Amazon on Tuesday suspended at least 50 workers who refused to return to the shop floor for a few hours on Monday night due to health and safety concerns following a fire at the JFK8 fulfillment center in New York City, the company’s only unionized warehouse in the United States.
Roughly 100 night shift workers at the Staten Island facility participated in a work stoppage “shortly after a fire broke out in a trash compactor machine used on cardboard,” The Washington Post reported, citing officials from the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). “Labor leaders said the warehouse smelled of smoke and that they couldn’t breathe. One worker went to the hospital, they said.”
Late Monday night, ALU president Christian Smalls tweeted: “I’ve been out here in the rain talking to upset workers. Instead of being sent home, Amazon management is threatening time deductions and written warnings for not returning back to the floor. The dock smells like burnt chemicals [but] instead of shutting down they hire a cleanup crew.”
Smalls recently shared footage of the fire and ensuing protests on social media. “Instead of addressing concerns of health and safety, putting workers on paid suspension was [Amazon’s] response,” he wrote. “Shame on them!”
ALU lawyer Seth Goldstein called the punishment of Staten Island employees “a violation of workers’ rights to join in a collective action about the terms and conditions of their employment.”
“The workers didn’t feel safe going back to work,” said Goldstein. “They were engaging in rights that the National Labor Relations Act have protected for 85 years.”
Amazon spokesperson Paul Flaningan told the newspaper that “all employees were safely evacuated from the area of the warehouse where the fire had broken out, and day shift workers were sent home with pay. He added that once the fire department had certified that the building was safe, the company asked night shift workers to report to their scheduled shifts.”
“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,” said Flaningan.
ALU, however, disputes the corporation’s account and describes the suspensions as “clear retaliation against workers who refused to work in [unsafe] conditions.”
“Amazon associates at JFK8 had our lives placed at risk yesterday, and this isn’t the first time,” ALU said Tuesday in a statement. “Yesterday’s safety and health risk, a fire, is but one example of why we voted to form a union, so we can have a real voice on crucial issues which impact all associates every day.”
Originally published at Commondreams.org.