Amazon’s Already Busted Out Its Anti-Union Playbook in Staten Island

Amazon’s Already Busted Out Its Anti-Union Playbook in Staten Island
In this March 30, 2020, file photo, workers at Amazon's fulfillment centre in the Staten Island borough of New York protest work conditions in the company's warehouse. (Photo: Bebeto Matthews, AP)

A bootstrap Amazon unionisation effort is underway in Staten Island, and lo and behold, Amazon is firing up the union-busting campaign early. We’ve heard allegations that it threatened Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse workers with shutting down the warehouse amid their attempt to unionise. Now it’s just dumping a crock of misinformation out in the open.

Organisers have shared Amazon’s internally disseminated bulleted guide for employees on how to not sign a union authorisation card. Similar messages were photographed on TV screens, which organisers say were installed in the JFK8 facility. The “information” sews seeds of distrust in organisers and deliberately twists unionisation as a forfeiture of rights.

The full memo, titled “What You Need to Know About Union Authorisation Cards,” dated April 24th, reads:

If approached to sign a union authorisation card, know the facts!

  • Protect Your Signature: You are under no obligation to speak with or to share your personal contact information with anyone off property, especially if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Speak For Yourself: Union authorisation cards are legally binding and authorise the union to act as your exclusive representative. This means you give up the right to speak for yourself.
  • Don’t Sign Away Your Choices: Signing a union authorisation card may also obligate you to pay the union a monthly fee.

Setting aside the fear-mongering portrayal of labour organisers as shady dudes trying to collect your information under cover of darkness on a footpath, let’s get to the facts!

  • Claim: Union authorisation cards automatically authorise the union to act as your sole representative. Reality: Sure, this is a scary way of saying that in any unionisation process you will pick a union to join before unionising. But the union isn’t “authorised” in the sense that it represents you yet. This only happens once 30% of workers sign union cards and, after that, the majority of workers (50% of employees, plus one) vote in favour of unionising.
  • Claim: You can’t speak for yourself! Reality: Currently, beyond internal chain-of-command and HR complaints, Amazon employees have turned to voicing their dissatisfaction with risky protests in their off-hours and filing tedious complaints and expensive lawsuits with the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) if the company retaliates against them (e.g., unjustly firing them) for speaking. A union protects them from retaliation for using their voice. A union does not preclude anyone from talking to a manager.
  • Claim: A union authorisation card may rope you into a “monthly fee.” Reality: Presumably Amazon is referencing dues here. A union authorisation card is not the final vote to join the union, and, therefore, that alone will not obligate you to pay dues. (Unless a majority sign cards and Amazon voluntarily recognises the union, which it did not in Bessemer.)
  • Claim: You will be forced to join a union. Reality: In New York, workers only have to join a union and pay dues if the union bargains for a security clause in its contract. Workers do not have to pay fees until the contract is ratified, and they can come to consensus, amongst themselves, about whether they would like to include that clause.

As we saw in Bessemer — where an overwhelming majority reportedly signed authorisation cards and then voted no after an oppressive corporate anti-union campaign — Amazon will likely throw tens of thousands of dollars at efforts to convince workers that trying is hopeless and that they must accept what Amazon decides to give them. This is not true.

Organisers in Staten Island are using a more local strategy to tap into community trust by forming their own organisation, the Amazon Labour Union, from scratch. This departs from many traditional unionisation efforts, where organisers attempt to form a union under a stalwart organisation. (In Bessemer, for example, Amazon workers attempted to unite under the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)).

Leading the drive in Staten Island are Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer, two workers who were fired and disciplined, respectively, after organising a protest for covid-19 safety measures in Staten Island’s JFK8 warehouse. Amazon fired Smalls, a former JFK8 supervisor, for allegedly breaking a quarantine order the company issued him as the protest plans were made public. (Motherboard later revealed that the company plotted to attack Smalls with a smear campaign.) New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a wide-ranging lawsuit against Amazon for, among other things, allegedly retaliating against the two former employees.

Smalls and Palmer aren’t going the conventional route for this union drive. Typically, a union would keep its plans private before a union authorisation effort so as to stall the onslaught of anti-union propaganda. Smalls, who spoke to Gizmodo over the phone while pamphleting, said he thinks that coming out early will work to their advantage.

“I want to strike while the iron is hot,” he said while intermittently greeting former coworkers. “Emotions are high because of Bessemer, and putting everything on Front Street is helping us get the information out. People got to understand, at Amazon, you work long hours, get home from work, and you’re tired,” he added. “If you have kids, you’re not going to be in tune with what’s going on with the controversy unless you hear about it.”

When asked why Smalls didn’t accept the support of a larger union, he said they’re trying to rewrite the playbook for a new generation of unions. “We want to incorporate something new and something more 21st century. A lot of these unions are traditional, which is not a bad thing. But we want to make sure that we include the younger generation.” This means a more personal social media presence and organising online without a union hall. They can also tap into a more general faith in unions in New York City, where a lot of people are married to union members.

He paused momentarily to tell a passerby: “Come on and sign, I know the rumours are buzzing… yeah, I’m the one they fired.”

Smalls believes a familiar face is more likely to persuade people to unionise, rather than an outside organisation that has to win over workers from scratch with limited personal access. Before the drive, he’d warned workers that Amazon would send these kinds of messages seen above and call them into meetings with managers. “They came back to me the next day and were like, you were right,” he said. “So they understand how Amazon is going to lie to them.”

In a statement to Gizmodo, Amazon recycled familiar lines. “We respect our employees’ right to join, form, or not join a union, without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or harassment,” the company wrote in a statement, which went on to extol high worker pay (in New York, minimum wage), benefits, and “opportunities for career growth,” the last of which has been disputed by numerous employees and ignores Amazon’s exceptionally high turnover rate. The company also directed us to their great ratings on LinkedIn and Forbes.