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Amazon warehouse workers in New York file for a union vote

Chris Smalls, who runs the self-organized worker group Amazon Labor Union, has been gathering signatures from Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island in support of a union election.
Chris Smalls, who runs the self-organized worker group Amazon Labor Union, has been gathering signatures from Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island in support of a union election.

Updated October 25, 2021 at 5:38 PM ET

Amazon warehouse workers in New York have taken their first formal step toward unionization on Monday.

Organizers from Amazon's Staten Island facilities say they've collected some 2,000 signatures from warehouse workers who say they want a union election.

On Monday, about a dozen activists hand-carried four plastic containers filled with signed cards into a local labor office, petitioning it to authorize a union vote. Outside, supporters chanted pro-union slogans against the backdrop of a giant cutout of Jeff Bezos.

This labor push stands out for being unaffiliated with any national union. It's a product of a self-organized, grassroots worker group called the Amazon Labor Union, financed via GoFundMe. It is run by Chris Smalls, who led a walkout at the start of the pandemic to protest working conditions and was fired the same day.

The group is now pushing to unionize warehouses that employ an estimated 7,000 people and that pack and ship products for the massive New York market. They hope to help workers win longer breaks, better medical and other leave options and higher wages.

"We want better working conditions," Smalls told NPR on Thursday. "We want higher wages, we want longer breaks, we want better medical leave options."

The Staten Island campaign faces an uphill battle as Amazon has for decades successfully fought off labor organizing at its U.S. warehouses. The company is now the second-largest U.S. private employer after Walmart with 950,000 full- and part-time employees as of last month.

So far, the closest an Amazon warehouse has gotten to unionizing was this spring, when workers in Alabama voted on whether to join a retail union and overwhelminglyrejected unionizing. Later, a federal labor official found that Amazon's anti-union campaign tainted that election, and Alabama workers now await a ruling on whether they get a revote.

"Amazon's been around for 27 years, and all these established unions have been around, that have the expertise, the money, the resources," Smalls told NPR. "If it (unionizing) was that simple, it would have been done already, so maybe it's something that's different that needs to be done, and not the traditional way."

Amazon in its latest statement argued that unions were not "the best answer" for workers: "Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes — quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle."

Workers have also filed labor complaints

The Staten Island warehouse cluster has been among the most active Amazon facilities. Since the walkout and protest in March 2020, workers have also filed 10 labor complaints, alleging that Amazon has interfered with their organizing efforts. The National Labor Relations Board says its lawyers have found some merit in three of them and continue to investigate others.

New York's attorney general is also pursuing a legal case over Smalls' firing. Smalls alleges that Amazon fired him as retaliation for his activism. Amazon says he had violated quarantine and safety measures. A top corporate executive also had to apologize after Vice News reported on leaked notesfrom a meeting with founder Jeff Bezos in which Smalls, who is Black, was described as "not smart, or articulate," prompting accusations of racism.

Since April, Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union have been collecting Staten Island worker signatures in favor of a union vote by holding barbecues, handing out water and coffee as people leave work and setting up fire pits with s'mores.

Smalls says Amazon, for its part, has begun posting anti-union signs around the warehouses and even mounted a fence with barbed wire to restrict the organizers' space. The company did not comment on those allegations.

"I know I'm excited, but also exhausted, so I don't know how to feel right now," Smalls said, as he drove boxes with coveted signatures — "more valuable the money" — to the Brooklyn NRLB office Monday.

Labor rules require organizers to show support from at least 30% of the workers they seek to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board officials will scrutinize eligibility of the collected signatures, among other things.

NPR's Taylor Haney contributed to this report.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.