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Grassroots labour group takes on Amazon in NYC union fight

NEW YORK (AP) – An independent group formed by former and current Amazon workers is trying to organise a company warehouse in New York City, a David and Goliath scenario that could lead to the retail giant’s first unionised facility in the United States (US).

Workers at an Amazon fulfilment centre in Staten Island will determine whether or not they want to form a union, with the vote count expected to begin soon.

A separate organising effort is currently underway in Alabama, where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union faces another tough challenge in a re-do election to unionise Amazon workers in the city of Bessemer.

In New York, the nascent Amazon Labour Union (ALU) has led the charge in a fierce labour fight, where the nation’s second-largest private employer has made every effort to fend off labour organisers and fired Amazon employee Chris Smalls, who now leads the fledging group.

The warehouse in Staten Island employs more than 8,300 workers, who pack and ship supplies to customers based mostly in the northeast. A labour win is considered an uphill battle. But organisers believe their grassroots approach is more relatable to workers and could help them overcome where established unions have failed in the past.

Elijah Ramos outside the Amazon fulfilment centre in Staten Island borough of New York. PHOTO: AP

Meanwhile, Amazon has pushed back hard. The retail giant held mandatory meetings, where workers were told unions are a bad idea. The company also launched an anti-union website targetting workers and placed English and Spanish posters across the Staten Island facility urging them to reject the union.

New York is more labour-friendly than Alabama, where the other union election is being held. But some experts believe that won’t make much of a difference in the outcome of the Staten Island election, citing federal labour laws that favour employers, and Amazon’s anti-union stance.

“The employer is the same, and that’s the key thing,” said sociologist of labour and labour movements at the City University of New York Ruth Milkman. “Amazon is resisting this with everything it’s got.”

The ALU said they don’t have a demographic breakdown of the warehouse workers in Staten Island and Amazon declined to provide the information to The Associated Press, citing the union vote. Internal records leaked to The New York Times from 2019 showed more than 60 per cent of the hourly associates at the facility were Black or Latino, while most of managers were white or Asian. But it’s unclear how the facility’s high turnover rate may have shifted things.