Amazon workers in New York plan to take an initial step toward forming a union. Organizers say they have collected some 2,000 signatures for a union vote from warehouse workers on Staten Island.



* Will Amazon beat back another attempt by workers to unionize? Well, a new Amazon unionization effort is underway in New York City.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Amazon, Amazon, you should know. Union busting's got to go. Amazon, Amazon, you should know.

MCCAMMON: Organizers from a Staten Island warehouse formally petitioned federal officials to authorize a union vote. NPR's Alina Selyukh is in New York, and she joins us now. And we should note that Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

Alina, welcome.


MCCAMMON: Tell us more about this union push.

SELYUKH: The most remarkable aspect here, I think, is the fact that this is a self-organized, independent worker campaign. Usually, a major union provides the backing for workers who want to go up against a major company, a big one like Amazon. But these workers from Staten Island have decided to go it alone in a grassroots campaign, trying to organize a cluster of warehouses there, where they estimate about 7,000 people work. The organizers call themselves the Amazon Labor Union. And today, about a dozen of them handed to labor officials here in Brooklyn four small plastic tubs filled with cards signed by warehouse workers who say they want a union vote. The group estimates they have about 2,000 signatures, which they think would be enough to authorize such an election.

MCCAMMON: So, Alina, you say there is no major union behind this group. Who, then, is organizing these workers?

SELYUKH: The president of the group is Chris Smalls. He's a former Amazon worker who's been kind of a central figure here. Early in the pandemic last year, he helped stage a protest and a walkout to protest working conditions. And that same day, Amazon fired him. The New York attorney general is now pursuing a legal case over that. And I spent much of today with Smalls, who has been camping out by the warehouses for six months, rallying about a hundred other organizers from the warehouses and filling his car with all the necessities.

CHRIS SMALLS: Do we have a grill? Yeah, we grill. We have a barbecue pit, a fire pit. We make s'mores for the workers at night, hand out hot chocolate, coffee.

SELYUKH: And all of that lives in your car.

SMALLS: All of this lives in my car.

SELYUKH: Also in his car are coolers, pamphlets, a speaker, a generator and those coveted union petitions.

MCCAMMON: He is ready to go. What's prompting this organizing push right now, Alina?

SELYUKH: In the past few years, Amazon's warehouse workforce has really ballooned across the country. And as it's grown into the second largest private employer in the U.S., more workers have been speaking out about working conditions there. And this particular warehouse in Staten Island has been fairly active in recent years. Early, like I mentioned, they had organized that walkout - pandemic related. And then since then, they've filed about 10 labor complaints against Amazon. So far, the National Labor Relations Board has found some merit in at least three of them. Smalls says their specific goals are to help workers win longer breaks, better medical leave options and higher wages.

MCCAMMON: So this unionization push is moving forward. But, Alina, how likely is it to succeed?

SELYUKH: It's going to be quite the challenge. Amazon has, for decades, successfully fought off labor organizing at its U.S. warehouses. The closest a warehouse has gotten so far was earlier this year in the spring, when workers in Alabama voted on whether to join a retail union. And they voted overwhelmingly against unionizing. Later, a federal labor official did find that Amazon's anti-union campaign tainted that election, so now Alabama workers might get a ruling to get a revote.

When I asked Smalls about why he thinks his group would succeed where a professional union didn't, he says they wanted to try something different.

SMALLS: You know, Amazon's been around for 27 years. And all these established unions have been around that had the expertise, the money, the resources. If it was that simple, it would have been done already. So maybe it's something that's different that needs to be done in not the traditional way. And I don't think that we organize traditionally. We do it our way. And our way is from a worker-led cooperative and from the inside out.

MCCAMMON: And what is Amazon saying about all this?

SELYUKH: In their latest statement, the company simply argued that unions were not the best answer for workers, saying it makes changes, improvements pretty quickly. And that would be harder to do with unions in the middle. And certainly the company is expected to challenge the signatures and other organizational efforts that Smalls has done so far.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Alina Selyukh, thank you.

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