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Staten Island Amazon Organizer Says Workers There Are Ready to Unionize


Last fall Chris Smalls, a former supervisor at Amazon's JFK8 facility in Staten Island who claims his firing two years ago was retaliation for his organizing a protest against lack of coronavirus protections, was confident he could gain a union-representation election even though he had produced the bare minimum of 30 percent of employees signing cards demonstrating interest.

But when the National Labor Relations Board checked to verify that enough signers were still employed there to meet that threshold, he got a rude awakening, Mr. Smalls said Jan. 31: "Nearly half of the workers that were signed up had been terminated."

Quickly Renewed His Efforts

He said he was skeptical about the NLRB's finding that there were 7,100 workers at the facility, saying that during his time there, the number didn't exceed 5,500. But even pegged to that number, the percentage of eligible signers fell well short of the threshold.

Large unions seeking to organize a workforce strive to get at least 50 percent of the potential bargaining unit to sign cards, both to show their strength to all employees there and to withstand employer challenges to the eligibility of some of those who declared their interest.

A few of our stories and columns are now in front of the paywall. We at The Chief-Leader remain committed to independent reporting on labor and civil service. It's been our mission since 1897. You can have a hand in ensuring that our reporting remains relevant in the decades to come. Consider supporting The Chief, which you can do for as little as $2.25 a month.

Mr. Smalls, who quickly regrouped and got the NLRB Jan. 26 to authorize an election based on what he said were roughly 2,500 signatures from an employee group the board placed at 6,000, said he didn't seek to get half of them signed up for both practical and tactical reasons.

"This isn't a Starbucks," he explained, referring to the success over the past two months at a couple of Buffalo branches of the designer-coffee chain that gained union status with fewer than 20 members voting in favor. "To get 50 percent [sign-ups] in an Amazon warehouse is impossible. I could sign up 50 people now, but by the end of the week they'd be done" if management learned of their support.

It is an effort that he has led without the help of a large union like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has a far-larger organizing effort under way at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

Intimidation Expected

That vote, in a deep-red state whose right-to-work status means that if the RWDSU prevailed—ballots were to be mailed out Feb. 4 and were to be tallied beginning March 28—employees wouldn't be required to join the union, is a rerun of an election held a year earlier in which the NLRB determined that intimidation tactics by Amazon compromised the outcome to its benefit.

Similar efforts at the Staten Island facility have been deployed already. The day after it authorized an election, the NLRB Jan. 27 issued a complaint from Regional Director Kathy Drew King alleging that Amazon "repeatedly broke the law by threatening, surveilling, and interrogating their Staten Island warehouse workers who are engaged in a union-organizing campaign."

Mr. Smalls said that despite being sanctioned in the Bessemer case for setting up a voting facility on the premises that could be filmed by Amazon's security cameras, the company was seeking to build a tent outside the Staten Island facility—which he said would presumably be used to conduct voting if its request to hold an in-person election was granted—"that will give the impression they're trying to control the election."

'Like High School 2.0'

By itself, that would be enough to intimidate some workers, he said, because "Amazon is like High School 2.0: it only takes one rumor to spread."

Mr. Smalls said that would ordinarily not be reason enough for him to object to in-person voting, "if it wasn't for COVID. There's 500 people in quarantine; there's double-digit cases every day right now."

The lack of adequate safety protections he said continue to exist at the facility led him to organize a protest there nearly two years ago in which employees walked out of the warehouse during the early days of the pandemic. He was fired soon after, with management denying it was retaliation for his role in the walkout, claiming instead that Mr. Smalls had violated its virus protocols.

"I'm still confused as to what those protocols were," he said. "The real purpose [of the protest] was to call out that there weren't any safety protocols in place. They [initially] put me in quarantine because I was trying to organize the workers on health and safety. How could I be in violation of policies that didn't exist?"

AG Sued on His Behalf

State Attorney General Letitia James has launched a wrongful-termination lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Smalls in Manhattan Supreme Court.

Neither that legal action nor the NLRB rulings in recent days seem to have fazed Amazon. Spokeswoman Kelly Nantel told CNN Business following the election order, "We're skeptical that there are a sufficient number of legitimate signatures and we're seeking to understand how these signatures were verified."

Mr. Smalls said that Brad Moss, the president of the Burke Group, who was involved in the Amazon effort to thwart the RWDSU in Bessemer, had been summoned to Staten Island and "called us a bunch of thugs." Described Mr. Moss as a "union-buster," Mr. Smalls said he was coordinating activities including "captive-audience meetings" in which employees were summoned in groups to hear management's warnings about how unionizing could negatively affect their work lives.

He said there would be an April 5 hearing on those issues--one reason he opposed Amazon's bid to have the election conducted as soon as possible. A Feb. 16 NLRB hearing has been scheduled to decide on election dates and set ground rules.

Reining in Abuses

But a Dec. 23 settlement Amazon entered into with the NLRB requires the company to go forward with training concerning an election and workers' rights to vote for a union without fear of retaliation. It must also post signs regarding the vote "not just in the cafeteria but in bathroom stalls," Mr. Smalls said. It also mandates that any alleged violations of NLRB rules regarding the election go immediately before a Federal appeals court.

Mr. Smalls, who said he and those supporting what he has called the Amazon Labor Union, want the election to be held in late spring. Despite the obstacles they are facing, he said he was optimistic because of "the things we had to overcome just to get to an election. The energy we have."

Referring to the lack of a large union's infrastructure to sign up workers and deal with management tampering, he said the shoestring operation was "not traditional, but it's working. The way we've been able to connect with workers, it definitely makes me comfortable that these workers are responding. It's difficult for a third-party union to come in when they don't know the ins and outs of a company, the work environment."

He first came to work at Amazon in 2015 at another facility, and had been at JFK8 for just three years at the time of his firing. But Mr. Smalls said he benefited from working the night shift during his first year at the Staten Island facility, giving him the chance to become acquainted with those working that tour as well as those on the day shift after that.

They Know Who He Is

"I supervised hundreds if not thousands of workers on the two shifts" who are still employed there, Mr. Smalls said. "They can fire people every day, but I gave people the chance to move up, and a lot of them are managers now."

That status makes those employees ineligible to vote for a union, he noted, but "at least they won't participate in union-busting. I believe in our campaign."     

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