On the Staten Island borough of New York City, Amazon supervisors often refer to them as “training.” At an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, supervisors refer to them ambiguously as “meetings.” Amazon says they are officially “small group meetings.”
Whatever Amazon calls them, the anti-union sessions the company has held for employees this year have been part of an effort to fend off unions in two contentious elections.
Staten Island employees will vote Friday to Wednesday at their warehouse on whether to join the Amazon Labor Union, an independent union led by current and former workers. The National Labor Relations Board will announce the results in the days that follow.
Employees at the warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting on whether to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Ballots in the mail-in election, which the labor board sent out in early February, are due Friday and will be counted shortly after.
A union win at either facility — each employs more than 5,000 workers — would be the first in Amazon’s history in the United States and would almost certainly alter the labor model that makes same-day delivery possible. But the odds for the unions remain long.
The Amazon Labor Union qualified for the Staten Island election only on its second try, after failing to sign up the 30% of employees it needed in its initial petition to the NLRB. Organizers typically seek to sign up a majority of eligible workers before filing for an election because attrition is common once a union campaign begins.
The retail workers union is on its second election at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama, having lost by a more than 2-1 ratio last year. The labor board later ordered a revote after it concluded that Amazon had violated election rules, but unions tend to lose in rerun elections.
Union supporters at both warehouses say they want to increase pay, improve health and safety conditions and receive more humane treatment from supervisors.
“I went to the bathroom and had two managers hunting me down to see where we were,” said Michelle Valentin Nieves, an employee on Staten Island. “I feel like we’re in ‘The Twilight Zone.’”
Amazon has used the regular meetings, which typically include a few dozen employees and last roughly 30 minutes, to create a false impression of what unionizing would entail, union supporters said.
In a video message played for workers at a recent meeting on Staten Island, the company said of the union: “From their Twitter handle to their chants, their answer to most things is they should shut down Amazon. How would that solve anything?”
Amazon says that deciding whether to unionize is up to employees and that the mandatory meetings are intended to educate workers about what a union could mean for them. The company cites its competitive pay — just under $16 per hour for a full-time entry-level worker in Alabama and over $18 per hour on Staten Island — and benefits, which include health care benefits for full-time employees as soon as they join the company.
“We are committed to creating an environment where our employees can thrive and feel appreciated and respected,” said Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, adding that the company spent $300 million on safety projects in 2021.
Companies are allowed to hold anti-union sessions, often known as “captive audience” meetings, until a prohibition takes effect shortly before mail-in ballots go out to workers or in-person voting begins. Amazon has typically held more than 20 meetings per day before those deadlines at the two warehouses.
In labor board hearings about last year’s union election in Alabama, a senior Amazon employee relations official said the company had brought in up to 29 employee relations officials from elsewhere, many of whom led the meetings, and up to nine outside consultants. A consultant testified that he typically sat in on the meetings and answered questions from workers.
Labor Department filings showed that one consulting firm had charged Amazon $3,200 per day per consultant, after expenses, and that Amazon had paid over $350,000 to another consulting firm.
The Amazon official testified that the meetings had lasted four weeks and explored a variety of topics, including contracts negotiated with other companies by the retail workers union, which Amazon seized on to argue that the union “hasn’t delivered for its members.” At other meetings the company told workers they “could end up with more wages and benefits than they had prior to the union, the same amount that they had, or potentially could end up with less,” according to the testimony.
Unionized workers typically earn more than similar nonunion workers, and it is extremely rare for workers to see their compensation fall as a result of union bargaining, said Jake Rosenfeld, a professor with expertise on unions at Washington University in St. Louis.
Workers at both warehouses say the company has emphasized similar themes in its meetings this year. “If a union is voted in, everything is up for negotiation, and the Amazon Labor Union has never negotiated a contract,” said the video message shown to employees at the Staten Island warehouse.
The video later added: “Under any of their proposals, you would pay hundreds of dollars a year in dues, and Amazon Labor Union would take millions. And remember the ALU has no experience managing this massive amount of money.”
Perry Connelly, an employee at the warehouse in Alabama, said he had attended a meeting in which company officials displayed a recent budget of the retail workers union and pointed out that there was no money in the union’s strike fund — suggesting that workers would be on their own if there was a labor stoppage. A union spokesperson said the money would be transferred from other accounts in the event of a strike.
Several workers at both warehouses indicated that Amazon had adjusted its approach to the meetings over time. For example, in the run-up to last year’s election in Alabama, some workers complained that company officials had asked for their badges after they raised questions or made skeptical comments, creating the impression that Amazon was tracking them. Company officials generally have not done so in recent months.
But employees at both warehouses said supervisors this year sometimes appeared to avoid inviting workers to meetings if they were outspoken in supporting the union, a way of potentially excluding those who might push back on the company’s talking points. Amazon said that all employees typically attended one meeting per week, and that it had not excluded anyone.
The meetings appear to reflect a broader shift in Amazon’s approach to the union campaigns: After a nationwide settlement with the labor board, the company seems to have eased up in some respects, granting pro-union workers more access to break rooms to make their case to colleagues, for example (though the retail workers union has filed charges accusing the company of unfairly restricting that access).
But Amazon has become more aggressive in other ways.
In February, police officers on Staten Island arrested Christian Smalls, a former employee at the facility who now leads the Amazon Labor Union, after warehouse officials said he was trespassing while delivering food to workers.
The police also arrested two current Amazon employees, Jason Anthony and Brett Daniels, for obstructing governmental administration during the incident. The three men spent several hours in a holding cell before being released. Amazon has said it called the police only on Smalls.
In an interview, Daniels said he, too, had sometimes been excluded from anti-union meetings for over one week. When he recently heard about a meeting his co-workers were attending, he said, he sought to attend as well but was told upon arriving that he was not scheduled for it.
Daniels said he had persisted and had been told by a manager that he could attend a meeting at 4:30 a.m., near the end of his overnight shift. But that did not pan out, either.
“I show up and they say, ‘Oh, no, you are the only one scheduled,’” Daniels recalled. “‘We have to cancel.’”