Natalie Monarrez, a warehouse worker at an Amazon facility in Staten Island, desperately needed to go to the bathroom. But she says her manager wouldn’t let her.
The confrontation, which took place during a shift in early May, began when the manager asked her to transfer her work to a different part of the warehouse, according to Monarrez. As they walked, she says she asked to stop at a bathroom, and the manager refused. The disagreement escalated with multiple requests from her and refusals from him, she says. She walked to human resources, where employees were busy with a meeting. So she left the warehouse and filed a complaint online in the parking lot from her car.
An Amazon spokesperson contested this account, saying the employee who allegedly denied Monarrez access to the bathroom lacked supervisory authority over her. After the incident, the employee was swiftly terminated over an allegation of acting inappropriately — but not over the allegation of denying bathroom access, the spokesperson said. Amazon also stressed that workers may go to the bathroom freely.
After she filed the complaint, Monarrez walked to a nearby tent that served as the makeshift headquarters for the Amazon Labor Union, or ALU, an organization founded by former Amazon (AMZN) warehouse worker Chris Smalls and funded by online donors, which aims to unionize roughly 7,000 Amazon workers on Staten Island. Monarrez signed up that day.
“The next morning, I went in and immediately worked the union into every single conversation I had,” says Monarrez, 52. Workers shared their fears of everything from the wealth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to company retaliation. “My job was to basically let them know unionizing was our right,” she says.
Months later, some 2,000 coworkers on Staten Island across four facilities have joined Monarrez in backing the union, which last week filed for an election. It would mark just the second such vote among a large group of Amazon workers in the company’s 27-year history, following the overwhelming defeat in April of a union at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.
A win on Staten Island would energize the U.S. labor movement, offering an inroad into the nation’s second-largest employer and the booming tech industry. But another resounding defeat at Amazon could tarnish the perception of organizing at the company nationwide, discouraging workers and dimming the prospects for future campaigns.
'A really steep uphill battle'
Union victory is within reach, Smalls and Monarrez told Yahoo Finance. The leadership from current and former employees at the warehouse gives the ALU an advantage in winning the trust of workers, they said; and so does the location of the facility in union-friendly New York State. But current support for the union stands well below a majority of the workforce, labor experts cautioned. The combination of rapid worker turnover and a well-resourced anti-union campaign from Amazon will prove nearly impossible for the grassroots organizing drive to overcome, the experts predicted.
“Workers face a really steep uphill battle in their efforts to get formal union recognition,” says Erin Hatton, a labor expert and associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Amazon provided the following statement on the union drive: "It’s our employees’ choice whether or not to join a union. It always has been. And it’s important that everyone understands the facts about joining a union and the election process itself. We host regular information sessions for all employees, which includes an opportunity for them to ask questions. If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site so it’s important all employees understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”
The union drive on Staten Island emerged from an escalation in worker organizing at Amazon that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, which drove record sales for the e-commerce giant but exposed some of its warehouse employees to the potentially lethal virus. In a previous statement to Yahoo Finance, Amazon defended its commitment to worker safety amid the pandemic. "Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our employees," the company said. "We are anything but complacent and continue to innovate, learn, and improve the measures we have in place to protect our teams.”
Smalls, who last March was fired from his warehouse job on Staten Island the same day he participated in a walkout, led a series of protests against the company before launching the union campaign in May.
The decision to mount the union drive came after Smalls traveled to an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama at the outset of this year, where he supported the organizing carried out by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, or RWDSU. The union, which represents about 100,000 workers, ultimately failed in a lopsided election in April — though in August a National Labor Relations Board officer recommended a re-vote due to illegal interference by Amazon. A final ruling on the case is pending.
"It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true," Amazon told Yahoo Finance in a statement after the union election in Bessemer. "Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us."
Smalls says he learned from the difficulties that the Bessemer campaign encountered in building worker support. He contrasts the organizing drive on Staten Island, which is led by current and former employees, with the one taken up by RWDSU organizers in Bessemer. Amazon workers are more likely to trust union advocates who share their experiences, Smalls said: "When you say we are actually workers, it resonates differently."
Smalls also points to the strength of labor support in New York State, which as of last year boasted a unionization rate of 22%, the second-highest of any state in the country. But the positive sentiment toward unions in New York may not pierce the dampened worker morale that many observers expected after the loss in Bessemer. Smalls and Monarrez don’t see it that way. Rather than deter workers on Staten Island, the union drive in Bessemer emboldened them, Monarrez said.
“We’re not as fearful or intimidated as the people in Bessemer, Alabama were,” Monarrez says. “I’m in no way insulting the Bessemer people. They stepped up. Their actions encouraged us to go ahead and do it.”
For its part, RWDSU says it supports the union drive on Staten Island. “I’m really encouraged,” says Stuart Appelbaum, the president of RWDSU. “If we don’t take the battle on, we're never going to succeed.”
The organizing campaign has also garnered support from The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, which in June launched a nationwide campaign to organize Amazon workers. The Teamsters have opted for a different strategy from the ALU and RWDSU, eschewing a traditional union election and instead focusing on a confrontational campaign that will draw attention to labor conditions and pressure Amazon.
“We stand in solidarity with all workers who are standing up to Amazon and fighting for family-sustaining wages, benefits, and working conditions, including those in Staten Island,” Randy Korgan, International Brotherhood of Teamsters National Director for Amazon, told Yahoo Finance in a statement. “These struggles will take many forms.”
But labor experts expressed pessimism about the outlook for the union drive, and some feared another decisive loss could set back the nationwide movement to organize Amazon. Critics cited the current lack of majority support among workers on Staten Island, the anti-union tactics from Amazon, and the resource advantage enjoyed by Amazon when facing off against a newly formed, independent union.
When the ALU filed for an election last week, it did so with the support of roughly 2,000 workers, who make up about 30% of the eligible workforce on Staten Island — a proportion that marks the minimum required to trigger an election but falls well short of the majority support that will be necessary to win when the election takes place. Research shows that unions often lose support between filing for an election and holding the vote, as a result of worker turnover and anti-union tactics undertaken by the employer, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“No one files at 30% and succeeds,” Bronfenbrenner says. “The only way you file that way and succeed is if you're growing or on your way to grow. That's not what's happening here."
When asked whether filing for a union election with the current level of support constituted a mistake, Janice Fine, a labor professor at Rutgers University, said, “Big time.”
“The lesson from Bessemer was you have to do deep workplace organizing and you don't file until you have an overwhelming majority,” Fine adds. “That is not the case here from what we can tell.”
Appelbaum, who oversaw the RWDSU union drive in Bessemer, declined to comment on the strategy underway on Staten Island. A few years prior to the campaign in Bessemer, RWDSU attempted an organizing drive at one of the Amazon facilities on Staten Island, but ended the effort without filing for an election.
Smalls acknowledged concern about the union's current level of support and the potential for attrition prior to the election. "We know the clock is against us when it comes to Amazon's hiring and firing," he says. "But it’s not as urgent as everybody expected because of the way we've organized — we use our knowledge of the ins and outs of the company to help workers maneuver around getting written up or getting fired."
In addition to the threat of worker turnover, Amazon will likely put forward a robust anti-union campaign. During the union drive in Bessemer, Amazon made its anti-union position known with aggressive tactics carried out through multiple avenues, including mandatory meetings and a website that warned of onerous dues payments. But federal labor law permits employers wide latitude in dissuading workers from supporting a labor drive. Monarrez and Smalls say the pushback from Amazon has already begun with anti-union signs in the bathroom and informal meetings with workers about the effort.
Pro-union workers have used their phones to share and rebut the company's messaging among each other in real time, Smalls said. The organization also plans to speak directly with workers, the type of one-on-one organizing that proved difficult for RWDSU at the 5,800-person warehouse in Bessemer. RWDSU struggled with that task in part due to resource constraints but also, Smalls argues, because outside union employees played a big role rather than Amazon workers.
Resources could similarly limit the ALU's outreach to the workforce of 7,000 warehouse employees on Staten Island. The organization, which relies on over $40,000 raised on GoFundMe, has a core set of about 10 volunteer organizers and a wider group chat that includes about 100 supportive workers, Monarrez said.
Bronfenbrenner, of Cornell, said the tight budget of ALU puts the group at a significant disadvantage when attempting to organize a large workforce at a giant company like Amazon. “It is highly unlikely that a local union has the resources to do a fight like this alone — Amazon is too big,” she says. "The lesson from Bessemer was that [RWDSU] didn’t have enough staff; they didn’t have enough time."
A decisive union defeat on Staten Island could deliver a crushing blow to Amazon workers organizing nationwide, Bronfenbrenner said. "When a union loses really badly, it scorches the earth. Workers are worse off than they were. I fear that’s what’s happening here."
Smalls rebukes that concern. He expressed optimism about the chances of union victory, and said that even a loss would add momentum to worker organizing within Amazon and the broader labor movement.
"We already have a victory here," he says. "It’s just a small victory, but it’s a step in the right direction."
Correction: The original version of the story incorrectly stated that Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. The story has been updated to include the statement provided by Amazon, as well as the company's comments about a workplace incident involving Natalie Monarrez.
Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.