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‘People feel intimidated’: the battle to unionize second US Amazon warehouse

<span>Photograph: Andrea Renault/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Andrea Renault/AFP/Getty Images

Heather Goodall, a 50-year-old Amazon worker, began pushing for a union at her Amazon warehouse just outside Albany, New York, largely because she was alarmed about safety problems – items often fell off the warehouse’s 27-ft-high racks, she said.

“We’ve had packers who had items fall on them. Several complained about concussions,” Goodall said. “You can see wires protruding out. It could cause lacerations. It might take someone’s eyes out.”

In early summer, Goodall turned into a dynamo, fighting for improved safety and a union, asking coworker after coworker to sign pro-union cards seeking a unionization election. She obtained so many signatures that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has set a union vote from 12 October through 17, with the vote count set for 18 October.

Goodall is hoping the ALB1 warehouse in Schodack, a dozen miles south of Albany, will become the nation’s second unionized Amazon facility, after workers at an 8,300-employee warehouse in Staten Island, New York, voted to join the Amazon Labor Union in April. The Albany-area workers will vote on whether to join that same independent union, although Goodall says Amazon is fighting fiercely to defeat the union drive.

Kimberly Lane, a coworker who is helping lead the union drive, said: “The biggest issue is wages.” Lane has worked there for two years and makes $16.20 an hour. “Some new hires are starting at $16.35,” she noted, adding: “It’s ludicrous to live on that wage with this cost of living. Some of these workers are the only breadwinners in their household, and they have three children, and to pay for food, gas and car maintenance, the numbers don’t add up.”

“The second big reason people want to unionize is safety,” Lane continued. “It seems that every day somebody gets injured.” She talked of a worker who recently had the tips of two fingers cut off while she was trying to remove something stuck in a machine. Lane said the workers have counted 175 ambulances coming to the warehouse since it opened two years ago.

“The overarching safety issue is the combination of this very high-pressure, high-speed work environment with a physically unstable environment because of the way they cut corners in handling materials,” said Eric Frumin, health and safety director of the union-backed Strategic Organizing Center.

The US attorney’s office for the southern district of New York has launched an investigation of the Albany-area warehouse. The attorney has asked the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Osha) to visit not just that warehouse, but Amazon warehouses in Chicago, Orlando, Colorado and Idaho. The US attorney’s office said it was investigating injuries resulting from workplace hazards, worker rate requirements and the pace of work, and whether Amazon accurately reported on-the-job injuries.

The US attorney has a form asking Amazon workers to answer numerous questions, among them: “Have you seen workers working in unsafe ways to try to meet their productivity/rate requirements?” “Do you believe that Amazon discourages workers from reporting injuries?” and “Do you believe Amazon managers retaliate against workers who report injuries?”

Patrick Flaningan, an Amazon spokesman, said: “We’ll of course cooperate with Osha in their investigation, and we believe it will ultimately show that these concerns are unfounded.” Flaningan added: “The safety and wellbeing of our employees at ALB1, and across the company, are our highest priority. Across our network we’ve invested billions of dollars in new safety measures and technologies to protect our employees.”

Goodall said that ever since the union drive began, she has been repeatedly called into managers’ offices. Amazon once called the police on her when she was outside the warehouse, asking workers to sign union cards. “They are literally going through everything they can to fire, suspend or write up every worker that is associated with the union,” Goodall said. “A lot of people feel threatened and intimidated.”

On 26 August, Amazon surprised Goodall by giving a final written warning – one step from being fired. She said managers accused her of two things: first, driving the wrong way in a one-way Amazon parking lot lane (she said the adjacent lane had been blocked) and second, using her mobile phone to take photos of the warehouse’s interior. Goodall told the Guardian that in late June she pointed out several safety problems to her supervisor – of boxes stacked dangerously and awkwardly in the 27-ft-high racks – and he gave her a go-ahead to take photos to document the problem. She subsequently sent some of those photos to Osha.

Seth Goldstein, a lawyer for the Amazon Labor Union, said Amazon’s final warning to Goodall constituted illegal retaliation against her for supporting a union and being a whistleblower to OSHA. “It’s a clear case of retaliation,” Goodall said. “They’ll do anything in their power to get me out of the building.”

In late August, Amazon fired Michael Verrastro, a 60-year-old packer after he kicked an empty box (which touched a fellow employer) out of frustration that several pieces of Amazon technology he sought to use that morning were malfunctioning, making it harder for him to meet his production quotas. Verrastro was told he was fired for violating Amazon’s workplace violence policy.

“I was stunned,” he said.

Verrastro said he was terminated not long after he told an Amazon anti-union consultant: “I don’t like the aggressive way that Amazon is fighting the union.” Verrastro, who has been battling aggressive prostate cancer, said he might have been fired in retaliation for what he told the consultant and because his cancer treatment was costing Amazon so much. Now without health insurance, he is alarmed about how he will pay for his cancer treatment.

“This is wrong,” Verrastro said. “I’m going to fight this.”

Any claims of retaliation are “absolutely false”, Amazon’s Flaningan said. “We do not retaliate against employees for exercising their federally protected rights.” He added that Amazon, like any employer, asks its workers to meet certain minimum expectations and then might “take appropriate and consistent action when they’re unable to do that”.

At the ALB1 warehouse, Amazon has anti-union consultants speak to workers one on one and requires workers to attend anti-union meetings, where Amazon consultants badmouth the Amazon Labor Union, saying it is unproven, will not accomplish anything and will charge lots in union dues.

“Our unionization efforts are going well,” Lane said . The pro-union workers talk to co-workers at the warehouse exit, in the parking lot, in their apartments, in other people’s homes and in bars. “The problem is we have to constantly fight Amazon management violating our rights to talk to people and to hand out literature.” Union supporters their literature keeps disappearing from bulletin boards and break rooms.

Amazon denies violating any laws in fighting the union. “Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union,” Flaningan said. “We don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees” Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

Even with a final written warning hanging over her head, Goodall continues to campaign tirelessly for the union, knowing the vote is just weeks away. She fears that Amazon managers are eager to find a reason to fire her.

“That’s why we need a union,” Goodall said. “There won’t be a Heather Goodall at every warehouse.”