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Amazon, REI and the State of the Union

Recent developments involving Amazon and REI illustrate growing momentum in collective bargaining.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Wednesday certified a long-fought union win at Amazon’s Staten Island distribution center, known as JFK8.

In April last year warehouse workers at the JFK8 facility voted in favor of representation by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU)—the first union in the 28-year-old company’s history. The unionization pitch began during the pandemic, when workers rallied behind whistleblower and warehouse manager Chris Smalls, who was terminated for alerting Amazon to what he perceived as unsafe conditions at the facility, and staging a walkout.

Amazon filed 25 objections to the union election results against both the NLRB’s Region 29 and the ALU. But hearing officer Lisa J. Dunn dismissed the objections on Aug. 2, 2022, with a Report on Objections recommended overturning Amazon’s complaints and certifying the union. Though Amazon continued to push back and filed exceptions to Dunn’s report, the NLRB determined that “the Employer’s objections should be overruled.”

Now president of the ALU, Smalls said Wednesday that “Amazon’s workers won fair and square.”

Moving forward, Amazon can’t make unilateral changes to working conditions at JFK8 without consulting with the ALU. The company must comply with the union’s information requests and bargain over terminations. JFK8 employees will also be the first in Amazon’s workforce to gain Weingarten Rights, which allow workers facing disciplinary action to bring a coworker to meetings as a witness.

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The ALU is calling on Amazon to begin contract negotiations regarding wages and working conditions. ALU has been certified as the representative for employees at JFK8 in these talks, and “it’s now time for Amazon to quit stalling, obey the law, respect their workers, and sit down at the bargaining table,” said Smalls, who believes doing so “will make Amazon a better employer.”

Day shift packer Arlene Kingston said she was “filled with joy over this decision and over what Amazon workers have been able to achieve together,” while another worker, Robin Kalellis, expressed relief that she will have “the legal rights to protect myself and my coworkers” against punitive action taken under false pretenses.

Over in Cleveland, workers at an REI store in the Ohio city formally filed for a union election on Wednesday with the NLRB. They are seeking representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)—a petition that comes months after successful union elections at REI stores in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood and in Berkeley, Calif.

On Wednesday morning, a delegation of workers told management that a majority of store workers had signed RWDSU authorization cards indicating their desire to unionize. According to RWDSU, REI management declined to voluntarily recognize the union at that time, which would have launched similar contract negotiations to those taking place at the New York and California stores. The filing was submitted to the NLRB shortly after the discussion.

“100 years ago, it was coal miners; 70 years ago, it was auto workers; today, it’s retail,” Dave Hein, member of the REI Cleveland Organizing Committee, said. Calling workers “the ones whose expertise drives the company’s brick and mortar retail business,” the bike services and ski mechanic said store associates are a primary source of information and guidance for customers.

“We weathered the pandemic and kept the company afloat, we stretched ourselves thin helping the company achieve its highest profit margin ever, and now we’re being told that there aren’t enough hours to go around due to corporate overbuying and recession fears,” Hein said. “The American worker deserves better.”

REI visual sales lead Cloud Schneider noted that a union would give workers at REI Cleveland “an opportunity to make our voices heard and make the store a better place for workers and the community we serve.” The company’s motto—“a life outdoors is a life well-lived”—is unattainable for much of the REI workforce because of irregular scheduling and low wages, the Cleveland Organizing Committee member said. “It’s time that REI practices its values.”

Workers at the Cleveland store pointed to the union win at the SoHo store as a source of inspiration for their effort to organize, which began over a year ago. March 2022 saw 86 percent of the New York location’s workforce vote to join the RWDSU, making it the company’s first unionized store.

If the Cleveland election succeeds, RWDSU will represent about 55 current NLRA-eligible workers in contract negotiations with REI. Workers in the proposed bargaining unit include all full- and part-time sales specialists, technical specialists, visual presentation specialists, shipping and receiving specialists, certified technicians, operations leads, sales leads, and shipping and receiving leads.

“Pending the parties’ ability to come to a stipulated agreement swiftly and without the need for a hearing, the NLRB could set this election for as early as next month,” the union said.

Amazon and REI are among a number of nationwide retailers to see increasing unionization efforts—and most aren’t taking the mobilization lying down.

Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala. warehouse failed to unionize in spring of 2021 after the RWDSU accused the e-comm giant of employing targeted ad campaigns and on-the-ground anti-union representation. After being granted a second election by the NLRB, RWDSU alleged in April 2022 that Amazon illegally interfered with the election by punishing employees who spoke out in favor of ALU and threatening others that the warehouse would close if they organized. A unionization push at Amazon’s New York “ALB1” warehouse in Castleton-on-Hudson also failed in October.

REI denied requests at its SoHo, Berkeley and Cleveland locations to voluntarily recognize unions, which would have made an election process unnecessary. CEO Eric Artz made his stance against mobilization known in a company-wide email following the SoHo store’s NLRB filing in January 2022, stating, “A union will not help us achieve [our] mission and purpose.” Artz’s words were characterized as an attempt at union-busting by REI Co-op members who dissected the leaked missive on Twitter.

Public support for unions is on the rise, according to a 2022 Gallup poll that showed U.S. approval of labor unions at its highest point since 1965. The survey of more than 1,000 adults during the month of August found that 71 percent of people in the U.S. agree on access to collective bargaining, likely because one in six U.S. residents lives in a union household.

Front-line and production workers make up the largest contingent of union members (20 percent), and they most commonly cited better pay and benefits (65 percent) and employee rights and representation (57 percent) as their top reasons for joining, or wanting to join, a union.

“The low unemployment rate that developed during the pandemic altered the balance of power between employers and employees,” Gallup analyst Justin McCarthy wrote at the time, and that has created “an environment fostering union membership that has resulted in the formation of unions at several high-profile companies.”

“It is a challenging environment for employers—and many are pushing back against unionization efforts despite unions’ improved public image,” he added. While most non-union workers (58 percent) are uninterested in joining unions, “an increase in unionization efforts is still taking place.”