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Economy

Amazon workers in New York take their first step toward a union

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, Amazon warehouse workers in New York plan to take the first formal step toward forming a union. The move could potentially affect thousands of employees at Amazon facilities on Staten Island. We should note, Amazon is among NPR's sponsors.

We've got NPR's Alina Selyukh with us to explain all of this. Hey, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello. Hello.

MARTIN: So first step to unionizing - what exactly does that mean?

SELYUKH: So these folks packing and shipping stuff that people buy around New York, which is a massive market - and they're trying to set up a union vote. And to do that, organizers say they've collected signed cards from some 2,000 warehouse workers in favor of a union election. And today they plan to deliver these cards to the original labor board, asking it to authorize such an election. Usually this kind of push is backed by a major union. It's worth noting, here that's not the case. The Staten Island organizers call themselves the Amazon Labor Union, but really, it's a self-organized grassroots campaign financed by GoFundMe. They've been holding barbecues, handing out water and coffee as people leave work, setting up fire pits with s'mores - very sort of scrappy worker activism.

MARTIN: And explain what these workers are looking for by organizing.

SELYUKH: Sure. I talked to Chris Smalls, who is leading the Staten Island group. And he says the demands are longer breaks, better options for medical and other leave and higher wages. Amazon recently raised its average starting pay to $18 an hour, which is more than many competitors. But Smalls says, even that is not enough in an expensive place like New York.

CHRIS SMALLS: When you live in New York area, I can tell you now, making $18, you can forget about it. You still need a second source of income. Like, most of these workers do have a second job, or they still get government assistance. We need to raise the bar higher, especially when you're talking about one of the richest retailers in the world that can afford to do it.

SELYUKH: It's worth noting that nationwide, unionized workers in transportation warehousing tend to earn more than non-unionized workers.

MARTIN: So what's Amazon said to these to these complaints by workers?

SELYUKH: Amazon has long argued that unions are, quote, "not the best answer." In the latest statement, the company says it's constantly making improvements and that would be harder with unions in the middle. Amazon is now one of the world's largest employers and has so far fought off union attempts in the U.S. Smalls says, on Staten Island, the company has already been posting anti-union signs around the warehouses and even mounted a fence with barbed wire to push organizers further from the buildings. Amazon did not comment on that. A note about Smalls, too - that he led a walkout/protest at the start of the pandemic and was later fired.

MARTIN: So given all of that...

SELYUKH: Right.

MARTIN: ...What's the likelihood of a union effort being successful in Staten Island?

SELYUKH: It's hard to say. So far, the closest an Amazon warehouse has gotten was the spring, when workers in Alabama voted on joining a retail union and voted overwhelmingly against it. Now they might get a revote, as a federal labor official found Amazon had tainted that election. Either way, their Staten Island colleagues definitely face lots of hurdles. And the first one will be at the National Labor Relations Board, which will scrutinize the signatures they've gathered. You know, are all those people still working at Amazon, for example? The group needs to show support from at least 30% of staff. And they believe they have more than enough already.

MARTIN: OK. NPR's Alina Selyukh, thank you.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.