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Amazon warehouse workers in New York file for unionization push months after failed effort in Alabama

A former Amazon worker at the Staten Island facility filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a unionization vote.

Chris Smalls, who is leading the fight to organize Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, N.Y., sets up an information booth to collect signatures across the street from the facility on Oct. 21. (Seth Wenig/AP)

SEATTLE — Workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York on Monday filed a petition to hold a unionization vote, just months after a group of Amazon employees in Alabama failed in their organizing bid.

Chris Smalls, the leader of the New York effort and a former worker at the Staten Island facility, said the group had more than 2,000 signed cards authorizing his group, the Amazon Labor Union, to represent workers in collective bargaining.

“We know the fight has just started,” Smalls said. “We’re ready to go. I think the momentum is with us.”

Amazon has vigorously opposed unionization, and the company questioned whether the group has received enough authorization cards to hold a vote. The National Labor Relations Board typically requires authorization cards signed by at least 30 percent of the proposed negotiating unit, and the Staten Island facility employs roughly 7,000 workers.

“We’re skeptical that a sufficient number of legitimate employee signatures has been secured to warrant an election,” spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said in an emailed statement. “If there is an election, we want the voice of our employees to be heard and look forward to it.”

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island seek union vote

The company successfully fended off a high-profile organizing drive earlier this year when workers at a Bessemer, Ala., warehouse overwhelmingly rejected unionization by a more than 2-to-1 margin. In August, an NLRB hearing officer recommended that the results be scrapped, and a new election held, after determining that the company improperly pressured workers to oppose unionization. The agency has yet to rule on those recommendations.

The New York unionization group is pressing for pay raises, increases to paid time off and vacation days, as well as longer breaks, less mandatory overtime, and shift cancellations during hazardous weather.

Natalie Monarrez, 52, has been working for Amazon for about four years — first with the company in New Jersey and then the facility in Staten Island.

She said she felt that a union was a good idea for workers because of what she described as a culture of excessive work at the company, where workers have to strain to meet punishing quotas, often at great physical expense.

“You basically have to work as fast as you can and as hard as you can and keep it up for 12 hours with only two small breaks that don’t even allow you enough time to barely go to the bathroom and grab something to eat or drink,” she said. “The pressure’s on to keep that up constantly. Otherwise [managers] will come up with their clipboards throughout the day and constantly tell us, you got to work harder, you gotta work faster.”

The NLRB needs to approve the unionization vote in Staten Island.

“We’re here today in solidarity with the workers and hopefully this spreads like wildfire across the nation,” Smalls said. “This is something that we need.”

Workers at Amazon warehouse in Alabama reject unionization, a major win for the e-commerce giant

He said he believes the union drive will succeed where the Alabama effort failed because New York is more labor friendly, and because the workers aren’t relying on a large trade labor group.

“This is a different energy here in New York. This is a union town,” Smalls said. “The workers are organizing themselves. It’s not a third party. We know the ins and outs of the company. We know the grievances. We know the issues. We live them every day.”

Smalls has been a high-profile thorn in Amazon’s side since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when he raised safety concerns at the Staten Island warehouse. He led a handful of workers to walkout in March 2020 as they pressed Amazon to temporarily close warehouses for cleaning where workers tested positive for the coronavirus, among other demands.

Top Amazon executive sought to divert focus to fired worker amid workplace safety criticism, email shows

Smalls, who worked for the company for five years, was fired later that day. Amazon said he was fired for violating a quarantine, since he had been in contact with a co-worker who tested positive, but Smalls said the company hadn’t warned him about not showing up to work.

A few days later, according to leaked meeting notes, Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky described Smalls, who is Black, as “not smart or articulate,” descriptions Smalls said are based on racist tropes. Zapolsky later said, “I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me.”

Derek Palmer is another worker, a packer at the warehouse, who was disciplined along with Smalls for the March walkout. New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) argued that the two were among workers at the facility who were “unlawfully fired and disciplined” in an active lawsuit filed earlier this year that alleged that the company had violated the state’s labor laws and whistleblower protections.

Palmer said he believed the group’s independent ethos was central to their pitch to other workers, helping them build the grass-roots energy needed to grow any union inside a hostile workplace.

“I feel like it plays in our favor,” Palmer said, adding that the organizers were deep in the time-consuming, one-on-one work needed to get co-workers on board. “It’s like a personal bond that we’re building with these workers. And we’re really here to listen to what they what they want to change. So I think that direct relationship definitely helped us out, and will help as far as them saying yes on mail-in ballots.”