Skip to main content

Amazon Tussles With Labor Groups Ahead of Twin Unionization Votes

Amazon is now fighting a unionization battle on multiple fronts as employees in two of its warehouses are taking steps to hold union elections in the coming weeks.

But the road to get there has been calamitous, particularly for warehouse workers in the center of the push. A group of Amazon workers seeking to form a union in New York filed a charge with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Thursday after a high-profile organizer and a pair of employees were arrested outside the tech titan’s Staten Island warehouse.

Christian Smalls, the former Amazon distribution center manager who was fired for showing up on-site during his 14-day leave after contracting Covid-19, was arrested after being accused of trespassing when he delivered warehouse workers food as part of a unionization campaign. A vote for unionization at the facility, known as “JFK8,” will take place from March 25 -30.

Smalls, who is president of the upstart Amazon Labor Union, was charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration. Two other ALU members, Brett Daniels and Jason Anthony, were charged with obstructing governmental administration.

Amazon has not responded to Sourcing Journal’s request for comment. Smalls didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Union attorney Seth Goldstein said that Amazon’s decision to bring in police violated the terms of a settlement reached with the NLRB restricting anti-union tactics.

Amazon has faced its share of strife with the labor agency. In January, Kathy Drew King, a regional director for the NLRB, filed a complaint accusing Amazon of illegally monitoring and threatening workers at the Staten Island facility.

Related Stories

The e-commerce giant “repeatedly broke the law by threatening, surveilling, and interrogating their Staten Island warehouse workers who are engaged in a union organizing campaign,” King said in a statement.

The news from Staten Island came to light shortly after the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed Unfair Labor Practice charges (ULPs) against Amazon on Tuesday. The labor group claimed that Amazon has again engaged in misconduct during the second go-around of a union election for workers at its Bessemer, Ala. warehouse.

The NLRB sent unionization ballots to workers at the Bessemer site earlier this month and will tally the votes at the end of March. Vote-by-mail ballots are being accepted until March 25 and the vote count will start March 28.

This is the second set of ULP charges by the union, illustrating what it claims is Amazon’s interference with employees’ right to organize.

This rerun election is the result of what the union calls Amazon’s “objectionable conduct” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) during the first election in April 2021, conduct which the NLRB concluded interfered with employees’ rights to a free and fair election.

The attempt at unionization failed in last year’s election, but the NLRB threw out those results after finding that Amazon unlawfully influenced the vote by encouraging workers to place ballots in a mailbox on company property.

Now, the newer charges levied by the RWDSU summarize three actions from Amazon as examples of its continued efforts to “undermine and suppress workers’ right to a free and fair election.” The actions include the removal of union literature from break rooms, the limiting of workers’ access to the facility to just 30 minutes both prior to and after their shift, and the holding of mandatory “captive-audience” meetings.

In the third example, the union calls the meetings “coercive” and “anti-union propaganda” that violate employees’ right “to refrain from any or all such activities” related to collective bargaining. The RWDSU also said that workers’ rights to skip the meetings are already protected under the law in Section 8 of the NLRA.

Upon unveiling the ULP filing in a press release, the union cited opinions from former NLRB board members, as well as organizers of the Bessemer union, colloquially known as the “BAmazon Union.”

“Removing union literature from break rooms, limiting workers’ ability to talk with each other, compelling attendance at captive audience meetings to listen to anti-union messages—all of these actions expose Amazon’s undisguised efforts to stifle workers’ voices and its contempt for their rights to join together. What’s Amazon afraid of?” said Wilma Liebman, former member and chairman, NLRB in a statement.

Craig Becker, general counsel to the AFL-CIO and former member of the NLRB, referring to Amazon’s actions as “not free speech,” but “coercion.”

“I personally have hung up so many fliers on my very limited break time and during unpaid time off. I’ve done it because I so strongly believe we need to bring change with a union here,” said Anthia Sharpe, an associate at Amazon’s Bessemer plant and a union worker organizing committee member. “Not only was it discouraging to see our hard work removed, but it concerned us who was doing it given we know it’s protected under the law. When we heard from our coworkers that management was intentionally silencing us and removing our fliers it explained where the chilling effect among our co-workers was coming from.”

Serena Wallace, another Bessemer-based associate that is organizing the BAmazon Union campaign, referred to the removal of the fliers as “scare tactics, plain and simple.” Another worker and union organizer, Roger Wyatt, called the captive-audience training “degrading.”

“Amazon treated us like mindless robots, downloading misinformation to us. And the irony is, these meetings are the longest I’ve ever gotten to sit at work. If it’s impossible to allow me adequate break and bathroom time, why is it possible, let alone mandatory, for me to sit through hours of anti-union trainings?” Wyatt said.

The RWDSU referenced criticisms from another associate at the Alabama warehouse, calling the captive-audience meeting one-sided.

“Too many of our coworkers voted no last time as a result of being forced to sit through hours and hours of lies in mandatory meetings, and now, like me, they’re changing their minds and voting union yes,” said Stephon Brogdon, who also is a member of the BAmazon Union Worker Organizing Committee. “But what if we didn’t have this chance? We should have a choice whether or not to be subjected to these meetings, it’s our right under the law. If the company gets to speak, their opponent should as well.”

The third ULP charge against these controversial captive-audience meetings comes months after a September memorandum from NLRB general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo. In the memo, Abruzzo challenged the legality of the meetings, indicating that she wanted the board to reconsider the precedent that they can be used to discourage unionization.

Whether the New York or Alabama votes will vote “yes” is still up in the air, especially given that the latter already failed by a wide margin. But until last year, Amazon had never fought a significant unionization push, and an upcoming victory at even one warehouse could be a milestone that spurs similar labor uprisings throughout the U.S.