s exploitative treatment at this warehouse, and what motivated workers’ push to have union representation. Major concerns arose in Amazon’s treatment of employee’s  health care concerns during the early COVID pandemic. These included return to work demands, random firings, interrupted benefits, and a problematic system of communication with employees. For instance, workers would receive personal leaves, then soon after, notices of job abandonment. Amazon also poorly communicated a number of positive COVID cases at their JFK8 warehouse to their workers and health officials. Workers were invasively observed by Amazon’s employee surveillance system, which closely being tracked any pauses during their shifts and their speed of packing products, pressuring them into high-stress work levels to keep their jobs.

While Amazon management insists it is concerned over employee health at JFK8, they consistently ignore complaints among workers, and block union organizing activity. A week after the victorious union vote at Staten Island in early April,  Amazon filed 25 objections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), including allegations that NLRB Region 29 suppressed the anti-union vote by limiting the number of voting booths to three, and accusations that ALU union organizers bribed workers with marijuana and intimidated those who did not support the union.

Amazon requested a rerun of the union vote for Staten Island, but the company’s request was rejected by NLRB officials in January. The World Socialist web site conducted an interview with an employee in June 2023 that highlights the exploitative treatment at JFK8. The worker spoke to the “physically demanding” labor of the job, unsafe working conditions including lack of air conditioning, small break rooms, inadequate numbers of  bathrooms, and extremely high expectations for productivity rates among other issues. The harsh working reality exposed in this interview aligns with ALU demands since the vote, including paid time off for injured workers, pay raises from $18 to $30,  an end to arbitrary discipline, and a shuttle bus to and from the Staten Island Ferry.

The election at the JFK8 facility on Staten Island has far-reaching impacts. It’s the first union in Amazon’s massive U.S. operations, and it might signal the start of more efforts to organize the company’s vast number of warehouse and delivery workers.These actions come amid a recent frenzy of organizing at other large U.S. corporations, including the formation of first-ever unions at Starbucks, Apple, Google, Microsoft, REI, and Trader Joe’s. However, what has happened since has not been very promising for union representation among Amazon workers. A second union election took place later in April 2002 in Staten Island at facility LDJ5, but workers voted against joining ALU in a vote of 618 to 380.  At a facility in Albany, NY during October 2022, the vote came short of 206 in support and 406 votes against a union. Stalled movement in more warehouses joining ALU is not the only issue stalling progress for Amazon workers. The new JFK8 union must now set forth to negotiate a contract with Amazon, which has already shown itself to be a lengthy process,involving many setbacks. As of spring 2023, there has been little to no gains in bargaining with Amazon since the union’s victorious vote. Other issues that have come up to deter progress, including inconsistent funding and conflicts between lead organizers on the best decisions for ALU growth. Meanwhile, Amazon has not held back on its effort to retaliate against further union organizing at its warehouses and facilities, and continues practices that hurt workers by imposing a wave of anti-union policies and tactics since the birth of ALU.

In the summer of 2022, Amazon implemented a contentious union-busting policy that prohibits employees from accessing their worksite before or after their shifts have started or ended. The regulation is being implemented around the country at Amazon facilities in an attempt to prevent the union movement from expanding beyond JFK8. According to the ALU, the policy makes it harder to reach out to workers to gain their support for the union.  ALU’s legal team filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the corporation for breaking federal labor law, which the National Labor Relations Board supported. Because of these ULP charges, Amazon reached an agreement with the National Labor Relations Board to allow workers to more freely organize.

Amazon employs roughly 1 million people in the U.S., a large population that deserves fair pay and working conditions, and to uphold this by joining unions. By joining together, Amazon  employees will be able to fight the company’s efforts to suppress their labor rights and make a significant step forward in fostering collective bargaining to better their working conditions. While there’s still a way to go in ALU’s progress, Amazon workers are committed to fight for their rights. As supporters, we can help their efforts. Stay up to date by following their social media accounts, including Twitter and  their Instagram. You can also support ALU financially by donating directly using this link.

by Jian Ming Poon and Angelisa Rodriguez

Additional Materials

  1. Read about Trader Joe Unions here