Amazon workers in New York launch campaign to unionize

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With Amazon facing blowback from local officials over its plan to open a headquarters in Queens, New York, some of the online giant’s workers in another borough are registering their own demands — for a union.

Employees at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island on Wednesday announced the campaign, which is being backed by  the powerful Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The labor group is also working to organize employees at Whole Foods, the grocery chain now owned by Amazon.

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Some workers at the Staten Island distribution center cited safety, low pay and long shifts without adequate breaks as key reasons for the unionization drive, which was first reported by Bloomberg.

“All they care about is their numbers,” employee Rashad Long told the news service. “They talk to you like you’re a robot,” added Long, who earns $18.60 an hour and commutes four hours each day to work at the Amazon warehouse.

The RWDSU in November issued a report detailing what it claims to be deadly and dehumanizing working conditions at Amazon, along with what it claims is the company’s record of anti-union activities.

An Amazon spokesperson denied the company opposes unions.

“Amazon associates are the heart and soul of our operations, and we respect employees’ right to choose to join or not join a labor union,” she said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. “Amazon maintains an open-door policy that encourages employees to bring their comments, questions and concerns directly to their management team for discussion and resolution. We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce.”

Local lawmaker decries “bad” deal

The labor tension comes as Amazon defends its plan to invest $2.5 billion and create 25,000 jobs in New York, a project critics say will overburden public transportation and increase housing costs in an already pricey rental market.  

At a New York City Council hearing Wednesday on Amazon’s proposed office development in Queens, a handful of pro-union Amazon workers, community activists and politicians held a press conference to decry the $2.8 billion in subsidies New orrk is offering Amazon.

The RWDSU also blasted the deal, which it said in a statement sees “one of the world’s richest companies set to receive billions of dollars in subsidies and handouts.”

Critics of Amazon’s plan shouted and jeered during the hearing, with opponents including City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, a Democrat whose district includes the planned project. He calls the deal “bad for Long Island City, bad for Queens and bad for New York City.”

The speaker of the council urged Amazon to not interfere in Staten Island.

Brian Huseman, a vice president for public policy at Amazon, said the company will provide “well-paying jobs to New York City residents.” He also touted the warehouse jobs as good ones that pay up to $23 an hour.

Questioned by council members, representatives for the city’s Economic Development Corp. said they had not asked Amazon whether it would commit to refraining from any efforts to hinder workers from joining a union.

The council does not have a vote on the deal and does not have the power to block it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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