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Capital Region Amazon workers join growing union movement

Workers at Amazon's 1 million-square-foot Schodack facility seeking to unionize rallied Sunday in Albany.

Under a blazing midday sun, Rep. Paul Tonko addressed the crowd: “Are you ready? ‘Yeah!’ Are you strong? ‘Yeah!’ Are you determined? ‘Yeah!’ Are you courageous? ‘Yeah!’ Absolutely! I stand with you, I share with you the efforts to make certain that the union voices are heard and the worker voices are heard.”

The Democrat lent his support to Amazon workers gathered in Townsend Park during a rally that served as a unionization campaign kickoff event for ALB 1 Voices United, which is seeking recognition from the world’s largest online retailer.

Union campaign manager Heather Goodall says employees are demanding higher pay and safer working conditions.

"We had somebody who broke their finger. We've had dehydration, we've had people passing out. So safety is definitely one of our primary concerns," said Goodall. "The other thing, because we have a majority of our employees that are currently receiving some form of public assistance, we're not earning a living wage. And also automatic termination is something that's happening throughout the warehouse. Our turnover is at 150%-plus.”

The Rensselaer County Amazon fulfillment center opened in September 2020 and employs about 1,000 workers. Kevin Hogan says he resigned from Amazon on Saturday. The Green Island resident says he has many safety concerns after working there a year and a half.

“I'm hoping that the union basically clamps down worse than any OSHA violations," said Hogan. "And I'm hoping that they reinforce any OSHA standards that are already out there. From what I hear, OSHA come in and they weren't happy with the facility. I mean, I didn't see it, but there is just, personally I think they should offer people a week training, not this one- or two-day training.”

Amazon Labor Union founder and President Chris Smalls says workers need to make $30 an hour to start just to meet the cost of living. Smalls helped lead a successful union drive at an Amazon facility in Staten Island earlier this year.

"I'm here to show support on the ground and also make a demand to Amazon that they're not going to give up," Smalls said. "They're ready to fight. And what they're fighting for is the same thing we're fighting for down in Staten Island, which is better wages, longer breaks, better medical leave options, job security, a pension for themselves, and also free college for themselves and their children as well.

Albany Common Councilor Gabriella Romero says the city has been a strong union town and the struggle continues.

“We have seen this trend of the wealthiest staying at the top and keeping that wealth for way too long," Romero said. "So, unionization is obviously about taking back workers’ rights, but also addressing the wealth inequality kind of within our workforce. So it's exciting. We did it with Capital Roots. We're going to do it with Joseph House and we're going to do it with Amazon workers here in Albany.”

Amazon responded to a request for comment by email, writing “While there are many established ways of ensuring we hear the opinions of our employees inside our business, we also respect their right to make their opinions known externally. As we have consistently stated, our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have. As a company, 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.”

Goodall emphasizes the workers' main focus now is convincing Amazon to recognize ALB 1 and gather public support for the cause.

"So under the Amazon Labor Union we have established in the city, and now we're hoping to get our majority of a vote to demand that Amazon recognize our union," said Goodall. "That's what we're trying to do. We're demanding recognition by Amazon for the Amazon Labor Union. Demanding recognition."

A call to the Schodack town supervisor’s office seeking comment was not returned.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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