Employee Charges Amazon With Violating Labor Law at NYC Union Drive

The charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board alleges that Amazon built a fence to discourage a growing union drive at its Staten Island warehouse.
May 14, 2021, 5:46pm
Amazon fence labor charge
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Since late April, organizers of a union drive at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse complex have been hosting a weekly barbecue on a patch of public land near a bus stop that has been attracting a growing crowd of Amazon warehouse workers who stop by during shift changes to grab hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, and ziti. According to the union, hundreds of these workers have also signed union cards. 

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On May 4, several hundred workers showed up to the barbecue, according to organizers of the group that calls itself the Amazon Labor Union. The next day, a chain link fence was erected around the perimeter of Amazon's parking lot for warehouse workers, forcing the union organizers to relocate to a location with less foot traffic. 

In response to the fence, Derrick Palmer, an Amazon warehouse worker in Staten Island, has now filed an unfair labor practice charge against Amazon for allegedly building the fence that has interfered with workers' rights to engage in union organizing activity, according to the federal charge obtained by Motherboard and filed on May 11. The charge alleges that in addition to building the fence to discourage labor organizing activity, Amazon has sent emails and text messages that violate workers' union rights. Amazon has denied constructing the fence and says it was put up by the company's landlord.

"The location where they played the fence messed up our unionizing efforts," said Derrick Palmer, an Amazon warehouse worker at JFK8, the largest of three Staten Island warehouses, and a leader of the ongoing union drive. 

"We had our tent set up at a nice location where we could interact with workers who are coming on and off the bus to and from three different warehouses," Palmer continued. "Because of the fence, we had to move to an area where we're only able to interact with workers from [one of the three facilities]." 

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The launch of the Staten Island union drive—run by workers and not affiliated with a major union—follows the defeat of a high profile union election at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Already, Amazon has begun a campaign to derail the union drive, using tactics similar to those in Bessemer, such as anti-union messaging on TV screens, in bathroom stalls, and text messages, to dissuade workers from unionizing and warning employees not to trust unionizing colleagues. Organizers have told Motherboard that in addition to the fence, Amazon has also tried to intimidate organizers by calling the police and fire departments on them. 

An Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard that Amazon did not place the calls or put up the fence—claiming that the property's landlord, Matrix Global Logistics, had called the fire department on organizers who used a generator and installed the fence. A copy of the request made to the New York Fire Department obtained by Motherboard indicates that the caller asked to remain anonymous. This does not rule out the possibility that Amazon asked or encouraged its landlord to install the fence or call the police and fire departments on organizers. 

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Matrix Global Logistics did not return Motherboard's multiple calls or email for comment.

Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, it is illegal for employers to retaliate or interfere with worker efforts to unionize or engage in collective activity to improve their working conditions.  

The National Labor Relations Board will investigate the charge that Amazon interfered with workers' rights to organize, which could include a subpoena for communications about the fence. If they find evidence that Amazon broke the law, the company will be forced to settle or go to trial. 

When the fence was first installed, it was plastered with signs that read "Private Property: No Trespassing" and oddly, "Beware of Dogs." (The latter has been removed.) Unionizing workers say they see no reason why a fence would suddenly appear a day after their barbecue other than to physically block workers from organizing. 

"Amazon saw the impact the union had in Bessemer, and Alabama is an anti-union state," said Palmer. "But New York is a union state and we know a lot of people. They know we have a big network. They're scared of that."