By HALELUYA HADERO – AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — An independent group made up of former and current Amazon employees is attempting to organize a company warehouse in New York City, a David and Goliath scenario that would become the retail giant’s first unionized facility in the United States USA could lead
Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island will decide whether or not to form a union, with vote counting expected to begin as early as Thursday.
The count for a separate labor organization is expected to begin as early as Thursday in Alabama, where the retail, wholesale and department store union faces a tough challenge in a repeat election to unionize Amazon workers in the city of Bessemer. The union said the election had a turnout of about 39%, with just 2,375 of the nearly 6,100 eligible workers voting by mail.
In New York, the nascent Amazon Labor Union has led the prosecution in a bitter industrial dispute in which the country’s second-largest private employer has made every effort to recover labor organizers and Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon employee who now heads the fledgling group , to fend off .
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The Staten Island warehouse employs more than 8,300 associates who pack and ship supplies to customers primarily based in the Northeast. A labor victory is seen as an uphill battle. But organizers believe their grassroots approach is more relatable to workers and could help them overcome where mainstream unions have failed in the past.
Meanwhile, Amazon has strongly pushed back. The retail giant held mandatory meetings where workers were told unions were a bad idea. The company also set up an anti-union website aimed at workers and placed posters in English and Spanish throughout the Staten Island plant, urging them to refuse the union.
New York is more pro-worker than Alabama, where the other union election takes place. But some experts believe it won’t make much of a difference in the outcome of the Staten Island election, citing federal labor laws that favor employers and Amazon’s anti-union stance.
“The employer is the same, and that’s the bottom line,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor movements at the City University of New York. “Amazon is fighting back with all means.”
The ALU said it didn’t have a demographic breakdown of Staten Island warehouse workers, and Amazon declined to provide The Associated Press with the information, citing the union’s vote. Internal records leaked to The New York Times in 2019 showed that more than 60% of the facility’s hourly workers were Black or Latino, while most managers were White or Asian. However, it’s unclear how the facility’s high turnover rate might have changed things.
Amazon employees often travel by subway from across the New York metro area and then take a 40-minute ride on the public bus to get to the warehouse. At a nearby bus stop, organizers have put up signs urging workers to vote for the union. “WE ARE NOT MACHINES, WE ARE HUMAN,” it says, in a nod to workers’ complaints about long shifts and the company’s “time off” tool, which alerts employees for too many breaks.
Among other things, Staten Island workers are demanding longer breaks, paid time off for injured employees, and a $30 hourly wage, versus a minimum offered by the company of just over $18 an hour. A spokesman for Amazon said the company is investing in wages and benefits like health care, 401(k) plans and a prepaid tuition program to help advance workers’ careers.
“As a company, we do not believe that unions are the best answer for our employees,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement. “Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”
ALU organizers say they are optimistic about their chances of victory but challenges remain.
To hold the election, organizers collected signatures from about 30% of eligible voters, which is the legal threshold. Typically, unions try to secure the support of 60% or more of eligible workers before running in an election. This is to cushion the loss of support that might occur if employers increase their efforts to persuade workers not to organize.
Connor Spence, vice president for membership at ALU, said the organizers chose not to pursue this strategy due to high turnover.
“This strategy only works for smaller companies with lower sales,” Spence said.
The ALU also lacks official support from large unions, which are traditionally well staffed and well funded. Smalls, the leader, said his group spent $100,000 raised since its inception last year. In early March, he said it only had about $3,000 left in its account and was operating on a weekly budget.
Unite Here, an international union representing workers in hospitality and other industries, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, a separate union affiliated with RWDSU, have lobbied and provided the organizers with office space, additional volunteers and a lawyer provided to assist them in filing legal matters. Local community groups have also reached out to workers, made art for the ALU and raised money. As the election drew near, organizers put together a potluck that fed up to 400 workers and held a rally to generate more enthusiasm.
Union-friendly employees also stepped up their efforts. Michelle Valentin Nieves, a warehouse worker, says she tacitly supported the union push, but around the time the ALU was holding an election, she decided to be more public and stay longer after her shift to hand out pro-union flyers. She said her organization was met with hostility from some Amazon executives.
“I get the death stares,” Nieves said. “Some people just stopped talking to me.”
Organizers have already filed several complaints with the NLRB against the company, alleging unfair labor practices, including monitoring of pro-union employees.
Other warehouse workers, like 22-year-old Elijah Ramos, said they wanted to vote against the union because they doubted ALU could get Amazon to agree to higher wages and other benefits. Ramos said he believed the organizers did not have enough experience to represent him.
Although he believes a union could bring good things, Ramos said it could also constantly clash with the company and create more complications.
“It’s better to deal with what we have now than deal with something where we don’t know what they’re going to do,” he said.
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