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Staten Island Amazon Workers Move To Unionize After Bessemer Defeat

Worker at Amazon JFK8 protesting the company's reaction to cases of coronavirus during a walkout in March.

A Staten Island Amazon warehouse that has been at the heart of an ongoing controversy over the company’s work conditions for over a year has taken the first steps toward unionization.

Just weeks after the first-ever Amazon union drive failed, a group of workers at the large JFK8 facility, who are part of The Congress of Essential Workers, has begun to push for an independent union at the Amazon center, nonprofit news organization Truthout reported Monday

TCOEW was started by Chris Smalls, a JFK8 employee who was fired in March 2020 hours after organizing a protest against conditions workers claimed were making them sick. Amazon has denied his firing was related to his organizing efforts, but the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that Amazon retaliated against Smalls and Gerald Bryson, another employee who was also instrumental in organizing the strike at the warehouse. 

The walkout set off a slew of strikes in warehouses across the country, even as Amazon rapidly expanded its real estate footprint to keep up with the huge increase in demand amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

The labor action culminated in the first-ever Amazon union vote at a newly opened warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The majority of workers at the warehouse voted against unionizing, but the union plans to challenge the vote.

The JFK8 group that is moving to organize said they believe it will be easier to establish a union at the Staten Island location because it’s an older warehouse and unionization is more feasible in New York, Truthout reported

“We have to take the bruises and pick it up where they left off. If anything it started a movement,” JFK worker Derrick Palmer told Truthout. “It’s going to be like a domino effect.” 

Palmer is one of the seven plaintiffs that took Amazon to court last year, claiming that, among other things, the company failed to protect employees and that unsafe workplace conditions put those that lived with workers at risk. A judge granted Amazon’s request to dismiss the suit in November, court records show.

This comes as another controversy is brewing for Amazon in Staten Island. An electrician claimed that conditions at an Amazon warehouse construction site were unsafe and that construction leaders failed to adhere to state policy and proper safety protocol, in a complaint filed with the New York City Department of BuildingsThe Real Deal reported Wednesday.  

Real estate experts don’t predict that unionization, even on a national scale, will stymie the rate of Amazon’s industrial real estate growth by very much. It grew its real estate holdings by 50% over the past year

“Amazon is a super-powered jet,” Geoffrey Kasselman, partner and senior vice president of workplace strategy at investment and development firm CRG, told Bisnow last month. “It is certainly not going to slow them down at all in the scheme of things.” 

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos addressed efforts to unionize in a letter to shareholders last week, in which he said he didn't feel comforted by the outcome of the Bessemer vote, saying that the company needs to “do a better job for our employees.” 

“While the voting results were lopsided and our direct relationship with employees is strong, it's clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees — a vision for their success," he said.