Amazon suspended dozens of workers at its only unionized warehouse on Tuesday, one day after they organized a work stoppage following a fire at the facility.
About 50 workers at the facility in Staten Island, New York were suspended with pay, according to Connor Spence, one of the suspended workers. Spence is a picker at the warehouse, known as JFK8, and the secretary treasurer for the Amazon Labor Union, the grassroots workers group behind the successful union push.
Spence told CNN that a fire broke out at the warehouse on Monday, causing the entire building to be evacuated and all the day shift workers to be sent home. When night shift workers arrived, they were “not really told what was going on,” Spence said. Eventually, he said, managers began telling the employees to get back to their work.
“The issue that people had was the building still reeked with smoke, it was difficult to breathe at some workstations,” Spence said. “We wanted to be sent home with pay because it was unsafe.”
Spence, who works the day shift but stayed late with the night shift workers to offer support, said they organized a work stoppage and demanded that the workers be sent home with pay. He estimates “more than 100 people” participated in the stoppage. “After a while it was clear that they weren’t going to cooperate with us, that they weren’t going to hear our demands, so we decided to walk out,” he said.
Paul Flaningan, an Amazon spokesperson, confirmed the fire and that roughly 50 workers had been suspended in a statement to CNN on Wednesday.
“Late Monday afternoon there was a small fire in a cardboard compactor outside of JFK8, one of our facilities in Staten Island, New York. All employees were safely evacuated, and day shift employees were sent home with pay,” Flaningan said. “The FDNY certified the building is safe and at that point we asked all night shift employees to report to their regularly scheduled shift.”
“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,” Flaningan said.
The moves may only add to tension between Amazon and some of the workers at the facility.
Amazon has yet to formally recognize or bargain with the Amazon Labor Union at JFK8, despite losing the first round of its efforts with the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the union’s victory. The incident in Staten Island also comes about a week ahead of a separate union election – also organized by the Amazon Labor Union – at an Amazon facility near Albany, New York.
According to Spence, the roughly 50 workers at JFK8 have been suspended with pay until Amazon conducts an investigation into what happened.
“Nobody is sure how long that will take,” he said.