Amazon workers battle corporate behemoth

Published on Oct. 28, 2023

The day that a group of Amazon warehouse employees on Staten Island voted to create a union on April 1, 2022, became a historic victory for labor rights, a further indicator that more U.S. workers are coming to the conclusion that collective bargaining is the best way to achieve their goals as a result of their dissatisfaction with salary and benefits, job security, and working conditions. 

The JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island was not the first Amazon warehouse to hold a union election, but it was the first to be successful. The Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a group of present and former Amazon workers at warehouse JFK8, contributed to this history.

ALU is directed by founder Christian Smalls and works on improving working conditions, wages, job security, and giving employees a voice in the transnational corporation. The ALU win was particularly rare since it is a small, autonomous union, very different from the massive, strong unions that have traditionally prevailed at giant corporations and that have amassed dues from hundreds of thousands of workers.

During the early stages of the epidemic in 2020, a time of illness and death, workers in JFK8 started to organize. Smalls and three of his coworkers, Derrick Palmer, Jordan Flowers, and Gerald Bryson, organized rallies to call for safety reforms after the first coronavirus cases were discovered in JFK8.

Smalls and Bryson were fired for breaking Amazon’s social-distancing regulations, according to Amazon. Palmer was given a final warning but continued to work, and Flowers, who suffers from lupus, requested long-term medical leave. To coordinate future efforts, they formed the Congress of Essential Workers. A year later, while Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, attempted to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, they decided to start their own union named ALU.

In 2020, Representative Pramila Jayapal, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, raised concerns about worker safety and the lack of restrooms in Amazon’s warehouses. Jayapal’s concerns intensified after she interacted with some Amazon employees, notably Maren Costa, who was urging the business to address climate change and improve working conditions. Not long after their conversation with Representative Jaypal, they were fired. Amazon claimed that they violated a rule prohibiting soliciting.

ALU collected signatures in 2021 to overcome the first significant hurdle of organizing a union at JFK8, collecting cards from at least 30 percent of workers consenting to union representation. By late December, after six Amazon warehouse workers were  killed in an Illinois tornado had workers outraged by the corporate negligence, the union had succeeded in getting enough cards signed for the National Labor Relations Board to schedule an election. They also organized and gathered signatures at LDJ5, an Amazon sortation site across the street. They went into campaign mode to mobilize voters. Meanwhile, workers at the Alabama facility voted against unionization, but the  National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overturned the outcome after discovering that Amazon had unfairly intervened in the election. Federal labor officials have also taken action to get Amazon to drop a rule governing employees’ usage of non-work areas after charging the business with unfairly targeting union supporters while implementing the rule.

However, ALU has been battling to negotiate a contract with Amazon since that victory. Although the NLRB recognized an independent union’s historic victory at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse and dismissed a long list of objections submitted by Amazon, the company has resisted recognizing the newly formed ALU, dragging out legal battles and refusing to meet with employees to begin contract negotiations. The dispute has reached the courts, where Amazon continues to contest the outcomes as well as the actions of the NLRB and the union throughout the election. Amazon also stepped up its corporate-wide union-busting campaign with a series of punitive firings directed at employees who backed prior or ongoing union organizing in both Bessemer and Staten Island, as well as many managers who failed to thwart union elections.

Another one of the ALU’s challenges is that some members have expressed dissatisfaction over Smalls and his allies’ decision to continue pushing union elections at other warehouses without a strategy to win them rather than concentrating on the contract dispute at the JFK8 warehouse, where a union contract has been out of reach. ALU’s attempt to organize workers at the retail giant was dealt a setback in October 2022 when workers at an Amazon warehouse close to Albany decisively rejected a unionization effort. Moreover, a record-breaking number of Amazon warehouse employees in New York City have filed a lawsuit against ALU, alleging that top union leaders are refusing to hold fair elections to fill leadership positions. Internal conflicts inside the ALU have escalated as a result of the case that was filed in federal court in Brooklyn.

Across the nation, labor organizing is on the rise, which presents challenges for Amazon. Employees at an Amazon fulfillment center (ONT8) in Southern California submitted a union petition in an effort to join the ALU. The NLRB approved the petition and has scheduled the union election this year. To call on the corporation to address employee concerns about working conditions, Amazon employees at locations in California, Illinois, and Georgia staged walkouts in time for Amazon’s fall Prime Day sale event.

by Thu Nguyen

Action Steps

  1. Write to your senators to fight for the PRO Act. Click here
  2. Read about need to protect workers rights to organize here

Additional Materials

  1. Read about the fight for $15 wages here
  2. Read about Amazon Labor Unions here
  3. Read about Amazon Union in New York here
  4. Read about Trader Joe Unions here