The battle between labor organizers and an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island is turning ugly ahead of a union vote this month—one that could make the New York package hub the company’s first facility with a unionized workforce.
Last week, the NYPD arrested three union activists at the warehouse after a manager complained that one of them was trespassing. Chris Smalls, a former employee and thorn in the side of billionaire founder Jeff Bezos, was delivering catered chicken and pasta for a union luncheon when at least five cops confronted him in the facility’s visitor parking lot and demanded he leave.
Bystander footage revealed the local precinct’s top cop showed up to the 911 call targeting Smalls, who is president of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) and fighting to unionize the “fulfillment center” known as JFK8. Amazon’s war with Smalls has been simmering since 2020, when he led a walkout over unsafe working conditions during COVID. At the time, Vice exposed internal memos indicating that Bezos and other Amazon bigwigs discussed a plan to smear Smalls by calling him “not smart or articulate” and make him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement” to discredit unionization. Critics and union crusaders decried the comments about Smalls, who is Black, as racist.
Smalls formed ALU in April of 2021. “Ironically they made me the face of the whole unionizing effort,” he told The Daily Beast. “So I said, ‘OK, good idea.’”
During Smalls’ arrest, an NYPD Deputy Inspector declared, “Listen, we’re going to ask you to, on behalf of Amazon—” before Smalls interrupted in surprise: “You’re protecting Amazon, now?” The cop answered, “I’m not protecting anyone. You’re trespassing.” An assistant general manager, who fired Smalls in 2020, was captured in the video looking on as police addressed his former foe.
Moments later, cops handcuffed employee organizers Brett Daniels and Jason Anthony for obstruction of government administration. The workers had challenged officers for accosting Smalls, and one officer warned Daniels not to get too close and pushed him away. Daniels appeared to push back before he was tackled. Police then frisked Smalls for weapons against a squad car and charged him with obstruction, resisting arrest and trespassing. Before he left, one officer told a worker recording the incident: “We won. You lost.”
The episode marked another clash between the ALU—a crowdfunded and worker-led effort—and the $1.6-trillion multinational corporation that is America’s second-largest private employer behind Walmart. The e-commerce behemoth is simultaneously battling two historic union votes: at JFK8 and at a Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse known as BHM1. (Bessemer voted against unionization last spring, but federal labor officials ordered a do-over after finding Amazon had illegally pressured employees to reject it.)
Now Amazon will likely contend with a third election. On Wednesday, the ALU announced the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) approved a second Staten Island warehouse for a union vote, though a date hasn’t yet been scheduled.
The Bessemer employees in Alabama, who will decide on joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, received their ballots in the mail in early February and have until March 25 to return them. Votes will be counted on March 28. On Staten Island, workers will vote in person at the warehouse from March 25 to March 30.
“They know the momentum is building by these luncheons we’re doing,” Smalls told The Daily Beast of his former employer. “They try to intimidate us, intimidate organizers. They’re fearful of the possibility that this would be the first building to ever be unionized.”
Smalls and ALU activists say they’re communicating with Amazon warehouse workers across the country asking for help in organizing their own facilities.
“This is monumental, this is a potential Starbucks situation, where one building gets done, and there’s a tidal wave across the country,” Smalls added, referring to the coffee chain’s workers in Buffalo, New York, becoming the first to unionize. “That’s what we want.”
“I find it strange how a month before the election everyone gets called down to the office and gets write-ups.”
The union wave also swept an Amazon Fresh store in Seattle, where organizers are reportedly threatening to strike if their demands including a $25-an-hour wage aren’t met.
According to Smalls and ALU organizers, Amazon has escalated its “union-busting” playbook ahead of Staten Island’s vote and is retaliating against supporters.
On Tuesday, Amazon sent a mass text message to JFK8 personnel warning against volunteers who were door-knocking as part of ALU’s campaign. “We’ve received complaints that the ALU is going to your homes uninvited and unannounced,” Amazon texted its roughly 5,600 warehouse staff. “We are sorry that they are choosing to do this, but we’re legally required to release eligible associates’ contact information to the ALU. These individuals do NOT represent Amazon. You can let them know that you don’t wish to be contacted.”
Amazon’s automated message concluded: “Amazon respects your privacy and will not go to your home, unless we are delivering for a customer, of course!”
Still, not all employees say they’re voting for ALU to represent them. Dana Joann Miller told The Daily Beast she’s voting no, and has tweeted, “The ALU is unprofessional. Get another union in here and it’s a maybe.” The debate has sometimes permeated an employee Reddit forum, where one user skeptical of ALU said, “The dues are not what concern me, I need experienced workers when It comes to this…” and “This charade looks like someone’s trying to get back at amazon for being fired.”
Angelika Maldonado, a pro-union employee, told The Daily Beast that she believed ALU had enough experience because it’s made of workers like her. “We actually work there,” said Maldonado, a single mom who hopes the union can negotiate with Amazon for cheaper health care for families like hers. “To say we don’t have experience, that’s saying we don’t know what we want collectively when we do. We want more time off, we want longer breaks. The only way we can make a change is if we start now.”
Meanwhile, the e-tailer is hosting daily captive audience meetings where labor consultants have encouraged employees to vote against ALU, including by warning them that unionizing could lead to their pay being cut down to minimum wage. (Workers at the Staten Island fulfillment center start at $18.25 an hour and usually work 10- to 12-hour shifts.) The company has obligated Bessemer employees to attend similar presentations. “More and more workers keep telling us their anti-union propaganda is making them want to join the union more,” Daniels said.
The company has also created a website dedicated to fighting the ALU with a banner at the top declaring: “Let’s keep JFK8 one team!”
“An anti-union consultant for Amazon allegedly told employees that the ALU would fail because its leaders were “thugs.””
And, in the past two weeks, three employee agitators were called to HR and disciplined for allegedly tearing down the company’s anti-union posters. (A fourth organizer said HR tried to bring her into a private meeting but they disagreed on whether she could have a representative present. She expects to be reprimanded at her next shift.)
In response to The Daily Beast’s questions about the captive audience meetings, Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said: “It’s our employees’ choice whether or not to join a union. It always has been. If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site which is why we host regular informational sessions and provide employees the opportunity to ask questions and learn about what this could mean for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”
Smalls, Daniels, and Anthony spent six hours in a precinct holding cell after the catering-related bust. After they were released, they returned to supply meals for employees on the night shift without incident. “I should have been treated like any other delivery service whether it’s Dominos Pizza, whether it’s Uber Eats, I was delivering catered food to the cafeteria,” Smalls said. “But that day they decided to threaten us and call the cops on us.”
Asked about the employees’ arrests, Nantel said, “Mr. Smalls—who is not employed by Amazon—has repeatedly trespassed despite multiple warnings. On Feb. 23, when police officers asked Mr. Smalls to leave, he instead chose to escalate the situation and the police made their own decision on how to respond.”
The spokeswoman claimed Amazon didn’t call the police on the employees, dismissed Smalls’ characterization that he was only delivering food and not soliciting, and said company lawyers have previously warned Smalls against trespassing. Smalls has tweeted a legal letter from corporate himself, which warned, “Amazon reserves all its legal rights and remedies should non-employee ALU members continue to attempt to access Amazon’s property for the purpose of engaging in solicitation.”
Core employee organizers told The Daily Beast that Amazon is now targeting them. Daniels said that after his arrest, an Amazon manager walked him to the HR office to receive a warning about removing company literature. He refused to discuss the matter without a coworker present, but later on, another supervisor approached him at his station and delivered the writeup. Daniels was attempting to invoke the Weingarten rights afforded to union employees under federal law, and ALU recently appealed to NLRB to allow these rights for the Amazon workers and all of America’s non-union employees.
“Not only did the arrest happen, but immediately after, on my next shift going in, they reprimanded me,” Daniels said. “We feel that they’re retaliating against ALU organizers for speaking up and unionizing.”
Connor Spence was also disciplined this week and considers the situation an unfair fight. “Amazon has been aggressive at removing our union literature, confiscating it from us, tearing it down, prohibiting us access, threatening to call the police on us, actually calling the police on us,” he told The Daily Beast. “They did all that and got a slap on the wrist in some cases. When we do the same type of activity [removing fliers], we get disciplined.”
Derrick Palmer, another worker reprimanded by managers, said, “I find it strange how a month before the election everyone gets called down to the office and gets write-ups.” A fourth employee and activist, Justine Medina, claimed HR tried to pull her into a private meeting but the conversation stalled after she asked for a representative to witness it.
Seth Goldstein, a lawyer for the ALU, has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB about the arrests, claiming Amazon violated a national settlement agreement reached with the federal agency in December. He’s also lodged charges over Amazon’s discipline of organizers and captive audience meetings, saying they violate labor laws. Goldstein previously filed other charges accusing Amazon of surveillance of union members’ activities, interrogating employees, and threatening employees “that unionization is futile.” According to another charge, Bradley Moss, an anti-union consultant for Amazon, told employees that the ALU would fail because its leaders were “thugs.”
The consultant’s use of the term was unsettling because more than 60 percent of the facility’s workforce are people of color, as are many of ALU’s activists. “The union busters called us thugs,” Palmer said. “Clearly it’s a majority of minorities who are organizing, so how did you come up with that?”
Another charge that especially troubles Goldstein relates to Daequan Smith, a former Amazon employee who had been commuting to Staten Island from a homeless shelter in the Bronx and was allegedly fired in November because of his union activities. The NLRB agreed Amazon illegally terminated Smith and said it would file a complaint if the company doesn’t settle with him.
“We’re all collateral damage to Amazon,” said Goldstein, who represents the organizers pro bono. “While Bezos is laying on his billion-dollar yacht with his girlfriend, Daequan is in a homeless shelter. How is that right? That’s outrageous.”
“We have workers that are trying to form a union off a crowdfunding mechanism, that are independent of a union, and chose to go that way,” Goldstein told The Daily Beast. “They’re going up against a trillion-dollar company.”
“This whole thing is not just a Staten Island thing,” he said. “This is a national issue. I think at the end of the day, so goes Amazon, so goes labor rights in the United States.”
The union fight follows years’ worth of complaints about the grueling, fast-paced conditions at about 110 warehouses nationwide. To feed the company’s quotas for high-speed package deliveries, many “fulfillment center” employees have struggled with work-related injuries and mental health crises. Some workers skip bathroom and lunch breaks, fearing they’ll be fired if they don’t keep up with demand since employee performance is tracked by company software, and managers monitor workers’ time away from their stations. According to The New York Times, the turnover rate for Amazon’s hourly associates is 150 percent per year, or a loss of 3 percent of employees each week. (Amazon delivery drivers say they’re facing similar problems. A North Carolina man recently sued Amazon after he lost his leg in an accident with a driver and blamed the company’s “unrealistic and dangerous speed expectations” for its workforce’s package deliveries.)
Amazon is also under fire over the death of six employees in Edwardsville, Illinois, who were killed when a tornado obliterated their facility. The family of one victim, Austin McEwen, has filed a lawsuit alleging Amazon “carelessly required” workers to “continue working up until the moments before the tornado struck.”
The deadly storm delayed Amazon’s plan to reinstate a ban on employee cellphones inside warehouses. Before COVID, workers were required to leave their phones in their cars or stow them in company lockers during their shifts, and rumors are swirling that the mandate will return after union elections. “It improves our working conditions just a little bit to be able to have our phones on breaks or to contact family members on the outside if you have an emergency,” Spence said. “It’s one of the biggest pressure points workers are seeing right now. Not having your phone in the warehouse is like being in solitary confinement.”
Staten Island organizers told The Daily Beast they feel that conditions haven’t improved within the windowless warehouse large enough to hold 18 football fields. “They’re starting to get back into writing people up if you don’t hit their target rates,” Medina said. “In the department I’m currently in… you’re supposed to pack two packages a minute.”
Throughout January, workers say, JFK8 mandated 60-hour work weeks. “They see an opportunity for profit, they take it,” Spence said. “I was shocked they did that, because it sent a lot of people our way.”
ALU advocates say they hope their fight will also win over Amazon customers.
“It’s not just as simple as one-click buy and a package magically appears on your doorstep,” Smalls told us. “You’re putting multiple people at risk every time you do that. I’ve watched ambulances pull up to this warehouse. These are the stories consumers don’t hear about. We’re asking them to stand in solidarity with the workers.”
“We’re the ones who represent the community they live in,” Smalls said. “Not the billionaires, not Jeff Bezos, who flies into space and comes back and thanks us for paying for it.”