Heather Goodall says the quest to unionize an Amazon warehouse in upstate New York, where a union election began on Wednesday, can be traced back to the suicide of her son, Michael James Fahrenkopf, in 2016. After discovering that a handful of other employees who worked for the same computer chip manufacturer had also committed suicide in recent years, Goodall became concerned that there might be a connection between the deaths and the working conditions inside plants at the $27 billion company. Though she never could prove it, her lingering concerns made her skeptical of the power that large corporations have over their rank-and-file staff and the conditions under which they must work to make ends meet.
She told Recode that when she started working at an Amazon facility in February 2022 and discovered what she saw as poor treatment of the company’s lowest paid workers, she felt like she needed to stand up and start organizing workers in the hopes of influencing positive change.
“Amazon’s obsession was placed on consumers to the point where it became negligent to employees,” she told Recode in late September.
As Amazon has grown over the last decade, so too has scrutiny of how the company treats its hundreds of thousands of workers who have long been the invisible engine of the picking, packing, and shipping machine that powers the company’s e-commerce dominance. While the company led the way for large nonunion retailers in boosting its minimum hourly pay to $15 back in 2018, its warehouses have been home to comparatively high injury rates and worker turnover numbers that led some inside the company to predict that Amazon would run out of workers to hire in the not-so-distant future. In return, worker organizing inside Amazon warehouses has picked up in recent years, with the pandemic as a catalyst. Amazon has responded by deploying staff and hiring anti-union consultants to apply pressure to employees at facilities where union organizing is happening or suspected. A former Amazon executive previously told Recode that unionization was seen internally as “likely the single biggest threat to the business model.”
For Goodall, she says she began talking to fellow workers about the idea of organizing with a union soon after starting her job and eventually sought an election to be represented by the worker-led Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which won a historic vote at a giant Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, in April 2022. Voting for around 400 eligible workers at Goodall’s facility near Albany, New York, began on Wednesday and will run through Monday, October 17. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees the voting, will tally results on Tuesday, October 18. With Amazon management applying heavy pressure inside the warehouse to make sure there’s no repeat of ALU’s first win in Staten Island the next union victory will be the hardest.
“A victory for these workers would again be an upset,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor professor at Rutgers University. “It’s not just that when you overcome the odds in one workplace that it’s somehow easier.”
For Goodall, the reason to organize comes down to three simple words: quality of life.
“The top thing we are fighting for is quality of life,” Goodall told Recode in early October. “We are missing the mark on quality of life.”
That encompasses many things. Better wages, yes. New workers at the warehouse were paid $15.70 an hour until a $1.30 per hour raise was announced earlier this month. (Minimum wage in upstate New York is $13.20 an hour.) Safer working conditions — that too. (A fire in a cardboard compactor at the facility last week was one of four blazes across three Amazon warehouses within a few days. No employees were injured; night-shift workers were sent home, and employees working the following day shift were kept home with pay.) And better work accommodations for those with disabilities or those coming back to work after medical leave. The facility, known as ALB1, is an “XL” warehouse because, in Amazon’s words, the staff there “handles the big stuff — those unique customer orders that weigh over 50 pounds: big screen TVs, furniture, appliances, and more.”
“We want breaks consistent with the work that we are doing,” Goodall said. “We want to be able to afford to buy lunch and put gas in our cars.”
Amazon spokesperson Paul Flaningan said in a statement, “We’ve always said that we want our employees to have their voices heard, and we hope and expect this process allows for that.”
The election near Albany comes six months after the worker-led Amazon Labor Union secured its Staten Island victory, the first U.S. union victory at a facility in Amazon’s history. But the battle against Amazon there is still ongoing. Amazon contested the union victory, claiming more than 20 issues with the union’s behavior, including harassment of voters and how the NLRB ran and staffed the election. An NLRB official who oversaw the objection hearing has recommended that all of Amazon’s objections be thrown out and that the Amazon Labor Union win be certified. That decision is now before an NLRB regional director, but Amazon’s CEO Andy Jassy insinuated at Code Conference last month that Amazon will continue to battle the NLRB on the issue and is not conceding defeat.
“I think that’s going to take a long time to play out because I think it’s unlikely the NLRB is going to [rule] against themselves,” Jassy said.
This election will also serve as another test of whether organizers can secure a second victory or whether the original historic win in Staten Island was rooted, at least in part, in the fact that the creators of the Amazon Labor Union had themselves all worked in the facility. A second ALU election at another Staten Island warehouse in May ended with a sizable defeat.
“In any of these elections, the odds are really stacked against the workers who are organizing,” Givan, the Rutgers professor said. “That’s true in any workplace but especially in these Amazon warehouses that have extremely high turnover and where the company has very deep pockets in terms of how much they can spend in their anti-union campaign.”
But workers are continuing to try. Earlier this week, Amazon workers at a warehouse in the crucial Inland Empire logistics region of Southern California filed a petition with the NLRB requesting to hold an election to unionize with ALU. If recent history is an indicator, they won’t be the last.