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Update (May 2, 2022): Following a hard-fought campaign, the Amazon Labor Union came up short at the LDJ5 complex, with 380 workers voting in favor of the union and 618 against. In response, ALU founder Chris Smalls wrote: “Despite todays outcome I’m proud of the worker/organizers of LDJ5 they had a tougher challenge after our victory at JFK8. Our leads should be extremely proud to have given their coworkers a right to join a Union. ALU will continue to organize and so should all of you.”
After a stunning victory last month when Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in New York became the first to unionize a company facility in the United States, the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) is hoping to notch a second union win at a neighboring sorting center on Staten Island — the LDJ5 warehouse.
The results of the vote are expected Monday. More than 1,500 workers began casting ballots starting April 25 and ending on April 29. Worker organizers face an uphill battle in replicating their success at the second warehouse because it is relatively new, having opened in 2020, and is comprised of a workforce that is largely part-timers. The second warehouse also has fewer worker organizers than JFK8.
Organizers say that the company’s union-busting has been even more aggressive at LDJ5, attempting to wallop the nascent union movement at the corporate behemoth.
Ahead of the vote, In These Times spoke to organizers Julian Mitchell-Israel, 22, and Madeline Wesley, 23, about their experience in the campaign and how Amazon workers are making history.
Can you talk about why you are organizing inside the LDJ5 warehouse?
When it comes down to it, what we’re doing inside the warehouse is talking about what’s been taken from us. It’s listening to other workers, and it’s spreading the love. We are making everyone realize that the reason we’re fighting for this [union] is not some ulterior motive. It comes down to the bread and butter issues. And it comes down to the fact that we’re all being robbed in the exact same way. And the only way that we stop them is together.
From the time that you sent ALU founder Chris Smalls your resume to now, what have you learned in this whole process?
I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned how to talk to people that I would never have talked to before. I’m a born and raised New Yorker, I know how to talk to New Yorkers. But there’s a difference in terms of speaking to people about the issues. There’s a difference in speaking to people about overtly political issues and speaking to them about their day-to-day life, about their workplace, because it becomes very personal very quickly.
And one thing that got reinforced for me is that when it comes to organizing, you have to be vigilantly kind. And it takes discipline. And it takes a sort of militancy and love. And that’s a hard thing to understand. But when when you’re up against misinformation, when you’re up against people that are violently anti-union, you have the instinct to sort of get on the defensive to go, “screw you.” The one time I snapped during this entire campaign, I said to a worker, “why are you bootlicking Jeff Bezos right now?” And I saw the hurt in his eyes after I said that, because I didn’t get it right then. I think he was genuinely curious about things and he was genuinely trying to understand. And it’s hard because, you know, Amazon has brainwashed all these people. I went into my car, and I cried after that, because I was saying to myself that that is the mistake that has stopped this movement from happening for so long.
People need to have unlimited chances here. One of my favorite things that one of the other organizers said is that there’s no such thing as an anti-union worker, there’s just a misinformed worker. And I think that’s a fact. Because you’re never going to work against yourself. And so I think what I’ve learned here is that when you bring love to the table, and you focus on that as the prime motivator, there’s nothing that can stand in your way.
How do you feel about the vote?
I think we could win this thing. I really do. I’m not confident, but I’m hopeful. We have an incredible amount of momentum on our side. I think if we had one more week, I would say we have it on lock. But we don’t. And so the question is just, “did we gain enough ground back?”
Why do you think you’ve lost ground because of JFK8?
Maddie and I took three weeks of time off of work at LBJ5 to help run the campaign for JFK in the final couple of weeks. And in that time, Amazon planted a seed of a very deep anti-unionism in a lot of the workers here. They riled up the people that were already against us to be more vocal. So when we came back into the warehouse, although some people were more on our side than ever, a lot of people were more against us than ever. So it was sort of this one step forward, one step back kind of thing.
Take me back to how you got involved in this campaign. And do you think you’re on the eve of, potentially, a victory?
I got involved nine months ago or so. I spoke to Chris [Smalls] and I asked him a lot of questions. And he answered all of them. And so yeah, here we are.
What set of circumstances set you on the path to becoming a union organizer coming to New York?
I was a Wesleyan student in Middletown, Connecticut. And our dining hall workers are represented by Unite Here local 17. I got involved with a group called the United Student Labor Action Coalition. So that’s how I got involved with student labor organizing. And then I also got involved with Unite Here through that. I worked with local 26 in Boston and local 355 in Miami, and I was originally planning on staying in Miami. But I made a last-minute decision to switch gears and then do this campaign here in Staten Island with Amazon Labor Union after I got a call from my good friend, Seth Goldstein. Or, not one call — I got many calls from my good friend, Seth Goldstein, about this campaign. And I figured, at the end of the day, this is something that I probably only have one chance to be a part of. So I took it
What stood out to you about the campaign?
I really saw the potential in this movement. I think one thing that really sold me was that it was a worker-led movement. This is the kind of thing that people like us only dream about — a truly worker-led movement against one of the richest companies in the world. It doesn’t come around that often.
You wanted to be a part of history?
When I first started on the campaign, I figured that the odds were against us, and we probably wouldn’t win, but it was it was worth a shot anyways. And here we are.
How are you feeling about the vote today? I know the campaign has really heated people up.
It was pretty intense for a while. But I’m so proud of my team. Because even though it was really discouraging a couple of weeks ago, and Amazon was throwing all of this shit at us, we stuck through it. And no one gave up. We all prevailed, and we chipped away at it one person at a time. And now we’re at this point where I feel like we’ve got a pretty good chance of winning. I mean, nothing’s certain. And it’s always kind of difficult to tell.
What makes you feel confident about the win?
Just people coming up to us and being like, “I was No [on the union], but then I saw that you guys weren’t just some outsiders, you were actually here in the building, you were actually Amazon workers.” And that made the difference for me, people coming up to us being like, I don’t say a lot, but I’m with you guys. I think over the past couple of weeks we’ve changed a lot of minds and hearts. And it’s the work of the whole team.
Is there anything that has surprised you in this campaign at LDJ5?
I think that after winning JFK8, some of us thought that LDJ5 would be an easy win. And what we realized was that we were absolutely wrong. Amazon is really angry at us for winning JFK8, they weren’t expecting it at all. And now they’re giving us everything that they’ve got here at LDJ5. They successfully rallied some anti-union workers, so we had to fight a lot of misinformation and rumors and lies. You always have to change your tactics based off what’s going on. What we found is that we’ve had to fight for LDJ5 just as hard as we had to fight for JFK8.
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Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.