Amazon’s Campaign to Derail a Second Staten Island Union Drive

Micheal Aguilar had not slept. In the five days since I’d spoken with him in front of the sprawling sortation center in Staten Island that he hoped would become Amazon’s second unionized plant in the nation, he had barely left the premises. On Sunday, April 24th, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and multiple labor leaders had come to rally Aguilar’s sixteen hundred co-workers in the facility, known as LDJ5, to vote to join the Amazon Labor Union (A.L.U.). “You are taking on one of the wealthiest guys in America, worth a hundred and seventy billion dollars,” Sanders said. The A.L.U. was tiny, made up entirely of Staten Island warehouse workers, and funded through community donations. It had received little national attention until April, when it unexpectedly won a union election at JFK8, the much larger Amazon fulfillment center across the street from LDJ5. That victory made celebrities of A.L.U.’s leaders, especially Chris Smalls, who was fired two years ago after protesting Amazon’s pandemic response (or, according to Amazon, for breaking social-distancing rules), and Derrick Palmer, who still works at JFK8.

Aguilar, a tall second-generation Mexican American with wavy black hair, had joined the union’s organizing committee in February. A Staten Island resident, he had the distinction of knowing both facilities well: he had worked three separate times at JFK8 before going to LDJ5 as a part-time sorter—twenty-three hours a week, $18.25 per hour. “When I was nineteen, I was, like, ‘I don’t care. I just want money,’ and that’s it,” he told me. But he eventually came to see the job in a different way. Through the A.L.U., he added, “We’re fighting for pensions, higher wages, job security.”

Over four days last week, the National Labor Relations Board insured that all full- and part-time workers had their say. Under large white tents in the parking lot of LDJ5, they cast their ballots. Aguilar had come in on Monday morning to vote. He came in every other day as well—to hand out food and flyers in the LDJ5 break room; to serve as an A.L.U. observer in the voting tents; or to confer with other members of the organizing committee regarding which co-workers could use a last-minute nudge, in English or Spanish, to vote yes. When I caught him on the phone, on Friday, he said that he was standing only by the grace of Red Bull. He had arrived on-site at 4 A.M.

On Monday afternoon, the N.L.R.B. held a public count of the ballots. Reporters were not let into the Board’s Brooklyn office, so I watched via Zoom, outside the building, in the rain. The setup was blandly bureaucratic. Board employees unfolded each yellow sheet and held it up for inspection. They enunciated each vote loudly: “yes” and then, for Aguilar, the gut punch of “no.” The count took an hour and a half. Of the roughly sixteen hundred workers eligible, 380 voted yes, and 618 voted no. The union was routed.

Just after the announcement, LDJ5 workers, including a glum-looking Aguilar, assembled in the plaza outside the Board’s office. They hugged one another, and some cried. It continued to drizzle. Two representatives of the A.L.U. briefly addressed the small crowd. Connor Spence, a worker at JFK8 and a member of the organizing committee, explained that the A.L.U. had focussed so much on the fight at JFK8 that it “lost a lot of ground at LDJ5.” “But, also,” he said, “Amazon, having lost at JFK8, doubled its union-busting resources.”

Inside LDJ5, Amazon intensified its campaign, union organizers said. It hung up “Vote No” posters and flew in employees from out of state to try to convince local workers that a union would do them no good. A few days before the voting began, the company shut down the warehouse for an hour, and called every employee into a large meeting with the national vice-president of human resources. Amazon also handed out free Krispy Kreme doughnuts during work breaks and T-shirts celebrating the arrival of spring. It announced a new nationwide policy: that warehouse workers could keep their phones with them during work, which was one of the A.L.U.’s demands. (An Amazon spokesperson said that the company hosts “regular informational sessions” about unions and “routinely” gives out thank-you items to employees.)

Since most people at LDJ5 work part-time, the organizing committee had limited opportunities to speak with them. The sortation center itself was new: it opened in November of 2020. “Some people who I’ve been building relationships with, they told me they still voted no,” Aguilar said. They had heard from Amazon that they should “wait and see what will happen at JFK8.” Aguilar also observed that, although most co-workers seemed to be Democrats, “people from the conservative side” might have been turned off by “the fact that Bernie and A.O.C. came.” I wondered whether it had helped or hurt that the most visible leaders of the A.L.U. were from JFK8, not LDJ5.

During the voting, I spoke with about a dozen LDJ5 workers. It was a random sample—whoever was willing to chat before getting on the bus—but most people said that they had voted against the union. Several people told me that a union would mean a cut to benefits, though they couldn’t explain how or why. Others felt that the union was making unrealistic promises; they were “out of their minds” to demand thirty dollars per hour, one guy said. Ivan Carreno, a part-time sorter who wanted to be full-time, told me that he had signed a union card last fall, but later “came to the conclusion that no other job gives you stuff like this, a minimum of eighteen dollars, college tuition”—and voted no. On a wall of the bus shelter, someone had slapped a sticker over a “Vote Yes” poster and scrawled, “Yes so you get fire faster.”

Those who did vote yes seemed to inhabit a different factual world. A young woman in a puffy jacket told me that she supported the A.L.U.’s goals for better pay and benefits, but understood that everything would have to be negotiated. Two other sorters, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, told me that they voted yes because they deserved more pay—and believed that Amazon, like Costco, should be more generous toward its workers. At the bus stop, Panjola Fenwick, a “fulfillment associate” at JFK8 who’d voted for the union there, told me that it only made sense for LDJ5 workers to come aboard. “We’re all in the same complex. We’re all working for the same man. We’re all doing the same thing,” she said.

The organizers expressed disappointment with the loss but vowed to keep trying. The A.L.U. hopes to organize DYY6, an Amazon delivery station in the same complex as JFK8 and LDJ5. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and the Teamsters are also attempting to organize Amazon facilities in other parts of the country. “The longer-term issue is: how do we think more of a company-wide, industry-wide strategy,” Bill Fletcher, Jr., a labor activist and author, told me. “We have to think about the nature of Amazon—what they can do to circumvent the power of the workers.”

Months of legal battles lie ahead. Eric Milner, a lawyer for the A.L.U, told me that the union will decide in the next few days whether to file objections to the LDJ5 election, which could result in the N.L.R.B ordering a new vote. The union has already submitted multiple complaints, known as unfair-labor-practice charges, to the board, alleging that Amazon violated the National Labor Relations Act by making “coercive statements,” destroying union flyers, and convening “mandatory meetings to encourage employees to reject union representation.” The A.L.U. is also pushing New York State to strip Amazon of millions of dollars in tax credits based on the company’s tactics, which it says violates federal labor law. An Amazon spokesperson said the company continued “to follow the law.” Bernie Sanders has called on the Biden Administration to cancel all federal contracts with the corporation. The day after voting concluded at LDJ5, Amazon informed its workers that it would no longer give paid sick leave to employees who test positive for COVID.

Meanwhile, the company continues to attack the legitimacy of the A.L.U.’s win at JFK8 and the neutrality of the N.L.R.B. In early April, Amazon’s attorneys at Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP filed a seventeen-page brief, listing twenty-five objections. There is nothing unusual about an employer or a union contesting an election, but one of Amazon’s objections stands out. The corporation argues that the N.L.R.B. showed pro-union favoritism by filing for an injunction in federal court. Under President Biden, the Board has encouraged the use of injunctions as a tool to cure a wrong. At JFK8, one of Amazon’s alleged wrongs was the firing of Gerald Bryson, who helped found the A.L.U. Bryson said that he was terminated for organizing; Amazon said that he cursed out a co-worker in the parking lot. An administrative-law judge ruled that Bryson’s firing had been retaliatory, and ordered him reinstated. (Amazon has said that it will appeal this decision.) The N.L.R.B. also filed for an injunction in federal court to have Bryson reinstated. According to Amazon, the Board’s pursuit of an injunction just before the JFK8 election “created the impression of Board assistance or support for the A.L.U.” Milner, the A.L.U. lawyer, called that argument absurd: “This whole aspect of attacking the independence of the Board and accusing them of bias—it’s just not something I’m used to seeing.”

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