Three Amazon Warehouses Catch Fire; Workers Protest Unsafe Conditions with Sit-in
Luis Feliz Leon
Amazon warehouses have caught fire in New York and Alabama this past week, endangering the lives of hundreds of workers.
In the unionized Staten Island facility, workers marched on managers and staged a sit-down in protest over Amazon’s disregard for their safety—and the company lashed back with mass suspensions.
The HSV1 fulfillment center in Madison, a suburb of Huntsville in northern Alabama, caught fire Monday evening, October 3, for a second time in two weeks.
“Our plant caught on fire again,” an Amazon worker at the HSV1 told WAFF. “This time it was in the same area, but it was a couple aisles over. You could still smell smoke in there. Half the warehouse was off limits.”
That same day, another fire broke out, this one in a cardboard compactor on a shipping dock at the Staten Island fulfillment center JFK8—the same one where, in April, workers won the first-ever unionized Amazon warehouse in the country.
More than 100 workers at JFK8 stopped working and demanded to be sent home with pay, marching to and occupying the offices of Amazon managers to press their demands—including for union recognition, raises that keep up with inflation, and that the company put workers’ lives before its profits.
“Amazon workers made a collective decision last night to demand that workers get sent home with pay while the smoke cleared,” the ALU said in a press statement. “We demanded to see the fire department report.”
And late Wednesday, a fire blazed at the fulfillment center ALB1 outside Albany, New York, where workers will be voting next week on whether to join the Amazon Labor Union. Amazon closed that facility for the day shift and sent workers home with pay.
“Our buildings are missing fire extinguishers. Our workers are directed to evacuate through slow-moving turnstiles instead of emergency exits,” the ALU wrote in a Twitter post Thursday, summarizing the hazardous conditions at Amazon facilities. “We’re forced to return to work amidst inhaling toxic fumes, mere minutes after the fires are extinguished.”
PRIME TIME FOR HAZARDS
It’s not clear what is causing this rash of fires, and reports from fire department investigations won’t be out for a couple of weeks.
“At least in the union places, they’re spending all their time union-busting and not on worker safety,” said Seth Goldstein, the ALU’s lawyer.
The latest news of Amazon’s dangerously inflammable warehouses comes days before the company’s shopping bonanza, Prime Day, October 11 and 12.
The shopping holiday has drawn scrutiny from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration after Amazon worker Rafael Reynado Mota Frias died of a heart attack in Carteret, New Jersey, during Prime Day in July.
OSHA is also investigating the deaths of three other Amazon workers: Alex Carillo in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Rodger Boland in Robbinsville, New Jersey; and Eric Vadinsky in Monroe Township, New Jersey.
The New York City Department of Buildings has logged more than 30 complaints and four violations on its website for the Staten Island warehouse complex, which isn’t owned by Amazon; none of them is fire-related.
Workers have long raised safety concerns at Amazon facilities. Fulfillment centers have caught fire or experienced electrical explosions. A tornado slammed into an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, in 2021, flattening the building and leaving six people dead and another hospitalized.
NIGHT SHIFT CONFUSION
At JFK8, the company sent the day shift workers home with pay, but it demanded that night shift workers report to work.
The day shift workers were told to go home after the fire department cleared the building. “I don’t think it’s right that I got paid to leave when it’s no more unsafe for them than it was for me,” day shift worker Tristan Martinez told CBS New York. “It’s just because they’re losing more money by them missing a 10-hour shift than by me going home two hours early.” Martinez was among the workers suspended.
When Andre McCroy reported to the warehouse for his night shift as a seasonal production assistant, a role adjacent to management, he walked into the main cafeteria room and learned that the sprinklers had gone off and the building was wet.
Among the night shift workers there was confusion. Amazon hadn’t let them know about the fire.
“If there was a fire in the building, why nobody texted us?” McCroy wondered. “They do massive texts about everything else. Why didn’t they tell us what was going on?
“I’m a PA. I would think that management I’m sitting at the table with would have said something, but nobody gave no real reason for nothing.”
McCroy had voted for the ALU based on his four-years of experience at Amazon convincing him that a union could bring about positive changes. “I believe that Amazon definitely needs a union because I have been there long enough to see a bunch of stuff happen,” he said.
He runs through a list: workers suffering carpal tunnel syndrome from the grueling hours of repetitive motions, workers who have gotten their toes crushed in jacks, and workers who have been fired while out on workers compensation after an injury.
Although the ALU told workers that they had the right to engage in concerted activity for “mutual aid or protection,” McCroy wasn’t convinced Amazon would abide by federal labor law. “Amazon will find a way to do some stuff that isn’t legal,” he said.
MARCHED ON MANAGEMENT
But the potential for retaliation didn’t zap McCroy’s nerve.
When managers began calling people back to their work stations, he grew increasingly worried. Managers and human resources personnel said the fire department had declared it safe to return to work. Workers weren’t buying it.
“What about people with asthma who can’t breathe in the fumes?” McCroy asked one manager. “Was it safe enough for those people to actually get into the building, and if people were uncomfortable about their safety in general, what was the solution?”
With no clear answers, he marched with ALU leaders and hundreds of other workers to Human Resources to demand answers. The ALU leaders demanded to see a copy of the fire report. McCroy asked if anyone from H.R. had walked over to the departments they were sending workers back to, and the human resources personnel said no.
At one point, “If you feel unsafe, please leave,” Amazon manager Mike Tannelli was recorded saying, in a video posted on Twitter. “Your time will be addressed.”
But at about 8:45 p.m., a manager got on a bullhorn and told workers occupying the H.R. office to report to work—warning that if they didn’t, they would be written up for insubordination.
“He just came with the bullhorn, started yelling: ‘The building is safe. Everybody gotta get back to work. If y’all ain’t back to work in 10 minutes, this is insubordination,’” said McCroy.
Workers dispersed after the threat—some going home, others returning to work. But McCroy stayed with a group of workers asking if anyone had gone to assess the situation in the work areas Amazon was deeming safe.
“They said somebody did, but none of them did personally,” said McCroy. “I told them I was going to walk over there myself to see what was going on.”
He went to the ship dock department and found he could smell the fumes from docks 140 through 155; the smell was less pungent after dock 186. He returned to the human resource office to ask whether , in the event the workers asked to be moved or to go home if the smell was too strong for them, they would comply. H.R. responded that workers could take voluntary time off—with one caveat.
“They would give people VTO if they went to H.R. individually,” said McCroy. “The ALU asked them if they could come out and say that” to the larger group of workers outside the H.R. office. “That was what they told us while we was in the office.”
One worker in the room was wary of what he described as “corporate double-talk.” “If that was the situation,” McCroy said, “they needed to come out there and tell them, versus trying to just tell the two three of us that was in the office.”
Human Resources never came out to tell workers they could go home and use voluntary time off.
“Somebody told me from H.R. that’s not what they was going to do. They was not going to let anyone go home on VTO,” said McCroy. “They will have to use their own personal time if they want to or be forced to go to work. There was no way around it.”
McCroy went back to work. So he was surprised when he learned he was among the workers suspended.
“I don’t understand why I got suspended,” he said. “I was actually there just to make sure that the people I worked with was going to get a fair deal. If the building was deemed unsafe, how would they take care of it?”
Days earlier, McCroy had celebrated his four-year work anniversary at Amazon.
“This incident took place after my four years and seven days on the job, which was funny,” he said. “They gave me my little keychain and a button, and less than 12 hours later, I was suspended.”
The ALU said about 650 workers participated in the night shift action, which it characterized as a sit-down strike. Amazon spokesperson Paul Flanigan said a “small group refused to work and remained in the building without permission.”
ALU Communications Director Cassio Mendoza, who works at the JFK8 facility, told Labor Notes that the union was tracking how many suspensions have occurred and it is more than a hundred. Among the workers suspended were almost ALU’s entire executive board and other worker leaders.
ALU has filed unfair labor practice charges over the firings.
“During our election, Amazon argued we don’t need a union because the company has an ‘open door policy’ that associates can use to address concerns,” wrote the ALU in a Twitter post. “Hundreds of workers used it at once, and we were all threatened and suspended.”
Amazon is pulling all the stops. Last month, an administrative judge with the National Labor Relations Board found Amazon had no grounds in contesting the union election results. Like Starbucks and Apple, Amazon has turned to aggressive tactics to stem the tide of organizing at its warehouses and delay bargaining a contract where workers have unionized.