2,000 Amazon workers in NY to seek federal authorisation on union

Amazon. (File Photo: IANS)

New York, Oct 23 (IANS) Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island, the southernmost of New York’s boroughs, have signed a call for unionisation.

The move is a red rag for the retail behemoth having a turnover of $386 billion in 2020.

The organisers said their plan on Monday is to ask federal labour officials to authorise a union vote.

The push is barely 12 miles from Wall Street, to some the heart of global capitalism.

It ratchets up growing unionisation efforts at Amazon, at 950,000 folks, the second-largest private employer in the US after Walmart.

“We intend to fight for higher wages, job security, safer working conditions, more paid time off, better medical leave options, and longer breaks,” Amazon Labor Union (ALU) said on Thursday.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos unapologetically fought off labour organising.

In April, while Bezos was still in office, 6,000 warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama voted (and rejected) the biggest union campaign yet.

This after President Joe Biden came out rather publicly in favour of unionisation.

“Workers in Alabama – and all across America – are voting on whether to organise a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice – one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers. Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union,” Biden had tweeted on March 1, embedding a video statement.

It is unusual for a sitting American President to say this, though Biden was careful not to direct workers to vote in favor of unionisation lest he violate US labour law.

Biden didn’t name Amazon either. Yet no one was in doubt what he meant by directly naming Alabama warehouse workers. He also denounced anti-union efforts, aiming bluntly at Bezos.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, had published a stinging op-ed in USA Today on Amazon’s ways. “The days of conservatives being taken for granted by the business community are over,” he wrote.

This led The New Yorker to say: “Amazon’s influence is so vast, touching on issues from wealth and income inequality to antitrust policy, the American relationship with China, the omnipotence of workplace surveillance, and the atomising effect of big business, in its most concentrated and powerful form, on families and communities, that it can scramble ordinary politics. For a moment, at least, it can put Marco Rubio and (Democrat) Stacey Abrams on the same side. Most organising campaigns have a symbolic quality, in which the employer and its workers stand for different models of economic organisation. The fight in Bessemer is different because it is so direct. Amazon isn’t a proxy for the future of the economy, but it’s heart.”

After the win in Alabama, Amazon was accused of stepping outside allowable guidelines and improperly pressurising warehouse workers against unionising.

The election should be redone, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing officer said in a non-binding recommendation in August.

“Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate, and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favour of a direct connection with their managers and the company,” a company spokesperson countered.

As the Bessemer vote fizzled out, the Staten Island effort began, led by ALU, a new, self-organised worker group.

The group’s president, Chris Smalls, staged a walkout at the start of the pandemic to protest working conditions. He was fired. Amazon said the firing was because Small violated safety guidelines.

NLRB needs to approve workers’ requests for a union vote. Smalls and his team plan to file some 2,000 cards on Monday, signed by Staten Island staff saying they want that.

The push targets four Amazon facilities in the Staten Island cluster, estimated to employ 7,000.

Rules require the organisers to submit signatures from 30 per cent of the workers they seek to represent.

A change of guard from Bezos to Amazon old-timer Andy Stacey in July hasn’t changed the party line one bit.

In a statement on Thursday, Amazon spokesperson Kelly A. Nantel said unions are 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”.

In Alabama, meanwhile, workers continue to aim for a second chance to vote on unionising. A regional director is weighing whether to schedule a new election.

The International Brotherhood Teamsters has also been targeting Amazon. That includes a push for warehouse workers in Canada.

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