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Amazon's JFK8 fulfillment center is seen in Staten Island on March 25, 2022.

Amazon's JFK8 fulfillment center is seen in Staten Island on March 25, 2022. (Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

'Unreal': Amazon Suspends 50 Employees Who Refused to Work After Fire Broke Out

An Amazon Labor Union lawyer called the punishment of Staten Island employees "a violation of workers' rights to join in a collective action about the terms and conditions of their employment."

Kenny Stancil

Amazon on Tuesday suspended at least 50 workers who refused to return to the shop floor for a few hours on Monday night due to health and safety concerns following a fire at the JFK8 fulfillment center in New York City, the company's only unionized warehouse in the United States.

"We will not tolerate any unsafe workplace and we will not tolerate intimidation."

Roughly 100 night shift workers at the Staten Island facility participated in a work stoppage "shortly after a fire broke out in a trash compactor machine used on cardboard," The Washington Post reported, citing officials from the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). "Labor leaders said the warehouse smelled of smoke and that they couldn't breathe. One worker went to the hospital, they said."

Late Monday night, ALU president Christian Smalls tweeted: "I've been out here in the rain talking to upset workers. Instead of being sent home, Amazon management is threatening time deductions and written warnings for not returning back to the floor. The dock smells like burnt chemicals [but] instead of shutting down they hire a cleanup crew."

Smalls recently shared footage of the fire and ensuing protests on social media. "Instead of addressing concerns of health and safety, putting workers on paid suspension was [Amazon's] response," he wrote. "Shame on them!"

Journalists Steven Greenhouse and Jordan Chariton respectively characterized Amazon's response as "punitive" and "unreal."

ALU lawyer Seth Goldstein called the punishment of Staten Island employees "a violation of workers' rights to join in a collective action about the terms and conditions of their employment."

"The workers didn't feel safe going back to work," said Goldstein. "They were engaging in rights that have been protected for 85 years under the National Labor Relations Act."

As the Post—which is owned by Amazon's mega-billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos—reported, "The mass suspension took place less than 10 days before warehouse workers at a separate Amazon warehouse near Albany, New York, are slated to vote to become the second Amazon workforce to join Amazon Labor Union."

ALU scored a historic victory for the labor movement in April when workers at JFK8 voted to form the nation's first union at Amazon, the second-largest employer in the country. Nonetheless, the e-commerce giant, which spent big on union-busting consultants and pulled out all the stops in an unsuccessful bid to crush the organizing drive, has yet to recognize the independent union.

"Amazon Labor Union organizers say Amazon's crackdown in Staten Island was intended to have a broad chilling effect on their organizing campaigns, including the upcoming election," the Post reported. "Union organizers said that 10 union leaders who led the action were suspended on Tuesday, as well as 40 warehouse workers who refused to return to their shifts."

Amazon spokesperson Paul Flaningan told the newspaper that "all employees were safely evacuated from the area of the warehouse where the fire had broken out, and day shift workers were sent home with pay. He added that once the fire department had certified that the building was safe, the company asked night shift workers to report to their scheduled shifts."

"While the vast majority of employees reported to their workstations, a small group refused to return to work and remained in the building without permission," said Flaningan.

ALU, however, disputes the corporation's account and describes the suspensions as "clear retaliation against workers who refused to work in [unsafe] conditions."

"Amazon associates at JFK8 had our lives placed at risk yesterday, and this isn't the first time," ALU said Tuesday in a statement. "Yesterday's safety and health risk, a fire, is but one example of why we voted to form a union, so we can have a real voice on crucial issues which impact all associates every day."

"Our unionization effort has its origins in a health and safety crisis, the Covid pandemic, and Jeff Bezos' and Amazon's complete disregard for our safety and our families' safety," the union continued.

Before he was elected president of ALU, Smalls was fired from JFK8 in March 2020 after organizing a walkout to protest Amazon's refusal to adequately protect workers from the coronavirus.

The Staten Island facility has earned a reputation for egregious violations of workers' rights since it opened in September 2018. Data published earlier this year, for instance, shows that the fulfillment center's already above-average injury rate increased by 15% from 2020 to 2021.

"It is well-documented that Amazon warehouses have major safety and health issues and their treatment of every one of us yesterday underscores why we need Amazon management to respect our choice to unionize, to follow the law, and to stop their legal stalling and start negotiating with us over key issues, including our own safety and health," ALU said Tuesday.

"We won our unionization election fair and square," said ALU, pointing to the National Labor Relations Board's recently announced plan to throw out Amazon's objections to the union's victory, which paves the way for contract negotiations.

"Amazon workers made a collective decision last night to demand that workers get sent home with pay while the smoke cleared," the union continued. "We demanded to see the fire department report. We demanded real information about what was happening."

"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," the union added. "We will not tolerate any unsafe workplace and we will not tolerate intimidation."

ALU reportedly plans to file an unfair labor practice complaint in response to the suspensions.

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