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A New Union for Amazon Workers

REBEKAH ROBINSON, HOST: Christian Smalls, a key labor organizer for Amazon workers on Staten Island, was arrested yesterday in Queens. He was accused of trespassing and resisting arrest when he and two other organizers brought food to workers at a distribution center at JFK. It’s the latest in a protracted battle between Amazon and their army of workers Previous efforts in other parts of the country have failed, and as our tech reporter Sarah Yokubaitis reports, organizers in Staten Island are hoping a different approach will work.

SARAH YOKUBAITIS, BYLINE: Thirty-two year old Justine Medina works for Amazon. She commutes two hours to a Staten Island warehouse where the paper towels, multi-vitamins, dog food and a plethora of other consumer products are stored before being shipped out. Medina earns eighteen dollars and twenty-five cents an hour. She wants workers like her to unionize and be paid more, especially after the record profits Amazon posted last year.

JUSTINE MEDINA: Amazon controls so much of the production line at this point. And then beyond the warehouse stuff, you know, they control internet infrastructure, you know, they have contracts with the government, with the military. They control a lot. So I think that they're an important industry or company, really, you know, sort of classic monopoly to take on.

YOKUBAITIS: Organizing against the eCommerce giant has been a formidable challenge. In Bessemer, Alabama, workers lost an election two to one last year, but organizers in Bessemer successfully appealed to the National Labor Relations Board to have the results thrown out. They say Amazon intimidated workers and interfered with the vote by installing a mailbox monitored by video. After the events in Bessemer, workers in Staten Island chose a different approach - forming an independent union that they say will be better able to fight Amazon.

MEDINA: We're rooting for the RWDSU Amazon comrades down in Bessemer… it's like, we want Amazon to be unionized, right? So we support it all. But we just felt that, under the current conditions, the best way to make sure that it was worker-led was to start an independent union.

YOKUBAITIS: In Bessemer, workers voted on whether or not to join the eighty-year-old Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Staten Island workers hope that a new union will be better equipped to organize for the kind of work they do which relies on technology for warehouse logistics. Lee Adler helped organize taxi drivers in New York in the seventies. He’s now a professor at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations and says organizers face a formidable challenge from the nation’s second largest employer, with or without the assistance of existing union structures.

LEE ADLER: Amazon is in your fingernails, it's in your dirty socks. It's in your underarm deodorant, I mean, it's everywhere, right?. And so they're going against the most powerful capitalist formation just about in the world.

YOKUBAITIS: Adler is hopeful that Staten Island’s solo approach will pay off, but he cautions that a win in the upcoming election is only the start of a long road to making substantial workplace changes and the fight could go on for years. Meanwhile the vote in Bessemer is being redone by mail over the next month and the organizers arrested in Queens have been released and plan to fight the charges in court.

For more information on the Amazon Labor Union, visit their website at

Sarah Yokubaitis, Uptown Radio News

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