Amazon's meetings to deter unionising illegal, says US labour official; retailer fires managers linked to union

Amazon's meetings have been a flashpoint for labour organisers who for years sought to represent workers at the second-largest US private employer. PHOTO: REUTERS

PALO ALTO (REUTERS, NYTIMES) - A United States labour board official believes violated federal law during mandatory staff meetings it held in New York City to discourage unionising, a board spokesman said on Friday (May 6), in what could lead to a new legal precedent.

The Amazon Labour Union alleged the retailer forced workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island to attend the so-called captive audience trainings and said staff were threatened with dismissals if they joined the ALU, according to an amended complaint and an audio recording the union shared with Reuters.

The regional director of the Brooklyn-based office of the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) has found merit to the allegations, in a potential first regarding captive-audience practices, board spokesman Kayla Blado said.

If the parties do not settle, the Brooklyn division will issue a complaint against Amazon that could be litigated up to the NLRB at the federal level. The NLRB's Brooklyn region includes the borough of Staten Island.

An Amazon manager in March told workers that if they voted to organise, unions could bargain for a contract clause that "would require Amazon to fire you if you don't want to join the union and pay union dues", according to the recording the ALU shared.

In a statement, Amazon spokesman Kelly Nantel said: "These allegations are false and we look forward to showing that through the process."

Mandatory meetings have been legal for over 70 years and were commonly held by employers, Amazon said.

The NLRB precedent that the meetings are legal dates to the 1940s.

The New York warehouse elected to join the ALU within weeks of the March incident, becoming the first Amazon facility to vote to unionise in the US. Amazon is contesting the result.

Amazon's meetings have been a flashpoint for labour organisers who for years sought to represent workers at the second-largest US private employer but lacked an equal venue to counter the company's point of view.

Mr Seth Goldstein, a pro bono attorney representing the ALU, said: "We hope that Amazon will cease their meritless objections to our overwhelming election victory and will instead focus on ending their unlawful union-busting practices."

Last month, the NLRB's top lawyer Jennifer Abruzzo asked the board to ban businesses from making workers attend anti-union meetings, calling them inconsistent with employees' freedom of choice. In a future case, Ms Abruzzo said she would ask the board to overturn the precedent that the meetings are legal.

President Joe Biden, considered the most pro-union US president in decades, last year appointed Ms Abruzzo as general counsel, a position independent from the five-member NLRB.

Amazon fires senior managers tied to unionised warehouse

Meanwhile, Amazon informed last Thursday more than a half-dozen senior managers involved with the Staten Island warehouse that they were being fired, said four current and former employees with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

The firings, which occurred outside the company's typical employee review cycle, were seen by the managers and other people who work at the facility as a response to the victory by the Amazon Labour Union, three of the people said.

Word of the shake-up spread through the warehouse Thursday. Many of the managers had been responsible for carrying out the company's response to the unionisation effort. Several were veterans of the company, with more than six years of experience, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Workers who supported the union complained that the company's health and safety protocols were too lax, particularly as they related to Covid-19 and repetitive strain injuries, and that the company pushed them too hard to meet performance targets, often at the expense of sufficient breaks.

Many also said that pay at the warehouse, which starts at more than US$18 per hour for full-time workers, was too low to live on in New York City.

An Amazon spokesman said the company had made the management changes after spending several weeks evaluating aspects of the "operations and leadership" at JFK8, which is the company's name for the warehouse.

"Part of our culture at Amazon is to continually improve, and we believe it's important to take time to review whether or not we're doing the best we could be for our team," said Ms Nantel, Amazon's spokesman.

The managers were told they were being fired as part of an "organisational change", two people said. One of the people said some of the managers were strong performers who recently received positive reviews.

The Staten Island facility is Amazon's only fulfilment centre in New York City, and for a year current and former workers at the facility organised to form an upstart, independent union.

The company is challenging the election, saying that the union's unconventional tactics were coercive and that the NLRB was biased in the union's favour, and the union is working to maintain the pressure on Amazon so it will negotiate a contract.

Mr Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labour Union, testified Thursday before a Senate committee that was exploring whether companies that violate labour laws should be denied federal contracts. Mr Smalls later attended a White House meeting with other labour organisers in which he directly asked Mr Biden to press Amazon to recognise his union.

A White House spokesman said that it was up to the NLRB to certify the results of the recent election but affirmed that Mr Biden had long supported collective bargaining and workers' rights to unionise.

Amazon has said that it invested US$300 million on safety projects in 2021 alone and that it provides pay above the minimum wage with solid benefits like health care to full-time workers as soon as they join the company.

More than 8,000 workers at the warehouse were eligible to vote, and the union made a point of reaching out to employees from different ethnic groups, including African Americans, Latinos and immigrants from Africa and Asia, as well as those of different political persuasions, from conservatives to progressives.

Company officials and consultants held more than 20 mandatory meetings per day with employees in the run-up to the election, in which they sought to persuade workers not to support the union. The officials highlighted the amount of money that the union would collect from them and emphasised the uncertainty of collective bargaining, which they said could leave workers worse off.

Labour experts say that such claims can be misleading because it is highly unusual for workers to see their compensation fall as a result of the bargaining process.

Roughly one month after the union victory at JFK8, Amazon workers at a smaller facility nearby voted against unionising by a decisive margin.

The votes came during what could be an inflection point for organised labour. While the rate of union membership reached its lowest point in decades last year - about 10 per cent of US workers - petitions to hold union elections were up more than 50 per cent over the previous year during the six months ending in March, according to the NLRB. The number of petitions is on pace to reach its highest point in at least a decade.

Since December, workers at Starbucks have won initial union votes at more than 50 stores nationwide, while workers have organised or sought to organise at other companies that did not previously have unions, such as Apple and outdoor-apparel retailer Rei.

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