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Public Employee Press: PEP Talk

Labor history is everyday

Amazon workers fight for a union

PEP photos by Mike Lee
New York State Senator Jessica Ramos, Chair of the Senate’s Labor Committee.

In May we celebrated Labor History Month with unions nationwide galvanized by the birth of a new, militant, and independent union formed by the workers at the sprawling Amazon Campus in Staten Island.

The Amazon Labor Union (ALU), born from a walkout at an Amazon warehouse because of health and safety conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, won its first major battle with recognition at the JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island.

The newly-formed ALU, led by President Chris Smalls who was fired due to the job action when workers at the JFK8 center staged their walkout, expended tirelessly with his fellow workers to build a union and campaign for a certification vote.

That vote was held earlier this year, and on April 1, the National Labor Relations Board counted the votes and declared that the ALU won, representing 8,500 members. This is a significant victory for labor as workers throughout the country at big employers such as Starbucks have taken it into their own hands to organize.

The union moved to its next campaign, organizing and rallying for a second effort at LD5, a sortation center nearby the JFK8 center. Members of several DC 37 locals and retirees helped with phone banking and leafleting, and participated in a raucous rally on April 25. Local and national elected officials, union activists, and leaders, including AWU officials and organizers, joined together to fight in support of the workers at the LD5 facility.

Chris Smalls, Amazon Labor Union Labor President.
In a letter posted on the ALU Facebook page shortly after the April 24 rally, Ralph Palladino, a former 2nd Vice President of Local 1549 and a long-time DC 37 activist, exhorted the members to keep up the fight.

“You have brave young leaders who risk much by standing up and speaking out at rallies and television. That tells me the conditions are bad at Amazon. It is a total disgrace,” Palladino wrote. “A union brings all working people together at the worksite and throughout the industry. In numbers, there is power.”

Unfortunately, despite the campaign, ALU came up short in its second organizing drive at the LDJ5 package sort center on May 2, losing 618 to 380.

Amazon bosses came well prepared for this vote, bringing in anti-union consultants to meet with workers one-on-one at the facility to convince them to vote against joining the union. Workers at LDJ5 number one-fifth of those working at the now-unionized JFK8 fulfillment center.

Amazon, the second-largest private company in the United States, has spent tens of millions of dollars fighting multiple unionization efforts across the nation, including a controversial vote in Bessemer, Alabama that the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is challenging. Amazon also filed against the ALU to decertify the initial JFK8 voting, alleging multiple violations, including against the Brooklyn office of the National Labor Relations Board.

Amazon Labor Union leaders and organizers at April 24 rally.
The NLRB granted Amazon’s request for a change of venue, and on May 23, ordered a hearing on the allegations, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Anti-union tactics employed by Amazon managers included following union organizers around the premises and forcing them at the sortation center into hour-long meetings termed “coercive,” along with holding closed-door, one-on-one sessions to push workers away from voting for unionization.

In response to the vote, the union responded on Twitter, “The count has finished. The election has concluded without the union being recognized at the LDJ5 sortation center on Staten Island. The organizing will continue at this facility and beyond. The fight has just begun.”

The Amazon effort proves that in celebrating proud labor traditions, history offers a pathway to the future and that history is made daily in workplaces everywhere.