Amazon Labor Union, With Renewed Momentum, Faces Next Test

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The Amazon Labor Union has built momentum leading up to an election this week at an 800-person warehouse near Albany, N.Y.

A federal labor official recently endorsed the union’s election victory at a Staten Island warehouse in April, which Amazon has challenged, while workers’ frustrations over pay and safety have created an opportunity to add supporters and pressure the company to bargain.

But the union faces questions about whether it can translate such opportunities into lasting gains. For months after its victory at the 8,000-person warehouse on Staten Island, the union appeared to be out of its depths. It nearly buckled under a crush of international media attention and lost a vote at a second Staten Island warehouse in May.

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At times, it has neglected organizing inside the original warehouse, known as JFK8, where high turnover means the union must do constant outreach just to maintain support — to say nothing of expanding. Christian Smalls, the union’s president and a former JFK8 employee, seemed distracted as he traveled widely. There was burnout and infighting in the group, and several core members left or were pushed out.

“It wasn’t clear what goal we should be working towards,” said Cassio Mendoza, a JFK8 worker and the union’s communications director, alluding to the sometimes competing priorities of pushing for a contract and organizing more warehouses.

The election near Albany, to be spread out over four days between Wednesday and Monday in Castleton-on-Hudson, could help determine whether the earlier problems were natural growing pains or a sign of deeper dysfunction.

Amazon has cast doubt on the Amazon Labor Union’s experience and says it doesn’t believe that the union represents workers’ views. The company said it was investing $1 billion over the next year to permanently raise hourly pay.

Among the union’s biggest diversions in recent months was countering Amazon’s attempt to overturn its victory, which consumed time and resources, as supporters and leaders testified in hearings that dragged across 24 business days beginning in mid-June. The union delayed plans to train more workers as organizers. A national organizing call was put on hold.

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Just before Labor Day, the National Labor Relations Board official running the hearings recommended rejecting Amazon’s challenge and certifying the union. A regional official must still weigh in.

The finding appeared to bolster the union within the Staten Island warehouse, though management responded by sending workers a message saying the company intended to appeal. “We believe a direct relationship with you is best,” the message said.

Around the same time, the union began to refocus. It opened an office on Staten Island in late August, hired two full-time staff members and set up a database tracking worker support. “I feel we are in a better place than we have ever been,” Mr. Mendoza said.

The union brought in prominent labor organizers to lead regular in-person training on how to push for a contract. It finally held two calls in an effort to recruit and train leaders for organizing drives nationwide.

“Your building could be next, and that is why we are having this call,” Madeline Wesley, an Amazon employee who is a lead Amazon Labor Union organizer for the second Staten Island warehouse, said on one call. Workers who indicated they were from facilities in Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio and Washington took part.

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The union, which says it has set aside about one-fifth of its more than half-million-dollar budget for expansion, is already backing other organizing campaigns, including the one in Castleton-on-Hudson and another at a warehouse east of Los Angeles. Nannette Plascencia, a self-described “soccer mom” who is the California facility’s lead organizer, met Mr. Smalls at a party in Hollywood and decided that the Amazon Labor Union “understood where we were coming from,” she recalled in an interview.

On Tuesday, the union submitted a petition for an election to represent workers at Ms. Plascencia’s warehouse, according to the N.L.R.B. Officials have yet to verify whether the union demonstrated enough support to warrant an election.

In late September, Amazon told workers that it was increasing hourly wages to reflect local market conditions, pledging to raise them by more than $1 in many warehouses. But at JFK8, where pay started at $18.25 an hour, the raise was between 25 cents and 75 cents an hour, depending on level and tenure.

“It’s not enough to buy groceries,” said Celia Camasca, an employee of the warehouse there. “It would be better if they would have said nothing.”

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The union emphasized the slim raise at a barbecue outside the warehouse that had been coincidentally planned for an afternoon shortly after workers learned about it. “Check out the Amazon 25-cent raise — we’re not falling for that,” said Mr. Smalls, the union’s president and the event’s M.C.

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Union officials circulated a petition demanding that Amazon come to the bargaining table and that it give workers on Staten Island an immediate cost-of-living wage increase. Brandon Wagner, a packer who said that he had worked at the warehouse for about a month and that he previously made $17 an hour at a Wendy’s, signed the petition while waiting in line for food because, he said, workers are underpaid.

Paul Flaningan, an Amazon spokesman, said that the national average pay for most frontline jobs was more than $19 an hour and that the company offered “comprehensive benefits” for full-time employees, including health insurance from Day 1, paid parental leave and 401(k) matching.

The union still faces numerous obstacles. Amazon could spend years appealing the election result on Staten Island, and the company still has enormous power over JFK8 workers. After workers protested Amazon’s response to a fire at the site last week, the company suspended more than 60 of them with pay while, it said, it investigated what had occurred. The union filed unfair-labor-practice charges over the suspensions; Amazon said most of the workers had returned to work.

The voting near Albany presents the union with its most visible immediate test.

In interviews outside the warehouse, which handles oversize items like lawn mowers and televisions, many workers cited safety concerns and said pay was too low given the difficulty of the work. New workers made a base wage of $15.70 an hour before an increase of $1.30 this month.

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Some also complained that Amazon was too quick to discipline workers for minor infractions.

David Bornt, who scans in merchandise before placing it in bins, said a misunderstanding over a quota had recently led to his being written up. He argued that a union could ease such stresses.

“It’s someone to have your back,” Mr. Bornt said. “I have four kids, one on the way. I can’t be worried about losing my job at any minute.”

Other employees said they opposed the union because they were satisfied with their pay and benefits and didn’t see how a union could improve the situation.

“There’s just no need for it,” said Anthony Hough, one of those workers. “We just got a raise.”

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According to government data, Albany is one of the most unionized metropolitan areas in the country, and many employees expressed positive views about unions. But some said past experience at unionized workplaces made them less eager to join another one. Some also said they distrusted the Amazon Labor Union in particular.

“The A.L.U. is new,” said Jacob Carpenter, another employee. “They’re not giving us any information.”

The election outcome is likely to shape perceptions of the union. Heather Goodall, the lead organizer at the warehouse, is a member of the Amazon Labor Union’s board, and leaders of the union like Connor Spence, its treasurer, have visited the Albany area regularly. Mr. Smalls has traveled there as well.

Ms. Goodall said she joined Amazon in February to help unionize the warehouse because she was concerned about unusually high injury rates, among other safety issues. The facility was evacuated after a cardboard compactor caught fire last week, two days after the JFK8 fire, which was similar.

“The timeline to fix things is before something tragic happens,” Ms. Goodall said.

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She accused Amazon of running an aggressive anti-union campaign, including regular meetings with employees in which it questions the union’s credibility and suggests that workers could end up worse off if they unionize.

Mr. Flaningan, the company spokesman, said that while injuries increased as Amazon trained hundreds of thousands of new workers in 2021, the company believed that its safety record surpassed that of other retailers over a broader period.

“Like many other companies, we hold these meetings because it’s important that everyone understands the facts about joining a union and the election process itself,” he said, adding that the decision to unionize is up to employees.



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