Amazon Union Vote Becomes Flashpoint In Staten Island Congressional Race

When workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, officially unionized on April 1, electoral politics was not the first thing on anyone’s mind.

Observers across the country instead hailed the result of the union election at the JFK8 facility as a historic win for the labor movement, not least because it was achieved by an independent union without the resources of a more established labor group.

But since the union win took place in New York’s 11th Congressional District, a swing seat that Democrats hope to retake this November, Democratic candidates have flocked to express solidarity with the workers and are already using the union success as a cudgel against Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis.

“What an incredible achievement by a grassroots organization here on Staten Island taking on the biggest corporation in the world,” former Rep. Max Rose, the Democrat unseated by Malliotakis, tweeted.

Rose, who turned the seat blue in 2018 with the support of major labor unions, is running again with the blessing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm. Rose also attended a solidarity rally convened by the Amazon Labor Union in late March and spoke out against the March 2020 firing of an organizer, employee Christian Smalls, who went on to found and lead the Amazon Labor Union.

Rose has competition to his left in New York’s June 28 primary, however.

Brittany Ramos DeBarros, a progressive activist running against Rose with the support of the Working Families Party, spoke at a rally and news conference convened by the Amazon Labor Union outside the warehouse complex in August. Ramos DeBarros, an Afghan War veteran turned anti-war crusader, was present when leaders of the union effort announced the results in Brooklyn on April 1. And on Friday, Smalls, now president of the ALU, endorsed Ramos DeBarros.

“When it comes to standing up for working class people of Staten Island, I believe Brittany Ramos DeBarros is the candidate for everyone,” Smalls wrote in a message that Ramos DeBarros shared on Instagram.

HuffPost followed up with Smalls by email to seek additional information about his decision to endorse Ramos DeBarros and his thoughts on Rose but did not receive a response.

Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls (in red hoodie) hugs fellow organizers after the final unionization votes were counted on April 1. Smalls has endorsed Brittany Ramos-DeBarros for Congress.

Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Associated Press

Regardless, both candidates have said more about the union election than has Malliotakis. In the days following the Amazon vote, Malliotakis, a former state assemblywoman, did not comment on the union election.

HuffPost caught up with Malliotakis last Thursday as she was entering the U.S. House chamber to cast a vote.

Asked about the results of the union vote, Malliotakis did not go beyond an expression of respect for the outcome of a legal process.

“Great! They had a vote ― good for them,” she said.

Staten Island is a stronghold of union members, with unions representing about 32% of the borough’s workers.

Traditionally, Republicans from union-heavy areas have shown greater support for organized labor than have their counterparts in the rest of the country.

But when the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act in March 2021 ― landmark labor reform legislation that would have made it easier to unionize ― Malliotakis was not one of the five Republicans who joined Democrats in voting for the PRO Act.

“Labor has been used and abused by both parties for decades and Nicole is unfortunately the latest in a long line of politicians to do the same,” Rose told HuffPost in a statement. “In Congress, I helped lead the fight to pass the PRO Act, and pushed back on NAFTA 2.0 until it removed giveaways for Big Pharma, and never hesitated to take on special interests who tried to screw over organized labor.”

“What was accomplished on Staten Island is historic and for Congresswoman Malliotakis to classify it as just ‘they had an election’ is disgraceful and shows whose side she is on,” he added.

A Malliotakis spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests from HuffPost for a response to criticism of her comments about the Amazon union vote and her vote against the PRO Act.

Early in her tenure, it appeared as though Malliotakis was eager to burnish her credentials with hardcore supporters of former President Donald Trump. She was one of 147 Republicans in the House and Senate who voted against certifying at least one state’s results in the 2020 presidential election.

But Malliotakis has cast at least one high-profile, bipartisan vote, lending her support to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill in November.

“I proudly voted for the bipartisan infrastructure package that will improve the safety and prosperity of communities across America and make the necessary improvements to bring our infrastructure into the 21st century,” she said in a statement.

Brittany Ramos DeBarros and former Rep. Max Rose (D) both claim the pro-union mantle in the Democratic primary for New York's 11th Congressional District.
Brittany Ramos DeBarros and former Rep. Max Rose (D) both claim the pro-union mantle in the Democratic primary for New York’s 11th Congressional District.

Associated Press/Brittany Ramos DeBarros Campaign

Since that time, the Democrats who dominate New York’s state legislature have redrawn New York’s 11th to include more liberal parts of Brooklyn and fewer conservative enclaves. Following redistricting, New York’s 11th went from a seat that Trump won by about 10 percentage points in 2020 to one that Biden would have won by a slightly greater margin.

Republicans, who have challenged the new map in court, received a favorable ruling on March 31. A Republican judge on the state Supreme Court threw out the new boundaries, arguing that the map was “unconstitutionally drawn with political bias.”

Democrats believe they will have success overturning the ruling on appeal. Regardless, they anticipate a more favorable district for the party than the one in which Malliotakis won in 2020.

Malliotakis’ vote against the PRO Act and lack of more enthusiastic support for the Amazon union is a liability, according to Sal Albanese, a former New York City councilman and moderate Democrat, who now lives on Staten Island.

“Labor is not unpopular on Staten Island,” Albanese said.

At the same time, Malliotakis’ overall stance on unions is likely to be less important on the cop-heavy island than her support for law enforcement and opposition to police criticism, according to Albanese, who lost a City Council race in November despite nearly unanimous support from organized labor.

“There are a lot of labor folks who vote Republican because of cultural issues,” he said.

Malliotakis previewed this strategy in her interview with HuffPost on Thursday, saying she planned to emphasize how she believes Democratic policies have contributed to both inflation and an uptick in crime.

“We’re seeing Democrats tie the hands of police and put in place policies that drive crime up,” she said.



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