The Class War Is Raging at Amazon’s Staten Island Complex

The atmosphere was electric at a prevote rally Sunday in Staten Island where workers prepared to cast ballots on whether to become the second Amazon facility to join the Amazon Labor Union. Bernie Sanders was among the speakers.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, left, speaks next to Christian Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), during an ALU rally in the Staten Island borough of New York on Sunday, April 24, 2022. (Victor J. Blue / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

When Julian “Mitch” Mitchell-Israel was hired to work at LDJ5, Amazon’s sortation center in Staten Island, he was reading The Grapes of Wrath. In the book, John Steinbeck, addressing the powerful — “you who hate change and fear revolution” — writes that the real danger arises not when there is already a movement against them, but earlier, when two people first pitch a camp in a field together after losing their homes and realize that they have something in common.

“Keep these two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other,” writes Steinbeck:

For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate — “We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one.

Speaking at a rally outside of LDJ5 on Sunday, the day before the facility’s roughly 1,500 workers began voting on whether to join their counterparts across the street at JFK8 in unionizing with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), Mitchell-Israel referred to the Steinbeck passage.

“I’ve got some bad news for you, Jeff Bezos,” he said. “The workers got together, they squatted in the tent a while back, and you fucking missed it, bro. Now we’re here, we’ve got a whole building, and we’re about to get a second one.”

Mitchell-Israel, twenty-two, is the field director for the ALU, the independent union that on April 1 became the first to organize an Amazon warehouse in the United States. The moment that result was certified, the ALU organizers turned their focus to LDJ5, where workers are voting this week in a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, with ballots due back by April 29 and counting scheduled to begin on May 2.

Standing on a small stage in the grass outside of LDJ5 on Sunday, Mitchell-Israel was speaking to a crowd of several hundred Amazon workers and their allies, who had come for a special “solidarity Sunday,” as ALU calls it, one last morale boost before voting begins.

A few big names helped draw the crowd to the industrial park that is home to JFK8, LDJ5, and DYY6, a delivery station. At 11 AM, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke, after privately meeting with ALU members.

“What this struggle is about, it’s not just Amazon Staten Island,” said Sanders. “This is the struggle that is taking place all across this country. Working people are sick and tired of falling further and further behind while billionaires like Bezos become much richer.”

Ocasio-Cortez discussed the possibility that Amazon has violated the agreement it entered into when receiving tax credits under the New York Excelsior Jobs Program. Last week, unions including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) sent a letter to New York attorney general Letitia James urging her to investigate the company’s lawbreaking — the ALU has filed more than forty unfair labor practice charges (ULPs) with the NLRB against Amazon for conduct that has ranged from calling the police on ALU members to removing pro-union literature to terminating JFK8 worker Gerald Bryson, who has now spent two years fighting to get his job back. The coalition behind the letter is demanding that Amazon pay back the money it received, which it estimates amounts to around $400 million.

Amazon’s vicious anti-unionism is well-known by now, having resulted in a rerun election in Bessemer, Alabama, the results of which are still pending. The company spent an almost unheard of $4.3 million on union-busting consultants in 2021 — many of these consultants have been ignoring disclosure laws that would shed light on the extent of their services. At LDJ5, workers say the company has only doubled down on the use of such consultants.

“They’ve upped their game in LDJ5,” says Justine Medina, a JFK8 worker and member of the ALU’s organizing committee. While the union was focused on winning JFK8, Amazon was already running daily captive-audience meetings and pushing propaganda inside LDJ5. After the JFK8 campaign ended, workers say the dirty tricks only intensified.

“They don’t underestimate us anymore, so they have their full arsenal here,” says Medina. “The money and resources that were being poured into union-busting at JFK8 and Bessemer have now been redirected to LDJ5.”

“I’m pretty sure Jeff Bezos woke up the day we won at JFK8, threw a vase at the wall, and said, ‘Take everything we have and put it in this tiny little building,’” says Mitchell-Israel. He estimates that there is currently a 1-20 ratio of union busters to workers inside LDJ5, with Amazon bringing in not only anti-union consultants but management from facilities across the country. Mitchell-Israel says that two managers have been assigned to follow him around the sortation center during his shifts for the past few days.

“I’ll try to be stealthy and pop up in a new spot, but they’re there very quickly,” he says. “It’s always the same two managers, and they’re always friendly, but it’s obvious that they’re there to make sure I’m not talking to anyone about the union.”

This is all despite Amazon agreeing to a nationwide settlement with the NLRB in December of 2021 which made it slightly easier, if still difficult, for workers to organize inside the warehouses. In filing twenty-five objections to the results of the JFK8 election, Amazon took issue with not only the ALU, claiming workers broke the law by disrupting captive-audience meetings and offering workers weed (Seth Goldstein, the ALU’s lawyer, called those allegations “patently absurd”), but also with the NLRB’s conduct, claiming that the board’s lawsuit against Amazon over Bryson’s firing violated the neutrality required of it.

Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) has called the NLRB’s enforcement of the law in the case of Bryson’s firing “downright pathetic,” arguing that the NLRB “is being used as a cudgel to allow the [Joe] Biden administration to advance an agenda that hurts workers and job creators.” The current NLRB, led by general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, is the most proactive and pro-worker board since the 1930s (despite its dire lack of funding). The possibility that Amazon and its loyal backers in elected office might use this case to go after the agency and undermine the National Labor Relations Act itself remains quite real.

Back in Staten Island, the ALU members know what they are up against. Amazon will wage a war to stop JFK8 workers from winning a strong contract, and it will take the spread of unionization drives to many other Amazon facilities, along the lines of what is happening at Starbucks, to pressure Amazon to negotiate.

“The revolution is here, right?” asked ALU president Christian Smalls from the stage, dressed in a bomber jacket embroidered with the words “Eat the rich.” The crowd, which included many members of Teamsters Local 804 in their own signature bomber jackets, responded with shouts of “Yeah!” Smalls went on, “Are y’all part of the revolution?” The crowd got louder, enthusiastically affirming the answer to that question too.

While workers from more than one hundred Amazon warehouses have reached out to the ALU in the past month, it will take a massive push to launch durable organizing drives at other facilities, which is why Sunday’s rally featured not only Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez but leaders from other unions whose solidarity is imperative.

“I have spent twenty-five years fighting and trying to get workers to wake up to the power that we have together, and this is it,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA)-CWA, as we stood in the crowd before the afternoon rally at which she was a headliner. The Teamsters’s new president Sean O’Brien met with Smalls and ALU vice president of organizing Derrick Palmer in Washington, DC, earlier this month and had been scheduled to speak at the rally too, but workers say travel complications led to his appearance being canceled. Other speakers included American Postal Workers Union (APWU) president Mark Dimondstein and AFT president Randi Weingarten, both of whom pledged to throw their full support behind the ALU. (Another speaker, socialist Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, did likewise, announcing in her speech that she was donating $20,000 to the union).

“This is where it’s happening: it’s happening here and it’s happening at Starbucks,” says Nelson. “The working people are taking over, and I’m loving it.”

Megan DiMotta, a Starbucks worker whose store at the Caesar’s Bay Shopping Center in southern Brooklyn is currently voting in an NLRB election, attended the LDJ5 rally in solidarity with the ALU. “Watching what these Amazon workers are doing fuels a lot of people to realize that they have that in them too,” she says.

“Amazon workers are fighting for the things we fought for one hundred years ago, because somebody came up with the concept of ‘labor peace,’” said Nelson from the stage, referring to the company’s scheduling practices, with shifts that are frequently much longer than the eight-hour day, a degradation of labor standards that is by no means unique to Amazon. At LDJ5, unpredictable scheduling and inadequate hours are key issues — workers say that roughly 80 percent of LDJ5 employees are part-time and that many workers have had requests to go full-time repeatedly rejected. Part-timers are notoriously hard to organize, adding to the challenges the ALU faces in winning this week’s election.

Wearing a red ALU T-shirt and standing beside Smalls, Nelson declared that the union was the answer to her prayers.  “Let me tell you something,” she continued. “There is no fucking labor peace.”

“Chris is an incredible leader,” she says, explaining that when Smalls was fired from JFK8 two years ago, he reached out to a number of people to learn about unions and labor history, herself among them. “I know what he did preparing for this moment. It was strategic, and he really built a community the way it should be built.”

That community was on display throughout the rally, responsible for the electric feeling in the crowd, no easy accomplishment in a drab landscape dominated by imposing warehouses that stretch further than the eye can see. Michael, a twenty-two-year-old LDJ5 employee who has worked at Amazon on and off since age nineteen, spoke of feeling suicidal and lonely at work, but said that this had changed upon joining the ALU. (The topic is particularly relevant at LDJ5, where a nineteen-year-old worker committed suicide this month, shortly after Amazon fired him.) “The ALU organizers became my friends, my family,” said Michael, eliciting an eruption of cheers from the crowd.

On the stage, flanked by Michael, ALU treasurer Madeline Wesley, and another young LDJ5 worker, Mitchell-Israel directly addressed LDJ5’s union-busters, including veteran anti-union consultant and conservative political operative Rebecca Smith.

“We’re not fucking afraid of you, no one’s convinced by it, and if you show your face again here, every single worker is going to know how much you’re getting paid,” he said, joyfully defying one of the world’s most powerful corporations.

At this point, someone in the crowd yelled out that the consultants are paid $300 to $400 an hour to intimidate LDJ5’s workers, and another woman shouted incredulously, “Wait, $400 an hour?” Mitchell-Israel turned to her, “$400 an hour, deadass.” He smiled. Maybe that was one more worker converted to a yes vote.