Amazon Cracks Down on Organizing After Historic Union Win

The fiercely anti-union company has doubled down on its anti-union efforts at a Staten Island warehouse, LDJ5, that is scheduled to begin a union election on April 25.

Apr 13 2022, 1:04pm
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Less than two weeks after a small upstart union won the first election at an Amazon warehouse in U.S. history, the fiercely anti-union company is cracking down on organizing at a smaller neighboring warehouse, known as LDJ5, that is scheduled to begin its own union election on April 25.  

Organizers of the scrappy Amazon Labor Union say the company has clamped down on  union activity in recent days at LDJ5, by repeatedly dismantling a pro-union banner in the break room, disciplining a leader of the unionization effort at LDJ5 for her organizing activity on the warehouse floor, and confiscating pro-union literature. 

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“Amazon’s tactics have gotten very, very intense,” said Madeline Wesley, an Amazon warehouse worker at LDJ5 and the treasurer of Amazon Labor Union who was written up on April 10 for “soliciting” her coworkers. “They’re getting away with lots of illegal anti-union activity.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

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Amazon has also continued to hold daily mandatory anti-union meetings and one-on-ones at LDJ5, and ALU organizers say, that the company has hired anti-union consultants, who typically work as independent contractors, as full-time employees with “blue badges” that allow them to blend in better with workers in the warehouse. Motherboard reviewed documentation that Amazon hired a veteran union buster, Rebecca Smith, to work at LDJ5. Smith is the author of Union Hypocrisy, has more than a decade of experience fighting union drives, and has ties to “ultra-conservative” political circles.

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board’s top attorney said she wanted to ban so-called ‘captive audience’ meetings saying they involve “an unlawful threat” that workers will be punished for refusing to listen to “such speech.”

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At both warehouses, Amazon has deployed a wide variety of other anti-union propaganda, including fliers, mailers, phone calls, Instagram and Facebook ads, banners, and videos.

A victory for the union at LDJ5, which employs some 1,500 workers according to an internal roster obtained by Motherboard earlier this year, would be an important indicator of whether Amazon Labor Union’s success can be replicated elsewhere and spur a wave of unionization at Amazon warehouses across the country.  

In late March, representatives of the company also repeatedly confiscated pro-union literature in the break room at LDJ5, according to Amazon Labor Union and videos uploaded to social media, where an Amazon representative confiscates union literature, but then promises to put it back when workers confront her saying “it’s illegal to remove anti-union literature,” and then removes it again shortly after. 

In December, Amazon reached a national deal with the National Labor Relations Board, agreeing to email past and current warehouse workers in the United States—likely more than one million people—of their rights to organize within its facilities, the largest concession Amazon had made to date to organized labor. 

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The cases that led to the settlement involved workers in Staten Island and Chicago, where Amazon had banned workers from being in its break rooms and parking lots more than 15 minutes before or after a shift, impeding workers ability to organize. 

Amazon’s settlement in December gave workers greater legal protection to organize in break rooms at Amazon warehouses, which became crucial in Amazon Labor Union’s victory in April, but ALU lawyers say that Amazon has refused to fully abide by this settlement at LDJ5. 

“Amazon is violating the national settlement agreement,” said Seth Goldstein, an attorney who represents Amazon Labor Union workers and has filed more than 50 unfair labor practice complaints against Amazon on behalf of the union since May 2021. “These are blatant attacks on an agreement they were a party to. The core of the matter is Amazon agreed to something but they’re violating it because it suits their purposes for winning the election.”

At JFK8, Amazon did not interfere when union supporters hung up a free-standing yellow banner in the break room that said “Amazon Labor Union: VOTE YES!” in the lead up to the recent election. But when workers brought the banner into the break room at LDJ5 following Amazon Labor Union’s victory at JFK8, Amazon managers asked workers to take it down. 

When workers refused, Amazon representatives removed the banner multiple times, at one point telling workers that the banner was only allowed to remain up if workers were holding it the entire time, and later saying that the banner could not be displayed in the break room at all. 

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“It’s the same banner that we were allowed to have at JFK8, but they didn’t think we’d win,” said Wesley. “First a manager and HR rep said we’re asking you to take it down, they didn’t say why, and we said ‘no we’re not going to take it down. It’s legally protected.’ Then they said it's a policy and we said’ then show us the policy,’ but [they refused.]’ Then they said organizers have to hold the banner, it can’t be freestanding. Then they said no banners allowed period. Their policy keeps changing and they still haven’t shown us the policy, but we’re worried that they’ll write organizers up for it, so now there are no banners.”

On April 10, two Amazon representatives called Wesley into a private meeting and presented her with a disciplinary write up for “soliciting” her coworkers during work hours at a workstation five days earlier, according to an audio recording obtained by Motherboard. According to an Amazon manager who is recorded on audio, Amazon punished Wesley for asking her coworkers to “vote yes” during work hours because “Amazon prohibits employees from soliciting during working time in working areas.” 

“Soliciting involves engaging with a group of associates during the working time period,” the human resources representative said. 

“So am I not allowed to talk to people during work?” Wesley said.

“You’re more than welcome to talk to anybody you’d like to,” the Amazon representative says. “It’s just when it’s regarding anything about the union.” 

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“So I’m not allowed to talk about the union when I’m working?” Wesley says. 

“Specifically soliciting and engaging associates regarding that in the lanes while people are clocked in is prohibited, but you’re more than welcome to distribute any type of literature during non working periods,” the representative says. 

“They wouldn’t give me any specific info on what I did,” Wesley told Motherboard of the incident. “I’m on the floor talking to people about union all the time. I have freedom of speech and other people are talking about the union all the time.”

In response to Amazon’s disciplinary action against Wesley, Goldstein filed unfair labor practice changes against Amazon for allegedly retaliating against a worker in order to discourage union activity. Goldstein also filed an unfair labor practice charge against Amazon for removing the “Vote Yes!” banner from the LDJ5 break room. Both charges will likely not be resolved for months, long after a result is determined in the upcoming union election. 

The union election at LDJ5 will occur throughout the week of April 25. Votes will be tallied on May 2. 

Tagged:

NEW YORK CITY, labor, Staten Island, On the Clock, Amazon labor union

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