Why this Amazon worker voted to unionize in New York City’s landmark win

Tristan Dutchin said he felt his heart throb on Friday when his fellow Amazon workers at the Staten Island warehouse in New York City voted to unionize.

It was a landmark win for labour-organizing within the retail company. Amazon managers are reported to have worked actively to prevent workers from unionizing, using tactics that labour-organizers have described as unfair.

“I was very surprised. I was nervous,” said Dutchin, who is also an organizer for the Amazon Labor Union. He helped count the votes from warehouse workers, which the National Labor Relations Board overseeing the process reported were 2,654 (or 55 per cent) in favor of forming a union and 2,131 (or 45 per cent) against.

“We’ve put a lot of time, dedication and commitment into unionizing a multibillion-dollar corporation and it’s a very good feeling,” Dutchin told As It Happens guest host Gillian Findlay

Amazon, meanwhile, has similarly accused the organizers of not playing fair.

“We’re disappointed with the outcome of the election in Staten Island because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees,” the company said in a statement. “We’re evaluating our options, including filing objections based on the inappropriate and undue influence by the NLRB that we and others (including the National Retail Federation and US Chamber of Commerce) witnessed in this election.”

Dutchin spoke with Findlay about why he spent months organizing for this union vote. Here is part of that conversation.

I understand you’ve worked at Amazon for just over a year as a picker. What’s that job?

What you do is you stand up for like 12-13 hours. You wait for one of those robot pods [which] will bring you the items; the customer’s items. You take them out of the pod, you put it in a tote, and then you press the button to ship the tote off.

Amazon Labor Union president Christian Smalls celebrates the vote to unionize Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse in New York City. (Andrea Renault/AFP via Getty Images)

In doing that ,and working in the warehouse as you do, what did you see that convinced you that you needed a union?

[Since] I first started working at Amazon, which was in March 2021, I’ve been picked on and harassed. Not in a hostile way, but just like more in an annoying way, [about] productivity.

[By] being away, stepping away from my station just to have a drink of water, I basically have been written up a couple of times, and I was just fed up. And due to the fear of the safety of my job or me being terminated, that’s when I started to join the union because a lot of workers have been facing the same treatment as I was facing.

I felt that it was right for me to speak up and have a voice for the people — to help fight for workers. The union has helped me grow as a person. Grow as in character and to make a difference in the world.

Amazon didn’t make any of this easy for you. Tell me about the pushback you got. The kind of tactics that they used against the organizing efforts.

We’ve encountered a lot of union busters, meaning that there are rich people infiltrating some of the Amazon workers.

They’ll travel from a different state or country to come to our [fulfilment centre] to spread lies of falsehood about the unions…. It’s to encourage workers not to join the union.

Another challenge is they would put up these anti-union signs and posts saying that we’re a third party … we’re out for your money. This is why you have some workers that are very skeptical of the union. They don’t want no part in it. They try to attack us in some way.

Another issue was Amazon called the authorities on all three of my union comrades just for organizing, just for giving out food to workers.

Last week, Amazon workers at the Staten Island fulfillment center cast their votes. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

It looks like another Amazon union vote in Bessemer in Alabama will not succeed. I don’t think we’re going to know the results for a few weeks … but what do you think was the key to your success in New York?

Just basically keep spreading the word out.

I encourage everyone to do their research. Don’t believe what a corporation is telling you. Always look for the facts for yourself. Don’t be so quick to judge.

Every job, corporation, needs a union. We need our voice to be heard. We need better working conditions, not just Amazon, but it could be all Amazon facilities or, you know, another job chain … another business. We need unions.

Do you think that this is going to be instrumental, not just in terms of Amazon, but in terms of the union movement generally in the United States?

Yes, because the thing is, everyone around the world is watching what we do, and we’re pretty much setting the foundation. We’re setting a trend for other future corporations to follow what we do [and] unionize.

We’re the first in history. And we’re setting a good example. You know, a lot of people have been inspired by us, the impact that we’re making.

Workers at Amazon’s JFK8 Staten Island fulfillment center became the first US union in Amazon’s 27-year history. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Forming a union is one thing. Negotiating a contract with an employer is another. What is going to be at the top of your list when it comes to sitting down with Amazon management?

Well, my priority is that Amazon has a better building … better sanitation … because the stations are very dirty and filthy and a lot of our workers get sick off of it.

There’s many cases where Amazon workers pass out and the ambulance has to come and pick them up.

Really?

Oh yes, it happens from time to time.

Every time the ambulance has always shown up it’s because there’s no real air ventilators in Amazon. It’s a hot environment. Like they give us these little cheap fans and those do us no justice.

A more clean and spotless environment — that’s what’s my main priority, so workers don’t get sick.


Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Tristan Dutchin produced by Kate McGillivray. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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