‘If we can do it, everybody can’: How the Amazon Labor Union is starting a movement

The upstart union took on the retail giant and won. Organisers, labor groups, Bernie Sanders and AOC hope there’s more to come, Alex Woodward reports from Staten Island

Monday 25 April 2022 15:34
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<p>Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and organiser Chris Smalls at a labor rally on Staten Island</p>

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and organiser Chris Smalls at a labor rally on Staten Island

After inflating a giant pig outside Amazon headquarters in Staten Island, Teamsters union members in black and gold satin jackets assembled the sound system for the afternoon’s labor rally, starting with the accidental pro-union ballad “Ruff Ryders Anthem” by DMX: “Stop, drop, shut ‘em down, open up shop.”

The pig – roughly nine feet tall, chomping on a cigar, dressed in a tie with a gold watch while clutching a money bag in one hoof and a worker in another – looked out towards a crowd of several hundred people representing a broad spectrum of New York City’s organised labor force, cheering on the workers at the world’s largest online retailer who will vote on whether to form a union, the second-ever within the corporate giant.

Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse facility won their union election on 1 April, the first within the company. Workers at the LDJ5 facility next door will begin casting ballots on 25 April.

The movement has attracted global attention and endorsements from prominent national labor leaders and members of Congress, including Senator Bernie Sanders and US Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who rallied with workers on 24 April.

“This is just the beginning,” Amazon Labor Union founder and president Chris Smalls told The Independent. “Ordinary people, who just came together from different parts of the country, different parts of New York, to form this union – if we can do it, that will show that everybody can.”

Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez said the JFK8 election was “the first domino to fall” in a union campaign that has reverberated across the US, amid a wave of organised labor campaigns rallying around stronger workplace protections during the Covid-19 pandemic and for better wages and benefits during historic corporate gains.

“Working people are sick and tired of falling further and further behind while billionaires like [Amazon founder Jeff Bezos] become much richer,” Senator Sanders told a morning crowd of roughly 300 people.

“If you can go to space, you can give our people a bathroom break,” said Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, referring to the Amazon founder’s space tourism efforts.

Complaints from Amazon employees about poor working conditions, inadequate benefits, homelessness and sleeping in cars are an “indignity and an injustice and it has no place in New York City,” she said.

Charles Jenkins, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, assured the crowd that the workers have “the power to bring ‘Jeff Bozo’ to his knees.”

“They need to know that labor supports them, 100 per cent,” he told The Independent.

“This here is a labor town. For the labor movement, this is a huge boost to the density of organised labor, which is extremely important. By way of New York, the whole country goes,” he said.

Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez join Amazon union organisers in Staten Island on 24 April.

The union campaign ignited after Mr Smalls was fired in early 2020 for allegedly breaking the company’s safety guidelines after he staged a protest over what Mr Smalls and other Amazon workers have alleged are poor health protections against Covid-19.

With Derrick Palmer, Mr Smalls and other current and former Amazon workers have helped spread the word about the union effort, relying on social media, barbecues and connections with workers without traditional union support through established trade groups.

Following the union’s victory to unionise JFK8, Mr Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union have been thrust into an international spotlight, as the subject of magazine profiles and an interview with right-wing Fox News personality Tucker Carlson.

The union’s demands include “job security, $30 an hour, longer breaks, better medical leave options, a pension [for workers] to retire, for themselves and for their children, bringing back monthly bonuses, and making everybody a shareholder,” Mr Smalls said.

But the campaign has faced intense and well-financed efforts to keep union activity out of the company, from so-called “captive audience” meetings, anti-union literature, posters and messages to workers to attempts to undermine or delegitimise Mr Smalls and other union leaders – efforts that mirror the company’s anti-union campaign in Bessemer, Alabama, where a union vote failed last year.

The outcome of a re-do of that election, ordered by the federal labor agency, hinges on more than 400 challenged ballots.

Amazon has also challenged the results of the JFK8 election with the National Labor Relations Board.

The Independent has requested comment from Amazon.

Teamsters union members assemble and inflatable pig outside Amazon’s State Island facilities on 24 April.

Amazon Labor Union treasurer Maddie Wesley, among a group of Amazon workers who spoke to the crowd before clocking into their Sunday shifts, said that while the union victory has energised workers at LDJ5, which has roughly 1,600 workers, the anti-union campaign has only accelerated.

Pascquale “Uncle Pat” Cioffi, a process assistant at JFK8 who has worked with Amazon for two years, said management has been “grabbing people, taking them to the office” to isolate them from co-workers and pair them with a lawyer and human resources representatives to question whether they were forced into supporting the union campaign.

“As long as I’m there, I don’t care if I have to go to Jeff Bezos, face to face … do not f*** with these people,” he told the crowd.

Mr Cioffi told The Independent that while winning an election is one thing, “a better work environment for the people” reached through a union contract with the company is another.

Asked about catching the attention of members of Congress, Mr Cioffi told The Independent: “It’s about time.”

Posters outside a bus stop at Amazon facilities in Staten Island encourage workers to support union efforts.

From Sunday morning into late afternoon, dozens of people occupied a patch of grass near Amazon’s Staten Island headquarters in the Matrix Global Logistics Park, a largely gray sprawl of buildings in a remote stretch of the island borough.

Amazon workers, union members and supporters carried banners and wore shirts and jackets bearing the names of unions from across the labor spectrum, including the Service Employees International Union, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and truckers and transport workers, among others.

Mr Smalls – wearing a red, yellow and black bomber jacket with the words “eat the rich” emblazoned on the back – stood alongside Senator Sanders and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and led union chants and introduced speakers from a small platform.

Mark Dimondstein, president of the United Postal Workers, which represents roughly 200,000 members, said Amazon workers have “inspired workers all over this country.”

“When Bezos went to space – I wish they had left him up there,” he said. “You should be very proud of what you do, for the people you serve, but always remember that you deserve and you have earned your fair share. The pandemic underscored that. They said we’re all ‘essential’ but words don’t mean anything. We want to demand that we be treated as essential workers that all workers are.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, among the largest labor unions in the country with 1.7 million members, said Amazon workers “made it possible for my members to teach during the pandemic.”

“Morally, we must support you. Righteously, we must support you. With you, goes the labor movement. With you, goes workers rights. … With you, goes everything,” she said.

Rallygoers, organisers and labor leaders demanded Congress pass legislation to protect union organising – the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or Pro Act, passed the House of Representatives in March 2021 but has languished in a largely deadlocked Senate under threat of Republican obstruction.

A vote count for the LDJ5 union election begins on 2 May.

“I feel like the momentum is with us again. I feel like the workers inside are witnessing that, and I believe they’re going to make history,” Mr Smalls told The Independent.

Mr Sanders addressed him directly in his remarks, calling him an “inspiration for millions of workers all across this country, who have looked at you and said, ‘These guys in Staten Island stood up to an extraordinarily powerful corporation. If they can do it in Staten Island, we can do it throughout this country’.”

“It starts with the workers,” Mr Smalls told The Independent. “They have to support us – that’s a good thing, for them to come here and support us. That’s a step in the right direction – but there’s still a lot of work they can do as well.”

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