Amazon Is Facing a Labour Reckoning, and It’s Pushing Back With All It Has

Amazon Is Facing a Labour Reckoning, and It’s Pushing Back With All It Has
Photo: David Ryder, Getty Images

The ground is shifting beneath Amazon’s mammoth-sized feet. Just days after workers at a Staten Island, New York warehouse voted to create the first Amazon union in the U.S., securities regulators authorised a shareholder vote on an investigation into its treatment of warehouse workers.

The union’s victory at the company isn’t a done deal, though. Amazon filed an objection Thursday to the successful organisation effort in New York, and the company is fighting objections filed against it in Bessemer, Alabama on the same day in hopes of maintaining the results of a contested unionization campaign. Labour regulators, meanwhile, said Thursday that they would seek to ban the kind of mandatory anti-union meetings Amazon used to dissuade workers from voting for unionization.

Although the big tech giant is down, it’s not out, and there’s no doubt that it’s gearing up for a fight. The first punch: banning words like “union,” “restrooms,” “living wage,” “pay raise,” “slave labour,” “plantation,” “grievance,” and “diversity” on a planned company chat app. The second: legal complaints.

Amazon objects to union victory in New York, claims employees were threatened

On the organised labour front, Amazon is dealing with two completely different scenarios: One in New York, where an effort to unionize workers succeeded last Friday, and another in Bessemer, Alabama, where a disputed unionization vote failed the same day. It’s punching back in both cases.

In New York, the ecommerce giant is objecting to the union victory in a complaint to the National Labour Relations Board. According to its filing, which can be viewed here, Amazon is claiming union organisers threatened employees to force them into voting yes, interfered with employees waiting in line to vote, loitered near the polling stations to intimidate voters, and threatened immigrants with loss of benefits if they didn’t vote for the union.

Amazon is also complaining about the actions of the regional branch of the NLRB involved in the election, accusing it of lowering voter turnout by the way it conducted polling periods, “which resulted in inordinately long waits.”

An attorney representing the newly formed union, Eric Milner, told Reuters on Thursday that Amazon’s accusations were false and that they would be overruled.

“To say that the Amazon Labour Union was threatening employees is really absurd,” Milner, who is part of law firm Simon & Milner, said. “The Amazon Labour Union is Amazon employees.”

The company has until this Friday to submit its official objections and until April 22 to file the proof the back up its claims. Amazon did not reply to a request from Gizmodo for comment on the New York union’s response on Friday. We’ll make sure to update this article if we hear back.

Amazon accused of illegally interfering in union vote in Bessemer (again)

Down South in Bessemer — where it a union vote failed for a second time, although there are still about 400 challenged votes that need to be counted — the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) accused Amazon of illegally interfering in the election and filed 21 objections to the NLRB Thursday. The RWDSU claims that the company “created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice.”

Among RWDSU’s many accusations: Amazon allegedly fired an employee who appeared in pro-union literature and who spoke in favour of the union during mandatory meetings. Another objection claims that Amazon’s agents engaged in surveillance of union organisers by visiting the organisers’ homes. The most serious, however, is the union’s claim that, the day before mail ballots were due, Amazon threatened an employee with closing the warehouse if the organisation vote succeeded.

“Workers at Amazon have endured a needlessly long and aggressive fight to unionize their workplace, with Amazon doing everything it can to spread misinformation and deceive workers,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, said in a statement last week.

Nonetheless, Amazon is filing its own objections to the union’s behaviour in Bessemer. According to CNBC, the company is taking issue with the union’s communications to workers about a mailbox near the warehouse. Amazon also claims that the NLRB’s decision to hold a mail-in ballot lowered voter turnout in the election.

“We’ve said from the beginning that we want our employees’ voices to be heard, and we hope the NLRB counts every valid vote,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said.

The RWDSU is asking the NLRB to hold a hearing to evaluate its objections and ultimately decide if the election results in Bessemer should be set aside.

A shareholder proposal calling for an audit of Amazon working conditions will get a vote

In a letter obtained by Reuters dated April 6, the Securities and Exchange Commission said Amazon could not refuse to put to a vote a shareholder resolution calling for an independent audit and report on working conditions at the company. Amazon had argued that the proposal — brought forward by Thomas Dadashi Tazehozi, an investor with the retail activist platform Tulipshare — did not relate to normal business operations.

Under SEC rules, these types of operations are meant to be resolved by a company’s management or board of directors. In this case, however, the SEC has purportedly shot down Amazon’s request to exclude the resolution.

“In our view, the Tazehozi Proposal transcends ordinary business matters,” the SEC said, according to the letter obtained by Reuters.

This means that shareholders will vote on whether to commission an audit of warehouse working conditions during Amazon’s annual general shareholders meeting on May 25. Gizmodo reached out to Amazon for comment on the SEC’s purported decision on Friday but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

An end to mandatory anti-union meetings?

Besides ruling on the outcomes of the union elections in New York and Bessemer, the NLRB may weigh in on mandatory anti-union meetings, also known as captive audience meetings, held by Amazon and other employers in which they encourage their employees to vote against collective organisation.

Jennifer Abruzzo, general counsel at the NLRB, issued a memo on Thursday announcing that she will ask the board to declare these mandatory meetings illegal. Abruzzo argues that employees have a right to listen or a right to refrain from listening to employer speech on labour organisation. Forcing employees to attend meetings under the threat of discipline discourages them “from exercising their right to refrain from listening to this speech,” Abruzzo says in her memo.

“This licence to coerce is an anomaly in labour law, inconsistent with the [National Labour Relations] Act’s protection of employees’ free choice. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of employers’ speech rights,” Abruzzo said in a statement. “I believe that the NLRB case precedent, which has tolerated such meetings, is at odds with fundamental labour-law principles, our statutory language, and our Congressional mandate.”