Amazon warehouse workers in New York to labor watchdog: We want our union vote

Unions face test on Staten Island after defeat in Bessemer, Alabama

Updated On Monday, a group representing workers at Amazon's warehouses on Staten Island, New York, electronically delivered a petition with at least 2,000 signatures to America's National Labor Relations Board in an effort to demonstrate there's enough employee support to hold a vote on whether to unionize.

In an email to The Register, a spokesperson for the NLRB confirmed the filing had been made to its Region 29 facility in Brooklyn, New York. We understand the petition is likely to be published on the NLRB website on Tuesday.

The board did not yet have a count of the signatures in the petition but the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA) requires at least 30 per cent of the workers who would be represented by the proposed union to ask the NLRB to oversee an election. With Amazon's Staten Island workforce estimated to be around 7,000, about 2,100 people would need to support the petition to hold a unionization vote. To establish a union, at least half the workforce will need to vote in favor.

To mark the occasion, Christian Smalls, president of a group called the Amazon Labor Union, posted a photo of himself standing in front of an NLRB office plaque to Twitter, captioned by the word, "Done!"

Smalls used to work at an Amazon warehouse known as JFK8 on Staten Island, but in March 2020, after organizing a protest to obtain more protection for workers amid the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, he was fired for allegedly violating social distancing and quarantine rules.

In November, 2020, Smalls sued Amazon, claiming that the company had violated federal civil rights by terminating him and by putting other minority workers at the company at risk amid the pandemic. His lawsuit is still pending, as is a preemptive lawsuit filed by Amazon that sought to prevent New York Attorney General Letita James from suing the e-commerce biz over its health and safety measures, which she did anyway.

Don't look for the union label

Amazon has opposed labor unions in its facilities and in April managed to prevent the unionization of its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama under the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) after a contentious campaign. In August, the NLRB concluded that Amazon had interfered with the voting process and recommended that another election be held. Amazon said it would appeal the ruling.

In an email to The Register, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said employees have a choice about whether or not to form a union, but Amazon would prefer not to have to bargain with one.

"Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union," said Nantel. "They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. 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."

"The benefits of direct relationships between managers and employees can't be overstated – these relationships allow every employee's voice to be heard, not just the voices of a select few. We've made great progress in recent years and months in important areas like pay and safety. There are plenty of things that we can keep doing better, and that's our focus – to keep getting better every day."

While the overall number of US workers represented by a union in 2020 declined 321,000, or 2.2 per cent, to reach 14.3 million, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the percentage of US workers who were members of unions rose from 10.3 per cent in 2019 to 10.8 per cent in 2020. That is because the overall job loss during this period was 6.7 per cent.

"The disproportionately large decline in total wage and salary employment compared with the decline in the number of union members led to an increase in the union membership rate," the BLS explained in January.

In March, President Joe Biden issued a statement urging the House of Representatives "to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021, which would dramatically enhance the power of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions."

The PRO Act was approved by the House and now awaits a vote in the Senate. It may be a long wait. ®

Updated to add on November 12

The Amazon workers' petition to the NLRB was withdrawn to give the group time to gather more signatures. The group hopes to resubmit its paperwork to the labor board at some point.

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