Chris Smalls, the man most responsible for unionizing Amazon (AMZN) warehouse JFK8, started working at the Staten Island facility in 2018, after having worked at a different Amazon warehouse in Connecticut for around three years. “I had never stepped foot on Staten Island before working at JFK8,” said the New Jersey native, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about the place, apart from the Wu-Tang Clan.”
He’s not alone.
New York’s least populated borough, Staten Island is also its most anonymous, a largely working- and middle class- enclave closer to New Jersey than the rest of the city. Many New Yorkers claim—sometimes proudly—they’ve never visited Staten Island. What celebrity the borough has it borrows from the Wu-Tang Clan hip hop group and comedian Pete Davidson.
Staten Island is far more politically conservative than the rest of New York City and is represented by a Republican in Congress. Many of its elected officials in the New York City Council, and the state legislature are also Republicans. From that perspective, Staten Island is an unlikely home for the first Amazon union.
Yet, Staten Island itself has the highest number of union members out of all five boroughs in New York City, according to research conducted in 2020 by the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.
“Staten Island is a union town through and through and this historic victory only further proved it,” said Kamillah Hanks, the only Democrat representing Staten Island on the City Council. “I’m hopeful that this win will be a catalyst for labor organizing across the country.”
New York City’s Love-Hate Relationship with Amazon
New York has a complicated relationship with Amazon. The city loves its goods delivered, but when the tech giant proposed building a new headquarters in the city in 2019, New Yorkers fought back. Facing opposition to granting nearly $3 billion in tax incentives to a wealthy corporation, Amazon backed down. That effort was based in the more liberal Queens and led in part by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a populist Democrat who won an upset victory the year before by mobilizing young progressives.
No such protests accompanied Amazon’s first fulfillment center in New York, JFK8, which opened on Staten Island in 2018. The sprawling 855,000 square foot warehouse, in the Bloomfield neighborhood on the borough’s west shore, was said to be the single largest job creator ever on Staten Island.
“Pretty much half of the workers at JFK8 live on Staten Island,” explained Smalls. The other half are commuters, often coming from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, as well as New Jersey, he explained.
JFK8 employs roughly around 8,300 workers and Amazon also employs workers at the three neighboring facilities across the street – one of them being LDJ5 – which has its own union vote coming up on April 25th.
Amazon is the second-largest employer in the U.S., with around 1.1 million workers across the country. For years, Amazon has fended off multiple union attempts. But, last week, the independent, worker-led union—founded by Smalls and several Staten Island Amazon workers—succeeded after around 11 months of organizing.
The union victory is a major turning point for U.S. labor, leaving many labor experts wondering whether this historic win will launch other unionization efforts at Amazon warehouses across the county.
“Since we won, the Amazon Labor Union has been contacted by workers in over 50 buildings nationwide,” Small tweeted.
Nationwide, union membership has declined over the last few decades. However, in the last several months, union wins have dominated the headlines—from Starbucks to REI—leaving the labor movement galvanized. They are being cheered on from the White House.
“Amazon, here we come,” said President Joe Biden during a press conference a few days ago, celebrating the Amazon Labor Union’s win. Biden said he intends to be the most pro-labor president in US history.
The day before the Staten Island victory, a separate union vote brought by the Retail, Wholesale and Department store union at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., failed for the second time. But, the numbers were close enough that the result may still change due to contested ballots.
Many Factors Were Behind the Amazon Labor Union’s Victory
There was no one reason for the Staten Island victory. “No one can really point to what the biggest factor was,” said Connor Spence, a JFK8 worker and vice president of membership for the ALU. The union organizers themselves have credited part of the win to the grassroots nature of the effort, which was led by Amazon workers themselves and not backed by a national union.
Others have mentioned the significance of the location. “New York is a union town,” Smalls said. “One in five people in New York belong to a union. Every worker knows someone who is in a union. You’re in proximity with somebody who’s unionized by the sanitation department, fire department, police officers, teachers, and nurses. There are different types of unions around Amazon, they surround these Amazon workers on Staten Island.”
Most union members on Staten Island are part of the public sector, explained Daniel Disalvo, chair of the political science department at the City College of New York. That makes the Amazon victory unusual.
“Staten Island is peculiar in the sense that it’s not exactly this pro-union bastion when it comes to private sector labor,” he said. “It’s a heavily public-sector union jurisdiction, and those also tend to be more conservative.”
Staten Island’s Republicans Remain Silent
Since the union’s victory last week, the borough’s Republican elected officials have remained largely silent on the win, and have rarely commented on the union since it began forming last March.
Nationally, the Republican party is largely hostile to organized labor movements like this one. In 2019, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced the National Right to Work Act in Congress, which would give workers the option to stop supporting unions financially while still receiving the benefits of the union’s bargaining – an arrangement many union members call free-riding. A majority of Republicans have also opposed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, known as the ProAct, which would expand the right of workers to strike, and place limits on employers hindering union organization, among other provisions.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, broke from party lines in 2021 and came out in support of the Amazon union drive in Alabama, where he criticized Amazon for having “waged a war against working-class values.”
The progressive nonprofit news organization, More Perfect Union, recently built a tracker titled “What Congress is saying about Amazon Labor Union’s Historic Victory.” As of today, not a single Republican member of either the House of Representatives or the Senate has commented on the win, according to the site.
In contrast, 12 Democratic Senators and 50 Democratic representatives so far have made public statements or tweets congratulating the organizers on Staten Island.
Traditionally, the Democratic party has supported unionization efforts across the country. “To see the union pull this off is an amazing experience,” said Diane Savino, a Democratic state senator from Staten Island. “I’m incredibly proud of them.”
Smalls, however, said he and the union received no real help from public officials on either side of the aisle. “We obviously would love to have had it,” he explained. “But we didn’t go cry about it—we continued to organize.”
Ignored by Republicans … and Democrats
“Republicans have ignored us for the most part,” said Spence. “But honestly, most of the Democrats have ignored us as well.”
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, Staten Island’s Republican congressional representative, and other Republican elected officials of Staten Island did not return requests for comment.
Malliotakis is being challenged in the upcoming midterm elections by previous Democratic representative, Max Rose, as well as progressive newcomer Brittany Ramos DeBarros, who has been very supportive of the Amazon Labor Union efforts.
“You could argue that this union win will spur a particular portion of the electorate to be more engaged,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant and Democratic strategist.
“The union won in here, the union is based here and the facility is based here, and Rep. Malliotakis recently voted against the ProAct,” said Sheinkopf.
There are still many months before the midterm election, and predicting the impact of the Amazon victory on its outcome seems unwise. But at least one thing is clear: In progressive circles, Staten Island is now known for much more than the WuTang Clan.