Workers stand in line to cast ballots for a union election at Amazon’s JFK8 distribution center, in the Staten Island borough of New York City, U.S. March 25, 2022.
Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters
For the past few months, an Amazon warehouse near Albany has hosted the latest labor battle between the retail giant and its workers.
Workers at the facility, located in the upstate town of Schodack, sought to capitalize on a successful union campaign at another Amazon warehouse, more than 150 miles away on Staten Island, which resulted in the company’s first unionized site in the U.S.
On Tuesday, those hopes were dashed.
Employees at the warehouse near Albany voted overwhelmingly against joining a union, delivering a blow to the Amazon Labor Union, the group behind the Staten Island victory. The ALU can challenge the results of the election, and it has a week to file an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board.
Workers at the ALB1 warehouse began organizing earlier this year, believing that a union could give employees more power to address their concerns about safety, inadequate paid time off and low wages. The starting wage at the facility rose to $17 an hour, up from $15.70 an hour, after Amazon raised pay for its frontline workforce nationwide.
Following the vote, an Amazon spokesperson said “Amazon as we think that this is the best arrangement for both our employees and customers. We will continue to work directly with our teammates in Albany, as we do everywhere, to keep making Amazon better every day.”
Here’s what workers on the ground told us.
‘$18 does not stretch very far’
Cari Carter, who has worked at ALB1 for two years, makes $18.20 an hour as a packer, placing items into boxes before they’re shipped out. As a single mother with three children, she said she can’t afford to manage her expenses and recently took out a loan from Amazon in order to pay her car bills.
“Some people are happy making $18 an hour because that’s enough to support themselves. They’re usually single individuals,” Carter said in an interview outside the warehouse. “I myself am a single mother of three. $18 does not stretch very far.”
Her son, Najiel Carter, works the same morning shift as her at ALB1. He said he attended meetings held by Amazon and the union and was leaning toward voting for the union because he felt it could lead to longer break times and a less stressful atmosphere at work.
Carter said she threw her support behind the union after she grew frustrated about pay and Amazon’s policies around unpaid time off. She said Amazon enforced the policy too harshly, pointing to a co-worker who was recently fired after he ran out of unpaid time off, and was absent from work for six hours while he dealt with a car emergency.
Amazon refused to let the employee use their vacation time to cover the absence, she said, adding that employees even offered to “donate their unpaid time” to help him keep his job.
“It just so happened that he had an unforeseen incident happen, he’s negative six hours, and he’s gone,” she said.
Michael Verrastro said he also feels a union is necessary to keep Amazon from unfairly disciplining its workers. In late August, Amazon fired Verrastro from ALB1 after he kicked an empty box out of frustration when tools at his workstation repeatedly malfunctioned.
Amazon said Verrastro, who joined the company in 2020, violated its workplace violence policy and claimed a box hit his co-worker after he kicked it. Verrastro said he acted out because he was concerned he wouldn’t reach his productivity goals for the day.
Verrastro said the loss of his job has created significant hardship for him, as he was diagnosed in 2020 with aggressive prostate cancer and is still undergoing treatment. Two weeks ago, he was denied unemployment benefits.
“Here I am, now 60 years old, aggressive prostate cancer, ran out of insurance, had to go short term on Medicaid, no right to an appeal to go back to work, and Amazon just refuses to acknowledge what they’re doing,” Verrastro said. “Unfortunately, I’m not the only person who something like this has happened to.”
After he was fired, Verrastro said he got a call from lead organizer Heather Goodall and was connected to the ALU’s lawyers. They filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board over his firing. Verrastro has also filed a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights.
“I want people to know what this company does to its people, to its employees, to the people who make the company possible,” Verrastro said.
‘A union isn’t good for Amazon’
Other employees said they voted against the union, saying they felt it was unnecessary because the pay and benefits offered by Amazon are generous.
“If anything, I’m concerned a union will take money out of my paycheck,” said Dionte Whitehead, who works as a stower at ALB1. “A union isn’t good for Amazon.”
Workers also expressed skepticism about the ALU. The organization was started by Chris Smalls last year after he was fired from his management assistant job for leading a protest at Amazon’s sprawling JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island. The victory at JFK8 turned into a lightning rod for labor organizers seeking to unionize Amazon and other companies across the country.
But the group has struggled to build momentum after a failed union drive at another Staten Island facility, and it has suffered from infighting among members. The election win has also been clouded by a months-long court battle with Amazon, which is seeking to have the results thrown out.
Amazon sought to discredit the ALU in posters and other communications broadcast at ALB1. One message displayed on a screen inside the warehouse called the union “untested and unproven,” while flyers left on a break room table said “The ALU isn’t telling the truth.”
ALB1 worker Tyrese Caldwell said he voted no because he felt the ALU is too inexperienced.
“They’re a fresh union, and they’re trying to tackle something as big as Amazon,” Caldwell said.
Michael Oakes, another ALB1 employee, agreed. “If it were an established union, not the ALU, I might be behind it,” he said.
Plan B: A more experienced union?
Carson, the packer, said ahead of the vote on Tuesday that ALB1 organizers had discussed other strategies if they lost the election, including asking workers if they’d prefer to be represented by a well-established union.
“There are a lot of people who were opposed because it was a startup union,” she added.
Major national unions have tried to unionize Amazon workers for years to no avail. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is seeking to represent workers at a Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse, but a vote there last spring did not have a clear outcome and is currently in court as both sides challenge some votes. Meanwhile, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters last year announced a renewed push to scale up efforts to organize Amazon workers.
Even if some workers question the fledgling Amazon Labor Union’s ability to organize ALB1, Smalls signaled he remains committed to the effort.
“This won’t be the end of ALU at ALB1,” Smalls said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.