A Grassroots Union Confronts the Corporate Giant at Its Staten Island Warehouse
E-retail giant Amazon is facing another worker unionization effort, this time not in anti-labor Alabama but in much more union-friendly New York City.
A small, worker-led drive is reportedly more than 1,000-members strong and set to file for an official union election as early as next month. The movement was ignited in March 2020, after former Amazon employee Chris Smalls was fired for protesting unsafe working conditions at the company’s huge JFK8 fulfillment center.
“[The Amazon Labor Union] gets more people signing up every day,” the 33-year-old Smalls said this past week. “We’re been out there every day chipping away out our goal.”
And unlike the unionization drive that the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is conducting at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., Smalls says, billionaire Jeff Bezos’ company has no real defense against the autonomous ALU.
“The way we’re organizing this [union] is different,” the lead ALU lead organizer and father of 9-year-old twins says. “It’s not traditional.”
Typically, anti-union companies bent on snuffing out organization drives try to paint union leaders as outsiders and interlopers, cynically coming between the harmonious relationship that supposedly exists between workers and bosses.
Amazon, in particular, very much likes to use this tactic to crush unionization drives before they ever get a chance to coalesce.
According to Smalls, however, that tactic is just not going to succeed against the new union powering up on Staten Island.
“[Amazon can] say we’re a third party trying to take all the union dues — but, actually, we’re current workers,” he says. “I’m really the only volunteer that’s outside that doesn’t work for the company. But everybody else that’s organizing is a current worker. So, that eliminates them saying ALU is some third party entity.”
The ALU organizing committee consists of some 60 members who work at the Staten Island fulfillment center. Members have spent the last several months outside the warehouse, cooking food and educating other workers about the drive for unionization and collective action.
Smalls actually began working for Amazon way back in 2015, quickly rising to supervisory roles in the pick department where he says he was continually passed over for promotion before ultimately being fired. He was ousted hours after leading a one-day JFK8 walkout in protest of dangerous working conditions at the height of the Covid pandemic.
Organizing on the Inside
“The way we organized is from within,” Smalls says. “The workers are communicating every day; they’re in [the fulfillment center] approaching the union-busters that [Amazon] hired to walk around [intimidating people]. We’re getting all our information in real-time. Whatever [anti-union messages] they put up on the TVs, we get it real-time. We know what’s going on. [Our strategy] is working.”
At the time of this writing, the ALU’s Go Fund Me page totals more than $17,000. According to Smalls, the union is utilizing all of the donations it receives to maintain a regular presence outside JFK8, where members put on regular barbecues and provide lunches for their hard pressed co-workers.
“[Workers] are breaking out of their shells and getting the courage to tell Amazon, ‘I’m with the union’,” Smalls says. “We see people coming in and out [of the fulfillment center with their [ALU] shirts on. It’s like a snowball effect.”
It’s a strategy that Smalls says was lacking during the RWDSU’s first attempt to organize the Amazon fulfillment center in Alabama. It is one of the reasons the ALU is sticking to its autonomy rather than aligning with the RWDSU or the International Brotherhood of Teamsters after the latter announced its intention in June to unionize Amazon workers across the country.
“We felt the independent route was the easiest way [to win at JFK8],” Smalls says. “There’s nothing to compare us to. There are no blemishes and no losses. The workers decided [autonomy] was our best route against Amazon because Amazon can’t use certain provocations against us — even though they try — we’re able to counter it.”
Last month, a National Labor Relations hearing office determined that Amazon broke the law in its efforts to destroy the RWDSU’s organizing drive at the company’s Alabama fulfillment center, and it recommended that a new union election be held.
Despite Amazon’s cheating, Smalls calls the RWDSU’s initial organizing campaign in Alabama a missed opportunity that ended in defeat.
“We, obviously, watched what happened in Alabama,” Smalls says. “We saw with our own two eyes the missed opportunities. Any established union is going to have a tough time organizing Amazon without worker [support].
“That was their biggest missed opportunity — they didn’t build enough worker solidarity first. We have a huge workers’ committee — something that [RWDSU] didn’t have.”
The ALU also faces significant challenges on Staten Island, however. Some 5,500 employees work at the JFK8 fulfillment center. But the facility actually consists of four buildings employing thousands more. The ALU is tasked with unionizing all of them.
One of the other ways that the ALU is successfully connecting with the JFK8’s predominantly Black and Brown workforce is calling out Amazon’s history of institutionalize racism and exploitation based on skin color.
“Obviously,” says Smalls, “a majority of the workforce is [made up of minorities], and we’re the ones who get exploited the most. We’re the ones who get fired the most. We’re the ones who get injured the most — and that is a systemic issue.”
According to Smalls, people of color with loads of “people skills” and lots of experience working at the JFK8 fulfillment center are routinely passed over for promotion in favor of inexpert white men hired from outside the facility with little of no experience.
“Every day we’re [outside the JFK8 facility] somebody either gets fired or they quit,” Smalls says. “We let people know, you’re here today — but you could be gone tomorrow. That’s the number one thing we’re fighting for — job security. And that’s what [workers] want as well. We’re fighting for job security and a lot of people agree.”
The ALU’s lead organizer also scoffs at the idea that Amazon gave workers a voice leading up to the Alabama vote and that employees ultimately favored a “direct connection with managers and the company.”
“Amazon can say what they want; with them you don’t have a voice,” Smalls says. “This company is dictating your whole lifestyle.”
With a new RWDSU election looming in Alabama, Teamsters are beginning to flex their muscles nationwide, and the autonomous, worker-led ALU pressuring on Staten Island, Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos just might have to blast himself back into space to escape a unionized workforce.
“[Amazon] is terrified because they don’t know how to bust us up,” Small says. “This is different from any [unionization] campaign they’ve ever faced.”
Amazon has not responded to requests for comment.