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Amazon workers in Staten Island, N.Y., file for union election

Organizers representing more than 2,000 workers filed the petition to the National Labor Relations Board office in Brooklyn.
Amazon workers wear costumes Monday as they file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Amazon workers wear costumes Monday as they file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office in Brooklyn, N.Y. Ben Kesslen / NBC News

Amazon workers at a cluster of warehouses in Staten Island filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office in Brooklyn on Monday requesting an election to form a union.

The effort, called the Amazon Labor Union, is headed up by Chris Smalls, a former Amazon employee who was fired in March 2020 after organizing a protest over the lack of protective gear and hazard pay for warehouse workers at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. It marks the latest in a series of attempts by a small but vocal portion of Amazon’s 950,000 U.S. employees to organize to demand better working conditions. 

“We want to let the company know that we are a real threat,” Smalls said, speaking on behalf of workers who support the efforts. “The time is now.”

Image: Organizer and former Amazon worker Chris Smalls speaks outside the NLRB office before filing paperwork to unionize workers, in Brooklyn, New York
Organizer and former Amazon worker Chris Smalls in Brooklyn on Monday. Brendan McDermid / Reuters

Smalls and a few Amazon workers submitted the petition in person to the NLRB’s regional office 29 in downtown Brooklyn at about 2 p.m. Monday (capacity inside the office limited the number of people allowed to enter). Some dressed in costumes resembling the tracksuits worn by characters in hit show "Money Heist."

Smalls and other organizers assembled a committee and spent the last six months gathering signed union authorization cards from more than 2,000 workers at four warehouses in Staten Island, including the facility Amazon refers to as JFK8, where Smalls worked for five years before he was fired, as well as three other nearby adjacent facilities. They need at least 30 percent of workers across the four warehouses to sign authorization cards to be eligible for an NLRB election, and a simple majority to win. 

The petition for an election comes amid “Striketober,” as a wave of workers across the country take to picket lines to protest stagnant wages and unsafe labor conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. There have been 184 strikes this year, including more than 10,000 John Deere employees who went on strike this month and Kellogg's factory workers.

The organizers hope that their independent union will have more success than previous attempts to unionize by teaming up with established union shops, like in Bessemer, Alabama, where workers voted against forming a union with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in April

“We have to make sure every move is calculated,” Smalls said. 

“The established unions have expertise, money and resources. But Amazon is a different animal,” he said. “There is no playbook for unionizing Amazon, you just have to earn the trust of workers. It’s really just us on the ground having face-to-face conversations and building relationships.”

Amazon workers mock Jeff Bezos.
Amazon workers mock Jeff Bezos. Ben Kesslen / NBC News

Since April, Smalls and other organizers have set up a tent outside the JFK8 warehouse, where they have been hosting barbecues and collecting signatures from workers expressing their support for the union effort. He described the effort as 24/7, rain or shine. 

Derrick Palmer, a fellow organizer who works at JFK8, said they were inspired by the union drive in Bessemer and started collecting signatures as soon as that effort failed. He said they wanted to build on that momentum.

“We felt that it was super important that we started right when they took the loss,” he said, “Taking a defeat like that, we wanted to pick up where they left off.”

Palmer said that he and other organizers have already been contacted by workers at facilities in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, Texas and Florida who have expressed an interest in joining the Amazon Labor Union. 

Seth Goldstein, a senior business representative with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153 in New York, who is also a lawyer, is helping the newfound Amazon Labor Union pro bono, said that Palmer and Smalls have an uphill battle against Amazon.

“No one is going in there starry-eyed thinking that this is going to be anything other than the nastiest campaign in labor management history,” he said.

Labor experts said that by trying to form an independent union, organizers would be able to avoid some of Amazon’s anti-union messaging, which has in the past focused on maligning the established union shop as not representing the interests of workers.

At the rally Monday outside the NLRB office, Monica Moorehead, a retired schoolteacher from New Jersey, joined the group in solidarity. 

“Amazon workers are on the front line of the struggle” said Moorehead, who was there with members of the Workers World Party, adding that if Amazon workers can unionize, “it will create a tidal wave.”

Around two dozen people there to support the workers held signs encouraging Amazon to recognize the union, including ones that said “Fight Racism and Union Busting.”

“We’re skeptical that a sufficient number of legitimate employee signatures has been secured to warrant an election. If there is an election, we want the voice of our employees to be heard and look forward to it. Our focus remains on listening directly to our employees and continuously improving on their behalf,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said. 

Previously, on a website Amazon set up this year to persuade workers in Alabama to vote against unionization, the company wrote: “We’ve got you covered with great hourly rates, best-in-class healthcare benefits, and career advancement. There’s so much MORE you can do for your career and your family without paying dues.”

Ahead of the Bessemer, Alabama, union election, Amazon’s worldwide head of communications Drew Herdener said that the involvement of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union marked an attempt by union head Stuart Appelbaum “to save his long declining union.”

A RWDSU spokesperson said Amazone executives used personal attacks to deceive workers in Alabama. "Their vehemently anti-union stance knows no bounds, legal, moral or otherwise," Chelsea Connor said.

“They won’t have the resources and experience of a seasoned national union," said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of management and labor relations at Rutgers University. “But they also avoid a lot of the anti-union attacks that come from Amazon and get to work together to shape their own priorities and tactics.”