Collective Ambitions: Amazon Workers on Their Union Fight

Sudip Bhattacharya


It was only Karen Ponce’s first week of work at the Staten Island Amazon facility known as JFK8, and she already felt like she’d just run a marathon. Her heart was beating madly in her chest. Sweat dripped down her face, and she felt an unremitting thirst. She found herself needing to continually drink water to hydrate, to help stay focused.

Later that day, Ponce would receive her very first write-up—an admonishment for taking, managers said, too many bathroom breaks over the course of a 12-hour shift. She’d been censured for not living up to Amazon’s inhuman performance standards. Her anxiety was mounting—she wondered if she could really keep up. After two more write-ups, she’d be at risk of losing her job.

“I almost broke down and cried,” she said. “I definitely became more paranoid after that.”

That was over a year ago. Since then, Ponce has learned better: at Amazon, if you don’t deny your needs to perform with machine-like efficiency, you risk your job. She cut down on hydrating. When she did have to use the bathroom, she was forced to run the long distance across the warehouse. All the while, the computer at her workstation would be monitoring even the tiniest slowdown in the number of customer orders she had scanned and stowed.

JFK8 is a colossal building, and a major hub of Amazon’s New York operations. It’s the largest Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, housing 6,000 of the 10,000 workers that are spread out across the borough’s total of four facilities. Working conditions there, as is so often the case when it comes to Amazon, are astonishingly grueling. Most workers are caught in a cycle in which they are relentlessly driven to work at an unbearable pace, for longer hours, with fewer and fewer breaks.

“Someone just passed out in my department,” Justine Medina, another worker at JFK8, messaged me recently. “Managers making sure no one else stops their work tho.”

Medina and others at the facility have played a crucial role in raising concerns over working conditions and demanding basic rights, including longer breaks. And now, they’re seeking to formalize their collective efforts. After some setbacks, including management’s firing of many of the workers who had expressed union sympathies, their chance has come: between March 25th and 30th, the Amazon employees at JFK8 will vote to determine whether they will be represented by Amazon’s first labor union.

The last time Amazon workers tried to organize a union, in Bessemer, Alabama, the vote failed. The corporate behemoth managed to stave off the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) organizing drive by employing various kinds of subterfuge. As a result, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) called for a re-do of that election, highlighting the underhanded tactics and undue pressure Amazon used against workers to stymie the nascent union. Things are no different in Staten Island: workers have filed 10 complaints with the NLRB alleging company interference.

Now, Amazon is contending with two union drives simultaneously: one from an established union, the RWDSU, and the new independent, unaffiliated Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island. If either the Bessemer do-over or the JFK8 petition is successful, workers will have organized a union within the corporate titan for the first time.

Derrick Palmer has been with Amazon for several years, first at a location in New Jersey, then at JFK8, which opened in 2018. In our conversation on Zoom, Palmer can’t help smiling as he recounts the absurdity he and others have been consistently put through.

Palmer is a “picker:” his job is to count items and place them on a conveyor belt to be prepped for shipment. He’s expected to run through the warehouse and retrieve the items from shelves, return to his workstation, and scan them—all within seven seconds. Management expects his overall output to hit a ludicrous 400 items per hour.

“I’ve done prior warehouse work, but when I got the Amazon warehouse job, it was a different ballgame,” he said.

Palmer takes a deep breath as he recounts the pressure that workers constantly feel. Some co-workers have lost up to thirty pounds, burning calories from the exertion of picking and storing items for shipment. The warehouse is enormous, and the needed items are sometimes found on high shelves near the ceiling, which must be reached by a ladder—while the timer ticks.

“I’ve dealt with people who’ve literally had injuries throughout their entire body,” Palmer said, wincing as he remembers.

Last year, The New York Times reported on data that revealed Amazon has a staggering 150 percent employee turnover rate, losing 3 percent of its workforce every week. Most are expected to be chewed up and spit out, frustrated or broken. This is, in part, by design: employees that are unwilling or unable to stay on are employees that won’t organize to demand better conditions. Long-haulers like Palmer are rare.

The union drive has been led by Palmer and a core group of other longtime employees. These include Chris Smalls, who earned some media attention last year when Amazon retaliated against him for raising concerns about the company’s response to COVID-19.

At the outset of the pandemic, Amazon’s management—much like a number of corporations, power elites, and Presidents—behaved as if the virus was not an issue. Social distancing was ignored, and PPE was not provided.

“It was a life-changing moment, a realization that something systematically is more of concern to Amazon than its workers’ rights,” Smalls said about that period of time, recalling the measures taken against him and others who had expressed similar worries. Some, like Smalls, lost their jobs; leaked company memos also revealed that Bezos and his top brass planned on publicly smearing Smalls and accusing him of breaking COVID protocol. (Smalls, who is Black, was described as “not smart or articulate” in internal executive emails.)

However badly he’d been treated, Smalls still found the firing and loss of income “devastating.” One can imagine the level of frustration, anger, and confusion: he was one of the outlier employees who had lasted years at Amazon, only to be tossed aside. That is a major fear for most workers in the neoliberal era, which has seen the bipartisan gutting of social welfare and labor unions. There are few, if any, places to turn to. Amazon relies on widespread financial desperation to maintain the constant stream of applicants needed to replace their workforce’s rapid attrition. (Amazon’s above-minimum wages, while loudly touted by the company as proof of their benevolent treatment of workers, are not at all remarkable for the warehouse industry.)

But Smalls knew there were others, including Palmer, who also recognized that Amazon was not going to change unless the workers themselves forced them to. There was power in that realization.

It is, of course, far less daunting to call for improvements, like wage increases or better safety conditions, when there are others beside you in the struggle. This is the liberating power of solidarity. Increasingly, there’s an understanding among workers that straining harder in the hopes of appealing to the bosses’ best intentions is fruitless—that change only comes when it is demanded.

The unionization drive at JFK8 officially began in April 2021. Smalls and some co-workers had spent the year touring the country from D.C. to L.A., talking to other Amazon employees and leading protests outside of mansions owned by Bezos himself. Around that time, Justine Medina, an experienced labor organizer, was recruited to get a job at the warehouse and help to unionize the workforce.

“This is the most physically and mentally taxing job I’ve worked,” Medina told me. She’d spent several months at the facility, first counting items, then working on the assembly line, putting shipments together. The 12-hour shifts are interminable, and employees find themselves exhausted by both the strenuous work and the constant racket of the warehouse, where the sound of grinding machines and loud alarms is punishingly incessant.

“Sometimes, my ears are ringing for hours after my shift is over,” she said. She says that much of her time after work, including the weekends, is spent simply recovering. Living life in this constant depletion, barely able to salvage bits of time for errands, allows little opportunity for the mind and body to heal.

In her first few months at JFK8, when Medina was a counter, she was under time pressure to count and scan 600 to 700 items per hour. Her section of the warehouse lacked for windows, and for any companionship.

“[Counters] make really dark jokes because they get so depressed and anxious from the isolation,” she said, “It feels like you’re by yourself, you’re isolated, you’re surrounded by gates and fencing, and security cameras.”

Karen Ponce also tells of how every day left her and her co-workers feeling sore, worn down. Each week felt like a year. But as the union campaign picked up, Ponce was still initially reluctant to commit herself. It wasn’t that she was unaware of what a union could do, of how it could shift power in the workplace. And after having worked at the facility for months now—after months of anxiety and stress had gnawed away at her—she was certainly well aware of the company’s flagrant hypocrisy. Its self-presentation as a dynamic workplace, sensitive to employees’ welfare, stood in stark contrast to the fundamental reality: that it relies entirely on its workers (“associates” and “team members”) to sacrifice their well-being, breaking down their bodies and minds, so that customers can receive their products in one day or less.

Still, Ponce remained hesitant about taking the leap from feeling discontentment to actually joining the union effort. Like Palmer and Smalls, Ponce had once thought it impossible that Amazon could ever be defeated.

“They email us, they text us, saying not to listen, not to be fooled by the people outside,” she said. The company has made a habit of repeatedly haranguing its employees, insisting that the union campaign is against their interests. Ponce had almost started to believe them: wasn’t the union a collection of outsiders, people who weren’t part of Amazon, who had their own separate interests from hers? And why participate? What were the chances they could win? She could lose her job, her only livelihood. As someone who had just graduated from college amidst both a pandemic and yet another economic recession, the thought of being unemployed was a nightmare.

“I was scared,” she admitted.

Smalls, Palmer, and Medina, among others who had formed a group of leaders over the last year, have been implementing what’s known as an “inside-outside” strategy. Workers in the factory are encouraged to be vocal about the union, wearing their union T-shirts and speaking to co-workers during their breaks. They recognized that there was no other way to push against Amazon’s overpowering dissemination of anti-union propaganda: they had to challenge it head-on.

Concurrently, organizers maintained a tent across the street from the facility, in which they would hand out literature and address workers’ and the public’s questions. Another key part of their strategy was to hold regular community events, like barbecues and movie nights, so that employees ould develop a sense of camaraderie beyond their on-the-job relationships—to become more to each other than just co-workers, strangers working the same line, the same shift.

Karen Ponce soon noticed the other workers in the facility wearing their shirts proudly, eagerly launching into conversations: a small but meaningful display of defiance that chipped away at the perception of management’s all-encompassing control. She began to question the company narrative. These were not outsiders; those wearing their pro-union shirts were employees like her, all of whom had invested so much time working there, struggling and suffering just as she had. Their willingness to raise their voices above the din made an impression on her.

“I first contacted them by email and text,” she said of the Amazon Labor Union. “I wrote down all my doubts and concerns about who they are and if they can explain to me how it works.” She was encouraged to drop by the tent; after speaking to other employees there, her doubts soon diminished. She could tell that the people leading the union were experienced and focused. She could tell that they knew what they were doing.  

After that point, she continued to learn more about the ALU, and about unions more generally. During some of her shifts, with her head down and her eyes focused on scanning—and while trying to suppress the need to pee—she would listen to audiobooks on unions, including some by notable organizer and strategist Jane McAlevey. Each day, when other workers showed up wearing their shirts to take their places on the line beside her, she felt more emboldened.

As Ponce spoke to me on the phone about her journey from reluctant observer to passionate union ally, she was on her way to JFK8, having grabbed some donuts to share in the breakroom. That day, it was her turn to speak to fellow workers and answer their questions about the effort.

“It helps a lot, seeing a familiar face.” She had known many of her co-workers for some time; they trusted her, or, at the very least, knew she was one of them.

The pace of the day-to-day has not slackened, and the pressures and anxieties of work in the warehouse remain unyielding. However, even on her most difficult days in the warehouse, Ponce no longer feels so alone in her concerns. Nor is she as intimidated by the towering edifice of the corporation.

Palmer describes a similar experience. This has been his first and (so far) only organizing struggle. He never would have imagined being part of a labor campaign when he’d first started working at Amazon.

“Amazon has never really been defeated. They bully people, and now you have our own workers finally standing up,” he said.

Palmer and his fellow organizers are planning on knocking on residents’ doors in the area, hoping to spread public awareness and garner local support. “There’s going to be phonebanking, more workers being recruited into being organizers,” Palmer expressed. His enthusiasm for the upcoming efforts was palpable even over Zoom. “The goal is to get other workers such as myself who had no intentions of organizing to get involved.”

So far, all of the organizers I spoke to have been heartened to see the campaign’s appeal to the others employed at JFK8. Still, victory will not be easy. Amazon has proven, in Bessemer and elsewhere, the lengths to which they will go in order to crush organizing drives. The fact remains that Amazon is a powerful force with effectively inexhaustible resources. However, the very fact that a union campaign has taken root is, in itself, highly significant. Amazon has long been a seemingly impenetrable bastion of corporate power, and a primary target for the labor movement. The traction gained by the RWDSU in Bessemer, and now, the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island—to say nothing of the remarkable spread of union activity at Starbucks and elsewhere—seems to indicate that the company won’t be able to stamp out collective action forever. Win or lose, Palmer, Medina, Smalls, Ponce, and the other ALU organizers plan to continue taking the fight to Amazon—both at the JFK8 facility and at the company’s numerous other warehouses across the country. Soon, Ponce has to end our call—she’s getting ready to rush inside and chat with her fellow workers. But before she hangs up, I hear a note of confidence enter her voice as she tells me: “I know this is going to spread.”♦

 

You can donate to the Amazon Labor Union at this link.


Sudip Bhattacharya serves as a co-chair of the Political Education Committee at Central Jersey DSA and is a writer based in New Jersey, having been published in Current Affairs, CounterPunch, Reappropriate, and The Aerogram, among other outlets. Prior to pursuing a Ph.D in Political Science at Rutgers University, he had worked full-time as a reporter across the mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

Images courtesy of the Amazon Labor Union.

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