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Amazon suspends 50 workers who refused to work after a warehouse fire

The warehouse associates stopped working for a few hours over safety concerns at the Staten Island facility, home to the only unionized workforce at Amazon

Amazon signage in front of a warehouse in Staten Island where at least 50 employees were suspended on Oct. 4 after staging a sit in at the warehouse to highlight safety concerns after a fire broke out. (Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

Amazon suspended at least 50 workers on Tuesday who were involved in a work stoppage the previous evening at the company’s only unionized warehouse in the United States, union leaders said.

Roughly 100 warehouse associates on the night shift at the facility in Staten Island, N.Y. refused to work for several hours on Monday evening, shortly after a fire broke out in a trash compactor machine used on cardboard, according to Amazon Labor Union officials. Labor leaders said the warehouse smelled of smoke and that it was hard to breathe. One worker went to the hospital, they said.

Seth Goldstein, a labor attorney for Amazon Labor Union, called the suspensions of the Staten Island workers “a violation of workers’ rights to join in a collective action about the terms and conditions of their employment.”

“The workers didn’t feel safe going back to work. They were engaging in rights that have been protected for 85 years under the National Labor Relations Act,” Goldstein said.

Amazon confirmed that company managers had suspended workers with pay who engaged in the work stoppage on Monday, as they investigate the events that took place. Company spokesman Paul Flaningan said that while Amazon respects its workers’ rights to protest, it is not appropriate for employees to occupy active work spaces, break rooms or thoroughfares in its warehouses.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

The mass suspension took place less than 10 days before warehouse workers at a separate Amazon warehouse near Albany, New York, are slated to vote to become the second Amazon workforce to join Amazon Labor Union.

That independent union made national headlines in April after securing an unprecedented victory for the labor movement at the Staten Island facility, signaling a new era for labor relations at Amazon, the country’s second largest employer. However, the company has so far refused to recognize the union.

Amazon Labor Union organizers say Amazon’s crackdown in Staten Island was intended to have a broad chilling effect on their organizing campaigns, including the upcoming election.

Labor board rejects Amazon’s objections to union victory

Union organizers said that 10 union leaders who led the action were suspended on Tuesday, as well as 40 warehouse workers who refused to return to their shifts.

Video recordings of the action shared with The Washington Post show chaos in the warehouse cafeteria, with dozens of workers chanting “send us home” and later confronting management.

Flaningan, the Amazon spokesman, said that all employees were safely evacuated from the area of the warehouse where the fire had broken out, and day shift workers were sent home with pay. He added that once the fire department had certified that the building was safe, the company asked night shift workers to report to their scheduled shifts.

“While the vast majority of employees reported to their workstations, a small group refused to return to work and remained in the building without permission,” he said.

Amazon workers launch campaign to unionize in Albany

Union leaders dispute Amazon’s description of the event.

“It’s a shame that due to Amazon’s lack of safety protocols, workers had to take a stand, because they were not feeling as though the company took [the fire] as seriously as they should have,” said Christian Smalls, president of Amazon Labor Union. Amazon fired Smalls from the Staten Island facility, after he led a walkout during the height of the covid outbreak in 2020.

Chris Smalls’s Amazon uprising and the fight for a second warehouse

Amazon has refused to work with the union in Staten Island. Last month, a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer said it would dismiss Amazon’s objections to the union’s victory, securing a path for warehouse workers to negotiate a contract. The union has yet to be certified.

Meanwhile, the company has responded to the high stakes union campaign in Albany by resorting to familiar tactics from previous union campaigns. They have brought in union avoidance consultants to convince its workforce to vote against unionization, and have disciplined the campaign’s lead organizer.

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