Josefa Velasquez, THE CITY
Up against the online megaretailer, Staten Island Amazon warehouse workers did the unthinkable with just $100,000: beat Jeff Bezos
Scrappy Staten Island workers succeeded in winning America’s first Amazon union while organizers backed by a major union are likely to fall short on their second try in Alabama, despite celebrity endorsements and support from high profile political leaders.
The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) scored a historic win as the National Labor Relations Board wrapped up the unionization vote count Friday afternoon, with the union pulling ahead by more than 500 votes in the final count. That paves the way for the organization to become the first Amazon warehouse to unionize in the United States.
Those who led the historic New York charge say they prevailed in their battle with the multi-billion dollar online retail giant because they were able to gain trust and traction with peers.
“At the end of the day having workers organize the workers, I feel like that was really the game changer because I don’t think Amazon ever expected that to happen,” Derrick Palmer, the vice president of organizing for the Amazon Labor Union and a worker at the company’s JFK8 warehouse, told THE CITY.
“So having, you know, pretty much running an unorthodox campaign, like how we did, I think that was really it. You know, just resonating with the workers.”
With just $100,000, largely raised through a GoFundMe, and some volunteer help, an independent group of current and former Amazon workers at the warehouse on Staten Island pulled off the unthinkable Friday — they beat the world’s biggest retailer outside of China.
They argued back against Amazon’s anti-union messaging at compulsory worker meetings, and publicized their cause with TikTok videos, some shot from inside the warehouse.
“You have to have a different approach. You have to do something innovative and I feel like the barbecues resonated, the t-shirts resonated, the fact that we stood up during the captive audience meetings resonated because that hasn’t really been done like that,” said Palmer. “So we had to show the workers that we got a lot of fight in us and that we’re not gonna back down.”
But organizers of what one of their ranks called a “ragtag” bunch had spent nearly a year laboring almost invisibly and on their own, a footnote to the Alabama campaign and largely cast aside as a quixotic venture.
Palmer’s partner in organizing the Amazon Labor Union, 33-year-old union president Christian Smalls, says he didn’t let outsiders’ skepticism that he and his co-workers could pull off the David-versus-Goliath campaign discourage him.
“It’s never too late to get on board. But damn, like you know, it’s been almost a year without that support. But we’ve forgiven that as well. That’s why I told my team, ‘It doesn’t matter who’s here or who’s coming. We’ve got to organize who’s around us’ and that’s what we’ve based this campaign off of and it paid off for us.”
Smalls was a former Amazon supervisor at JFK8 who was fired in the spring of 2020 for allegedly breaking safety guidelines after organizing a protest over inadequate COVID-safety measures.
Palmer says they as much predicted the sudden outpouring of love now that they’ve emerged victorious.
“It’s funny because me and Chris and the guys we discussed this. We said ‘look, if we win, people are gonna come out of nowhere, congratulate us and claim they support it.’ But we all know who’s really been supporting us,” said Palmer.
‘Bernie Tweeted at Us!’
Outside the National Labor Relations Board office in Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center, curious onlookers gawked at the group of mostly millennial and Gen-Z organizers and supporters who lingered outside eating pizza off of paper plates, still in a state of disbelief.
“Bernie tweeted at us!” proclaimed one supporter to the union’s treasurer, Madeline Wesley.
She didn’t think she could ever stop crying from happiness, Wesley told her colleagues who teased her to stop crying and join them in a picture. Meanwhile, Palmer and others FaceTimed friends and family screaming from excitement as one passerby noticed the red ALU sweatshirt on Smalls and gave him a thumbs up and words of encouragement.
“Way to go. Go union,” said the older man walking through the MetroTech plaza.
For Smalls, who has been stationed for months at a Staten Island bus stop where he chats up workers about the benefits of joining a union, essentially living out of a black Chevrolet Suburban across the street from the warehouse, it still feels unreal.
“I can’t explain it,” he said. “This is literally 11 months in the making. This moment, it hasn’t really soaked in yet. I’m trying to stay calm, but I know we poured in a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears into this. I’m so happy to even still be doing this two years later.”
“I can’t wait to tell my kids and show them what their dad did,” said Smalls, who cut his rising career as a rapper short in his early 20s when he found out he was going to become a father to twins.
“Without my kids, I don’t think I would have been able to continue. I know they love me and they know the time away from them was to help people’s lives,” he added.
As the ballot count got underway Thursday, votes in favor of joining the ALU consistently pulled ahead of the no votes, a sign that things were looking up for the union even though their colleagues down south were struggling to gain ground.
Over the span of five hours Thursday afternoon, federal workers opened up cardboard boxes and dumped light blue ballots into a large clear plastic container, patiently unfolding the papers and tallying the votes as representatives for Amazon and the ALU looked on.
It became clear that the union was on the path to victory, said Palmer.
“I realized it yesterday, but I wanted to still remain humble because, you know, anything is possible. I felt like yesterday there was a large number of yeses at one time,” he said.
When the count concluded Friday afternoon, Amazon’s lawyers shook the organizers’ hands, Palmer recounted. “They had to accept it”
A Day Off
Amazon isn’t conceding just yet.
A spokesperson for the company said in a statement that they plan on filing objections “based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”
While the federal agency rebuked Amazon’s claim, the NLRB is expected to certify the election later this month once objections are filed.
Still to come is a unionization vote at the Amazon sorting center across the street from JFK8, known as LDJ5, a smaller facility of roughly 1,500 employees that’s also being organized by the ALU. Voting is slated to begin there on April 25.
But the union has their sights set beyond organizing workers on Staten Island.
Amazon workers from around the country have already been contacting the Amazon Labor Union to seek help organizing their job sites, Smalls said.
“We want to be able to help them now that we have the union to do so. Hopefully resources come behind that and then hopefully we’ll be able to give resources out,” said Smalls, behind a dark pair of sunglasses.
As for Palmer, he would like to start organizing workers at his old warehouse in Robbinsville Township, New Jersey, where he first started working for Amazon.
Palmer, who still works at the fulfillment center 10 hours a day from Wednesday through Saturday, has a shift tomorrow at JFK8.
“But I’m not going.”
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
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