© 2022 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Amazon's Staten Island warehouse workers will vote on forming a union

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thousands of Amazon workers on Staten Island in New York City begin voting today on whether to form a union. A yes vote could mean the company will have its first unionized warehouse in the U.S. Here's WNYC's Gwynne Hogan.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) I believe that...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting) I believe that we will win.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) I believe that we will win.

MARTIN: At a recent rally at a bus stop on Amazon's Staten Island compound, blue Prime trucks zip by the small crowd gathered, honking in support.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

MARTIN: The organizers behind the Staten Island union drive have been at it for months, talking to workers in break rooms, phone-banking and now their first big test. Eight thousand workers are eligible to cast ballots on whether they want a union.

Derrick Palmer spoke to the crowd.

DERRICK PALMER: Amazon treats these workers like pawns in a chessboard. They treat them like pawns.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: They want hour-long lunch breaks rather than the 30 minutes they get now. They want higher base pay. Workers here start at $18.25 an hour.

PALMER: But I guarantee if we win this election, they going to them like kings and queens.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's right.

(CLAPPING)

HOGAN: This week's vote is the culmination of two years of organizing. A group of workers worried about COVID walked off the job in March of 2020. Some were fired soon after. One of those fired workers, Chris Smalls, is now the president of the Amazon Labor Union. It's a new group not affiliated with any existing union.

(CLAPPING)

CHRIS SMALLS: Amazon says every day is day one. And it is day one for us 'cause we ain't going nowhere. We here to stay.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah.

HOGAN: Amazon has met their efforts with fierce opposition. Last month, they had three organizers arrested on company property. The company has hung massive vote-no banners inside the warehouse. And employees are regularly pulled into mandatory training sessions where workers are dissuaded from voting yes, like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We're going to talk about an organization you probably have heard of, the ALU.

PALMER: It was recorded by an employee last November and shared with NPR. The manager is calling the Amazon Labor Union a third party.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Amazon and third parties. What's our philosophy on third parties? Our philosophy is that we believe that the right relationship between us is preferred.

HOGAN: An Amazon spokesperson says employees have the choice whether or not to join a union. They say employees have access to health care and a 401(k) with a company match. And Amazon denies any violations of federal labor laws, though attorneys for the Amazon Labor Union have filed dozens of charges against the company.

Outside the warehouse on a recent afternoon, workers marched to and from the bus stop across the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUS ENGINE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Have a good shift. Have a good shift.

HOGAN: Some say they're not sure how they'll vote. But others have made up their mind. David declined to give his full name because he feared professional ramifications. He's voting no.

DAVID: For what? If - everybody should just pack the boxes. You want to get paid like a manager, work to be a manager.

HOGAN: But Shade Clarke disagrees.

SHADE CLARKE: Voting yes, of course. I'm all for the union. They told me to vote no. And I don't trust any corporation telling me what to do anyway.

HOGAN: The election ends next Wednesday. And the vote tally is expected a few days after that. But workers here say this is just the beginning. Next month, a second vote is scheduled for the warehouse right across the street.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Singing) What do we really want? A strong union.

HOGAN: For NPR News, I'm Gwynne Hogan in New York.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Singing) I said, billionaires - they got to go.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Billionaires - they got to go. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.