A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) investigation has found merit to a complaint that alleged Amazon illegally retaliated against a warehouse worker in New York City for his role in organizing Amazon employees in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a spokesperson for the NLRB has confirmed.
In the early months of the pandemic, Gerald Bryson was one of the principal workers calling out Amazon for unsafe working conditions at JFK8, an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island. Bryson participated in a March 30 protest led by another worker Christian Smalls, who was subsequently fired and smeared by top executives at the company. After Smalls' firing, Bryson led another demonstration outside the warehouse with his coworkers on April 6, and shortly thereafter was suspended and terminated.
“I feel justified, I feel exonerated. It’s great to know that some parts of the system still work,” Bryson told Motherboard. “I know I was fired for organizing at Amazon and the NLRB agrees. I started this fight for my fellow employees, for my brothers and sisters. I stood up for a safe and healthy environment, which Amazon did not provide."
Under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, it is illegal for employers to retaliate against workers who organize to form unions or who engage in collective action to improve their working conditions. The finding of merit is an important moment in the case, but does not mark the final outcome. Amazon now has the opportunity to settle with Bryson, which could include back pay or reinstatement. If Amazon chooses not to settle, the NLRB will issue a federal complaint and schedule a hearing before an administrative judge.
The findings of the NLRB investigation mark a significant victory for Bryson and other Amazon warehouse workers who seek to organize their coworkers at one of the world's largest companies, which has a documented record of being hostile towards union drives and other worker efforts to organize collectively to improve their working conditions. The findings could also serve as a powerful deterrent to Amazon and other companies that consider retaliating against employee efforts to organize their colleagues in the midst of a historic union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama. Despite Amazon's claims it has fostered a safe working environment during COVID-19, the company cut off its unlimited unpaid leave policy and stopped paying workers $2 an hour hazard pay in May. As of October 1, Amazon reported that nearly 20,000 warehouse workers across the country had tested positive for COVID-19.
“We believe the facts of this case are clear: Mr. Bryson was witnessed by other employees bullying and intimidating a female associate in a racially and sexually charged way – a clear violation of our standards of conduct and harassment policy,” Leah Seay, a spokesperson for Amazon said. “Bryson also admitted to his actions. We look forward to sharing the facts on this case before an administrative law judge should the NLRB issue a Complaint. Perhaps the larger question is why is the NLRB is defending a person who screamed profanities and racial slurs at a fellow employee.”
At the time of Bryson's firing, Amazon claimed the company had fired him for demeaning and bullying a fellow co-worker at the April 6 protest at the Staten Island facility in which Bryson had been leading the rally from a bullhorn in the parking lot on his day off work.
But according to a statement filed to the NLRB by Bryson's attorney at the non-profit Make The Road New York, Bryson, who is Black, had been verbally accosted by a white employee on her break who told him to "get the fuck out of here" and "go back to where you came from, go back to the Bronx." In response to the situation, Bryson called the worker a "bitch,” according to the attorney’s statement. Following the interaction, Bryson was suspended and subsequently fired, according to the company, for violating Amazon's vulgar language policy.
After filing an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, Bryson's case was transferred from a regional investigator's office in New York City to the NLRB's Washington DC headquarters for a final determination. The fact that the NLRB—currently controlled by a Trump appointee that has consistently made decisions in favor of employers—found sufficient evidence that Amazon had retaliated against Bryson suggests that the evidence was overwhelmingly strong in his favor.
During the pandemic, Amazon has fired at least three other warehouse workers who have organized their coworkers to demand safer working conditions, more rigorous cleaning measures, and paid time off for part-time workers. In recent months, Amazon has said it stands behind the Black Lives Matter movement, donating $10 million to racial justice organizations in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police department, yet three of the fired worker-activists, including Bryson, have been Black.
"There’s a pattern we’re seeing with who Amazon has dismissed for raising legitimate questions," said Dania Rajendra, the director of the Athena Coalition, a national grassroots organization fighting to hold Amazon accountable for labor and environmental abuses in the United States. "Gerald's firing predates the Black Lives Matter protests this year, but shows there’s a significant disconnect between their saying Black Lives Matters and what they’re doing in their operations. Clearly what has certainly emerged is an undeniable pattern."
The news arrives days after the attorney general of California sued Amazon for failing to respond to subpoenas and comply with a state COVID-19 investigation in its warehouse facilities. In November, Motherboard reported that Amazon hired the notorious union-busting Pinkerton Detective Agency to spy on its warehouse workers.