A still-unrecognized labor union for an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York said early Wednesday that 50 workers at the facility were suspended by the online retail giant for staging a walkout after a fire led to unsafe work conditions. About 100 workers staged a march through the warehouse facility Monday night, demanding to be sent home with pay after the fire in a trash compactor just outside.
“It’s just point-blank an unsafe work environment,” JFK8 warehouse employee Leo Shockey told CBS New York after the blaze. He and other employees said the fire left the warehouse too filled with smoke to work safely.
In a statement posted to its Twitter page, JFK8’s Amazon Labor Union — a grassroots group of former and current workers still battling Amazon’s management for formal recognition as a union — said management had suspended “over 50 workers who were involved in last night’s walkout.”
The union called it “clear retaliation” for the action.
“Amazon workers made a collective decision last night to demand that workers get sent home while the smoke cleared,” the Amazon Labor Union said, adding that it had also demanded to see a report by the New York Fire Department, which responded to extinguish the fire.
The blaze started when a compactor caught fire by a loading dock on Monday afternoon, not long before a shift changeover. Employee Tristian Martinez, who’s shift was ending, shot video and told CBS New York he and other members of the day shift were told they could go home at about 5:15 p.m.
When night shift employees started to arrive not long after, they said Amazon managers didn’t tell them about the fire, which caused no injuries.
“There was no message from Amazon whatsoever, so all of us just came to work in an unsafe environment not being told anything,” employee Brett Daniels said.
Employees claim smoke still lingered inside the facility.
“It started making me feel congested. My head was hurting. It was definitely a lot,” Shockey told CBS New York.
“They didn’t show us proof it was safe to work there. They just told us just to work right through it,” added Eli Andino.
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson told CBS New York that the fire department had “certified the building is safe and at that point we asked all night shift employees to report to their regularly scheduled shift.”
Fire officials told CBS New York, however, that while the FDNY had responded to a fire outside the building, it wasn’t clear whether the attending team had inspected conditions inside the facility.
“I don’t think it’s right that I got paid to leave when it’s no more unsafe for them than it was for me,” early shift worker Martinez told CBS New York. “It’s just because they’re losing more money by them missing a 10-hour shift than by me going home two hours early.”
The ordeal comes just a few months after workers at the Staten Island warehouse became the first Amazon employee collective to vote to unionize. Amazon appealed the results of that vote, claiming the election was tainted by the local National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office.
Just weeks ago, in a major victory for the employees’ unionization bid, Amazon’s management lost a legal challenge with the NRLB to have the results of that vote thrown out, but the Amazon Labor Union still faces a potentially long battle for recognition by America’s second-largest employer.
“We were getting first hand reports of both smoke and water flowing in response to the fire itself,” the Amazon Labor Union group said in its early Wednesday morning statement. “When workers demanded the right to speak together as a union, Amazon then increased their intimidation by informing us that key worker leaders have now been suspended for doing exactly what workers voted for, coming together to make a plan that we as frontline workers felt safe on the job. We will not tolerate any unsafe workplace and we will not tolerate intimidation.”
The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, said the online retailer had confirmed the employee suspensions at the JFK8 facility. The newspaper quoted Amazon spokesman Paul Flanigan as saying that while the company respects its workers’ right to protest, it wasn’t appropriate for staff to occupy workspaces while they were in use, referring to the employees’ march through the warehouse.
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