After daylong shifts spent unloading and sorting boxes at an Amazon warehouse, Eli Zingg doesn’t usually go home.
Most days, they stick around the parking lot, standing just far enough away from the building to keep in line with Amazon’s prohibitions around solicitations at the workplace but close enough to flag down co-workers as they clock in and out.
Zingg, a 23-year old who has worked at two Amazon facilities in Washington, wants to start a union.
“If I don’t try my hardest to make it happen, then the same problems I’ve been experiencing for the past 10 months, the same issues that other people have been dealing with for years, will just continue,” they said.
Almost three months into the union drive, Zingg has yet to recruit any co-workers at the facility, a 600-worker sort center called RNT9. As Zingg hands out flyers and asks co-workers what they think of their working conditions, some say they won’t cross a picket line while others won’t even look up.
Most people are ambivalent. For them, “It’s not necessarily good or bad; it’s just another job,” Zingg said.
Zingg has crafted a rough road map for forming an independent union — which they are calling Amazon Workers’ Union — that they expect will take about two years to accomplish, roughly the same amount of time it took Amazon employees in Staten Island to form a union.
Union leaders at the Staten Island warehouse, who go by the name Amazon Labor Union, are now coaching workers at other Amazon facilities to organize their own workplace while also facing legal challenges from Amazon. The company is asking to overturn the vote, and the two parties are locked in hearings with the National Labor Relations Board.
Amazon says workers have a choice to decide whether to form a union, but it doesn’t think “unions are the best answer.” Amazon Labor Union says it has heard from workers at more than 100 locations who are interested in organizing.
So far, Zingg’s completed the first few steps in their plan: Set up a website, learn the rules around picketing outside the workplace and create a “solid” messaging platform.
Long term, the plan includes connecting with labor lawyers, establishing Amazon Workers’ Union as a nonprofit to start collecting money and, eventually, taking a formal vote to form a union.
But first, “it’s on to the hard part of standing outside,” Zingg said. Most weeks they work four shifts and spend the fifth day outside the warehouse passing out flyers. Some mornings, they arrive at 4 a.m. Some evenings, they stay until sundown.
Zingg hopes to get one or two more people signed up to bring “picketing and messaging across all shifts.” Getting people on board takes time, Zingg said, but “I just can’t sit on my hands anymore.”
‘There’s more of us out there’
Brett Daniels, an organizer with Staten Island’s Amazon Labor Union, also started his union activism alone.
Working at an Amazon warehouse in Arizona, Daniels said he was inspired by colleagues in Staten Island walking off the job in protest. He stood outside his facility, asking co-workers about their working conditions and building relationships. As soon as the word union was mentioned, some would shy away, he said, raising concerns about job security and providing for their family.
Daniels connected with Chris Smalls, the fired Amazon worker from Staten Island who is now one of the faces of the Amazon labor movement and has traveled to New York to protest the company. He took a job at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse and became a part of a wave of organizers talking with Amazon employees across the world about unionizing.
“It doesn’t matter where you go, whether you’re in Arizona, whether you’re in Alabama, whether you’re in New York, the issues are all pretty much the same,” Daniels said. “It’s not going to be the same one-size-fits-all scenario for everywhere, but the basic techniques of making sure that we’re listening to our co-workers and making sure that their voices are heard.”
The month after Amazon workers at one Staten Island warehouse voted to form a union, workers at a nearby facility voted against it, but Amazon Labor Union estimates workers at more than 100 facilities have contacted the group for help. Some are already part of a coordinated union drive, others have formed an organizing committee at their worksite and some, like Zingg, are individuals looking to spearhead the union effort.
“If you have one person, any one person that has the heart and determination to fight for worker’s liberation, then it doesn’t matter how many because there’s more of us out there,” Daniels said. “It’s just showing that there’s hope and will and determination for it.”
Unionizing in Washington
Zingg didn’t start their professional life as a union supporter. A feeling that management wouldn’t recognize and reward employees who handled tasks outside the job description turned them into one.
Zingg started at Amazon in August, processing packages coming into Amazon’s DuPont fulfillment center. After four days on the job, they moved into a “problem solver” role, looking for and fixing any kinks in the well-oiled Amazon machine. A month after that, they applied for a new role that came with a raise.
In November, they transferred from Amazon’s DuPont center to RNT9 in Fife where they now work on the trucking side of the operation, coordinating with drivers and moving packages off the dock.
In their new role, they’re on the other side of the process for incoming packages. At DuPont, they moved the packages into the warehouse; at Fife, they move the packages off the trucks.
Zingg acknowledged Amazon does offer workers some good reasons for taking and keeping a job at one of its warehouses, mainly a quick way to get access to benefits like health care and a program to fund higher education. Zingg hopes to start studying IT.
They said they’ve also watched colleagues skip lunch breaks to help out without, pay or recognition. Because there’s high turnover among managers, some of the lowest paid workers are running the show behind the scenes, they said.
Paul Flaningan, a spokesperson for Amazon, said Zingg’s allegations that pitching in to take care of tasks outside a defined job description won’t put you on the path to a raise are “not accurate.”
“Leaders encourage employees at all levels to seek additional assignments as a part of career advancement opportunities,” Flaningan said.
Zingg also says the company doesn’t offer a living wage to the majority of its employees at RNT9. Warehouse workers make an average of $18 per hour, but Amazon says hourly pay can be up to $28 per hour in some locations and noted its “front-line” warehouse workers have benefits including health, vision and dental insurance, paid parental leave, a 401(k) and free mental health services.
Near RNT9, in Pierce County, median rent for a one-bedroom is roughly $1,300, according to Apartment List.
In 2021, Amazon promoted more than 30,000 front-line workers internally, a path to a higher wage. At RNT9, which opened in 2021, “already leaders hosted a career fair earlier this year for all employees to learn about additional job opportunities,” Flaningan said.
In Zingg’s opinion, “people shouldn’t have to hustle — [for a managerial position that comes with a raise] — to live.”
Zingg is also hoping a union will provide workers an avenue to express concerns and make changes on their behalf.
At Amazon, workers “will get bogged down every step of the way,” they said. “If you feel like an issue is important enough, you should be able to cascade it with more and more support as you go. With Amazon, it’s the opposite. … It gets harder and harder.”
“Amazon provides a number of ways for employees and managers to communicate directly with each other,” Flaningan said, pointing to an open-door policy, one-on-ones, roundtables with leaders and employee message boards on-site.
Moving at ‘breakneck’ speed
Seth Goldstein, an attorney who works with Amazon Labor Union, expects the union bug will spread beyond the warehouses next to tech workers at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters because people “don’t like the direction that Amazon’s going.”
He pointed to instances of workers speaking out against the company and facing retaliation, including Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa. They publicly pushed the company to reduce its impact on climate change and address warehouse workers’ concerns.
Amazon has said it discharged the employees for repeatedly violating internal policies against commenting publicly on the company’s business without executive approval.
Cheddi Skeete, a former Amazon drone project manager, said in April he was fired for raising concerns about Amazon’s drone delivery program. A spokesperson for the company denied Skeete was fired for speaking up.
So far, there’s no obvious union organizing effort underway among Amazon’s tech and corporate employees, but Goldstein said, “This is not just a fulfillment center issue; people have finally had it.”
Amazon maintains that workers have the choice of whether or not to join a union. But “as a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees,” Flaningan from Amazon said. “Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”
In North Carolina, a group of Amazon warehouse workers are starting their own union drive after talking about “how we were treated, how we’re paid and the work that we do,” said Timothy Platt, one of the organizers.
They talked about “how profitable the company is and what part we play in that,” Platt said. “And we just felt like we deserved more.”
Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment, or CAUSE, is gearing up to send union cards to workers at RDU1, a fulfillment center in North Carolina, by the end of the year.
“We feel like it’s been at breakneck speed and it’s only going to get faster,” Platt said.
What’s to come
Zingg is already taking on the role as the unofficial steward of a union that, at present, appears to have only one member. They’re pushing for a hazard pay differential for drivers who have to take vans and trucks over major roads as they move between warehouses and asking Amazon to change scheduling practices to avoid disrupting worker’s lives with last-minute edits.
As Zingg hands flyers to co-workers coming in and out of the warehouse, a lot of people ask if they’ve been fired yet.
Amazon has been accused of firing workers for organizing and violating labor laws at sites where workers are starting union campaigns. The NLRB ordered a second union vote at the warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, after determining Amazon interfered with the first election. The labor board also accused Amazon of illegally threatening and surveilling workers in the lead-up to the union vote in Staten Island.
Amazon is seeking to overturn the vote to unionize in Staten Island, arguing that the NLRB and the union organizers tainted the results. It listed 25 objections against the union drive and accused Amazon Labor Union of intimidating workers to vote in support.
Amazon disputes allegations that it retaliates against workers for organizing.
“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union, and we do not retaliate against employees for exercising their rights,” Flaningan said. “While there are many established ways of ensuring we hear the opinions of our employees inside our business, we also respect the right for some to make their opinions known externally.”
So far, Zingg still has a job and says they haven’t faced any retaliation from Amazon. They talk often with the human resources representative at the site to make sure they’re following company policy, and tell the managers at RNT9 the union can be a resource to improve their working conditions as well.
Higher up, Amazon executives “have no interest in me right now,” Zingg said. But they expect that to change if and when the union cards go out.