By Luis Feliz Leon

Workers cast 878 ballots at JFK8 Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island, N.Y. The tally broke down to 829 votes in favor of the affiliation and 14 against it; 10 ballots were spoiled.

Total turnout was 11 percent out of 8,000 workers. However, workers estimate the workforce has dipped to between 5,000 and 6,000 workers during the off-peak season.

A Teamsters statement said the union will now “represent the roughly 5,500 Amazon warehouse workers.” Turnout works out to 16 percent based on that number.

“On behalf of the Amazon Labor Union, I’m proud of our members choosing a path to victory. We’re now stronger than ever before,” said ALU President Chris Smalls in a statement.

“Having the support of 1.3 million Teamsters to take on Amazon gives us tremendous worker power and the opportunities to demand better conditions for our members and, most importantly, to secure a contract at JFK8.”

The affiliation agreement charters a new local known as Amazon Labor Union No. 1, International Brotherhood of Teamsters (ALU-IBT Local 1), for the five boroughs of New York City. That may signal that Amazon workers will not be integrated into existing locals with other Teamster crafts.

“Together, with hard work, courage, and conviction, the Teamsters and ALU will fight fearlessly to ensure Amazon workers secure the good jobs and safe working conditions they deserve in a union contract,” Teamsters President Sean O’Brien said in a statement.

The ALU is the fledgling independent union that sent shock waves through the labor movement two years ago when it won a landmark election to organize 8,000 workers at Amazon fulfillment center JFK8 on Staten Island.

The union’s current leadership and the reform caucus both backed the affiliation and had met together with O’Brien and other Teamster officials in Washington, D.C., on May 20, after weeks of conversations about what an affiliation would involve.

“The ratification vote by our members is a historic moment—and it sends a powerful reminder to Amazon that we’re not giving up in our years-long campaign for respect, better wages, and safe jobs,” said Connor Spence of the ALU Democratic Reform Caucus. Spence is running for president of the local and was one of the key organizers of union drive at JFK8.

“Affiliating with the Teamsters and chartering a strong, autonomous local union signals a new chapter for so many working people and for this industry.”

NEW ELECTION

Amazon workers will soon vote on their union leadership. The mail-in ballots go out June 27 with a return deadline of July 18. The American Arbitration Association is running the vote.

The affiliation agreement says the Teamsters “will provide resources to effectuate an internal election for ALU-IBT Local 1 in a manner so that potential officers may reach, with equal access, as many eligible members in JKF8 as possible.”

The internal election became possible only after the reform caucus sued the union last year for violating the ALU’s constitution because it “refused to hold officer elections which should have been scheduled no later than March 2023.”

The ALU was supposed to hold elections within 60 days after the National Labor Relations Board certified the union. But before the NLRB certification, the union’s leadership presented a new constitution to the membership, changing the timeframe for officer elections to after the union ratified a contract with Amazon.

The reform caucus asked a Brooklyn court to compel union leaders to hold an election. The court did so.

THE MAIN SLATES

Current and former members of the ALU executive board are running on the slate ALU-Ma-at, on a platform of truth, justice, and harmony—the qualities of the ancient Egyptian goddess Ma’at.

Leaders said the slate’s main focus is to get a contract. Claudia Ashterman is running for president, Tyrone Mitchell for vice president, Rina Cummings for recording secretary, and Arlene Kingston for secretary-treasurer.

The ALU-Ma-at slate is backed by Smalls, Derrick Palmer, Gerald Bryson, and Jordan Flowers—the founders of the Congress of Essential Workers that later formed the ALU.

The Amazon Labor Union Democratic Reform Caucus slate includes Spence for president, Brima Sylla for vice president, Kathleen Cole for secretary-treasurer, and Sultana Hossain for recording secretary.

This slate is proposing major reforms to the union: creating a system of stewards, allowing members to vote on and approve budgets, hiring an external firm to conduct financial audits quarterly, and expanding the executive board from the current four officers to 20 to 30 JFK8 workers.

A third slate known as Workers First! is led by Michelle Valentin Nieves, a former ALU executive board member and a key leader in the union. It is made up of current JFK8 workers. Some of the people running on the other slates have been terminated, pending the results of unfair labor practice charges.

Ashterman and Kingston were key leaders in the successful union drive at JFK8. They mobilized Black Caribbean workers and helped build a culture of support by cooking West Indian staples like jerk chicken and curry goat. “To bring people together, people in the Caribbean cook,” said Ashterman, who has four years at Amazon.

The union was certified in January 2023. But Amazon has been pulling all the stops to challenge the election through the courts. Two and a half years later, it’s still refusing to bargain—and donations have dried up.

Amazon spent more than $3 million on anti-union consultants last year. The Teamsters told the ALU, according to the New York Times, that it has committed $8 million to support organizing at Amazon, including tapping the union’s strike fund of $300 million to aid in efforts to organize workers at the logistics behemoth.

“We didn’t know it would take so long to get a contract,” Ashterman said. “We depended on funds from whoever donated. That’s exhausted.”

Ashterman is known as a fighter inside the warehouse. “I had to fight Amazon tooth and nail for this walker,” she said. In 2020 she demanded that Amazon allow her to sit while she stuffed boxes. After multiple abdominal surgeries, she argued that with the high pace of work she could risk a fall without proper accommodations. Eventually the company agreed.

STEWARDS NETWORK

Hossain, running on the reform slate, said June 12 that she was voting yes on the affiliation—the Teamsters resources could help.

“But I do believe that organizing needs to happen bottom-up,” Hossain said. “It’s about the rank and file coming together and demanding more for themselves. And that is how we plan on organizing a national coalition.”

Reform caucus leaders say they’ve built a stronger organizational structure inside the warehouse than the official union has—including an informal steward structure and job actions like marching on the boss. The current ALU leaders have adopted a grievance handling process overseen by Rina Cummings who was paid to fulfill the role until the union ran out of funding. But the approach was more service-oriented, including helping workers apply for unemployment benefits.

Cummings shared the example of a worker who Amazon alleged had stolen a co-worker’s Uber Eats order. Because stealing was against company policy, Amazon denied the worker unemployment benefits.

That stands in stark contrast to the class struggle orientation of the ALU reform caucus.

While leafleting outside the warehouse entrance in June ahead of the Teamster affiliation vote, a handful of workers marched on Amazon management to deliver a petition demanding Juneteenth as a paid holiday, part of a petition coordinated across Amazon facilities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Jessica Marrero is one of the workers who has been supported by this stewards network. She credits Cole, another candidate on the reform slate, with walking her into HR and getting her reinstated. She had been fired for job abandonment after an injury.

“My hand got caught in the conveyor belt,” she said. “I ended up tripping over a bunch of boxes causing a sprain in my hands and in my wrist, and it caused a contusion between my fingers. They yell at you about safety, but they don’t do anything about safety in there.”

Since its blockbuster win in 2022, ALU’s efforts to make inroads at other Amazon facilities have gone down in defeat. The union has also faltered in efforts to bring Amazon to the bargaining table.

These organizing failures gave rise to the caucus, which won the right to hold democratic elections for the union’s top spots.

As the ALU struggled to advance further at Amazon, workers at the air cargo hub KCVG in Northern Kentucky, who had begun a card drive with ALU, voted in April to affiliate with the Teamsters. The tug and ramp workers at a nearby DHL facility had joined the Teamsters and won a lucrative first contract in January.

The Teamsters launched an Amazon Division last year to bring together various organizing efforts under one big tent. Teamster activists and staff have been involved over the past three years in supporting Amazon workers in building organizing committees in key metro regions across the country.

Amazon Teamsters have extended picket lines to other Amazon facilities, after delivery drivers organized in Palmdale, California, last April. These 84 workers were nominally employed by a contractor, Battle-Tested Strategies—one of 2,500 “delivery service partners” that carry out package deliveries while Amazon retains full control. Amazon illegally terminated their contract.

Since then, more independent groups organizing at Amazon have worked with the Teamsters, hoping the union can help them.

PERMATEMPS

Eligible voters in the ALU-IBT leadership election will include all current employees who are not seasonal workers.

That’s a sore point as Amazon has leaned into hiring more permatemps. Amazon organizers estimate a third of the warehouse is made of permatemps known as white badge holders. Permanent employees wear blue badges. Organizers say permatemps can’t hold those positions for more than eleven months, but Amazon promotes people into permanent positions arbitrarily.

Ray Bowie started working at JFK8 seven months ago and he said people in his same recruitment class have moved to blue badges while he hasn’t, in spite of asking HR about moving to a permanent role.

Amazon warehouses across the tri-state area, including the sortation center LDJ5 across the street from the JFK8 warehouse, are running a petition demanding conversion to permanent status after 30 days of employment.

Even though Bowie can’t vote in the officer election, he supports the union, citing a case involving his god-brother’s wrongful termination for job abandonment when security cameras showed him being wheeled out of the warehouse and put into an ambulance.

“Even one of his supervisors went to the hospital to visit him the next day, and he wound up getting fired because he couldn’t come to work because he hurt his leg,” said Bowie.

The worker found out he was terminated via an email. While hospitalized, he didn’t check his phone. “When he returned to work, he just tried to scan his badge to come in and it didn’t work.”

Like dozens of workers at the facility, the slog to get a contract hasn’t diminished their support for a union because their lives are replete with stories of how Amazon forces them to work long days to the point of injury and limits their time off, including to go to the restroom.

“Now I understand the amount of work that they expect us to do and the pay it just doesn’t add up,” said Bowie. “I mean, they really want you to be robots in there.”

As he said those words, I pointed to the hoodie he was wearing spelling out in bold white letters against navy blue: “JFK8 World Class-Talent Machine!”

article courtesy of Labor Notes

https://labornotes.org/2024/06/amazon-workers-affiliate-teamsters-next-electing-top-officers

Luis Feliz Leonis a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.luis@labornotes.org