Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

More than 2,000 workers at four Amazon facilities in Staten Island, US have signed a petition asking federal labour officials to greenlight an election to form a new union, the latest spasm of labour strife between the e-commerce giant and its large blue-collar workforce.

The newly formed Amazon Labor Union must submit signatures from 30% of the workers to meet federal requirements. The facilities on Staten Island employ approximately 7,000 people. The National Labor Relations Board will determine whether the organisers have met the threshold to hold an election.

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

The group’s president, Christian Smalls, worked for Amazon for four-and-a-half years and was fired in 2020 after participating in demonstrations protesting against the company’s Covid-19 policies. Smalls alleged his firing was retaliatory, but Amazon said he violated safety guidelines.

The ALU has been organising for the past six months, hosting barbecues and handing out water near Amazon warehouses in the New York borough. Organisers say Amazon has already been employing “union-busting” tactics to create doubt in workers’ minds about the benefits of membership.

Amazon workers at a fulfilment centre in Bessemer, Alabama, voted not to join a union in April. But the results were challenged, and a federal official recommended that the labour board hold a fresh election. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which led that campaign, alleged Amazon influenced the election by intimidating workers and pressuring them to cast votes in a mailbox the company had installed on its property in view of security cameras. Amazon denied any wrongdoing.

The Teamsters, whose members include delivery drivers for United Parcel Service (UPS), are trying to organise Amazon warehouse workers in Canada.

The organisers of the union effort on Staten Island are bracing for pushback from the company. The first battle could come over which employees qualify for union representation, a classic tactic by employers looking to quash union elections.  

Some Amazon warehouse workers in Europe belong to unions, but the company’s vast logistics workforce in the US isn’t unionised. Amazon says its warehouse workers earn at least $15 hour — a point it repeatedly hammered in Bessemer, where such wages go a lot further than they do in New York. However, union members working in transportation and warehousing earned 34% more than non-union workers in 2020, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The pandemic put a spotlight on the plight of so-called essential workers, including those in Amazon’s logistics and delivery operations, whose labour helped many people reduce their Covid-19 exposure by having goods delivered to their homes. Growing public support for such workers has helped revive the hopes of US labour organisers. 

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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