Amazon Faces Wider Fight Over Labor Practices
Since the start of the pandemic, Amazon has ramped up its hiring, bringing on hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide. But challenges to the …
Since the start of the pandemic, Amazon has ramped up its hiring, bringing on hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide. But challenges to the company’s labor practices are growing quickly, too.
Those challenges were underscored when a hearing officer for the National Labor Relations Board recommended a new union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, saying the company’s conduct during the organizing campaign had precluded a fair vote.
The board’s regional office will rule on the recommendation in the coming weeks. If it leads to a new election, as seems likely, the union would face long odds of victory. But Amazon faces a widening campaign to rein in the power it wields over its employees and their workplace conditions.
Those efforts include a campaign by the Teamsters that would generally circumvent traditional workplace elections and pressure the company through protests, boycotts and even fights against its expansion efforts at the local level. Legislation in California would force Amazon to reveal its productivity quotas, which unions contend are onerous and put workers at risk.
Throughout the pandemic, Amazon warehouse workers have protested what they consider unsafe conditions, sometimes resulting in embarrassment for the company, as with the disclosure of notes from an internal meeting in which an Amazon executive called a worker-turned-protester “not smart, or articulate.”
In April, the general counsel of the labor board found merit to charges that Amazon fired two white-collar workers who had raised concerns last year about the conditions facing the company’s warehouse workers during the pandemic.
The election in Alabama brought intense scrutiny of the company’s labor practices, with even President Biden taking it as an opportunity to warn employers that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda” during such a campaign.
In a statement after the hearing officer’s recommendation was reported on Monday, Amazon said, “Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate, and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers.”
Since the results were announced in early April, showing that Amazon won by more than two to one, many unions and union supporters have argued that the outcome points to the need for new tactics to organize the company.
Perhaps the most prominent voice in this discussion is the more than one-million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which approved a resolution at its convention in June committing the union to “supply all resources necessary” to organize workers at the company and help them win a union contract.
The Teamsters argue that holding union votes at individual work sites is typically futile at a company like Amazon, because labor law allows employers to wage aggressive anti-union campaigns, and because high turnover means union supporters often leave the company before they have a chance to vote.
Instead, the Teamsters favor a combination of tactics like strikes, protests and boycotts that pressure the company to come to the bargaining table and negotiate a contract covering wages, benefits and working conditions. While the union hasn’t laid out its tactics in detail, it recently organized walkouts involving drivers and dockworkers at a port in Southern California to protest the drivers’ treatment there.
They hope to enlist the help of workers at other companies, sympathetic consumers and even local businesses threatened by a giant like Amazon, partly to mitigate the challenges presented by high employee turnover.
“Building our relationships within the community itself is the way to deal with that,” Randy Korgan, a Teamsters official from Southern California who is the union’s national director for Amazon, said in a recent interview. “We could have filed for an election in a number of places in the last more than a year, gotten into that process, but we realize that the election process has its shortcomings.”
The union believes that it can pull a variety of political levers to help put the company on the defensive. Mr. Korgan cited a recent vote by the City Council in Fort Wayne, Ind., denying Amazon a tax abatement after a local Teamsters official spoke out against it, and a vote by the City Council in Arvada, Colo., to reject a more than 100,000-square-foot Amazon delivery station. While the Arvada vote centered on traffic concerns, Teamsters played a role in drumming up opposition.
In California, the Teamsters have joined forces with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Warehouse Worker Resource Center, an advocacy group, to back a bill that would require certain employers to disclose the often opaque productivity quotas applied to workers, which they can be disciplined or fired for failing to meet. The legislative language makes it clear that Amazon is the main target.
The bill, offered by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the author of a 2019 law effectively requiring gig companies to classify workers as employees, would also direct the state’s occupational safety and health agency to develop a regulation ensuring that such quotas don’t put workers at high risk of injury. It passed the State Assembly in May and will be considered by the State Senate later this summer.
Other labor groups are pressing ahead with less orthodox efforts to increase the power of Amazon workers. Over the first six months of this year, a group called the Solidarity Fund, which raises money from individual tech workers, distributed over $100,000 in grants to workers seeking to organize their colleagues to push for workplace improvements.
About half the money, in $2,500 increments, went to workers at Amazon. It funded a laptop to assist with organizing, as well as hiring a freelance graphic designer to help make pamphlets, among the varied efforts. Later this month, the fund will begin accepting applications for a second round of grants.
The group’s sister organization, called Coworker.org, is putting together a detailed report on workplace surveillance measures, including a number of technologies that it says Amazon either developed or pays other companies to use.
Along with these efforts, the company is likely to face another high-profile election at its warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Labor law experts said that in such cases a regional director typically accepts the recommendation of the hearing officer, who argued for setting aside the results.
The officer recommended the dismissal of many of the union’s objections to the election, including the contention that Amazon illegally threatened workers with a loss of pay or benefits if they unionized. But she found that a collection box that Amazon pressured the U.S. Postal Service to install near the warehouse entrance gave workers the impression that the company was monitoring who was voting, thereby tainting the outcome.
A union brief described how Amazon surrounded the collection box with a tent, on which it printed a company campaign message (“Speak for Yourself”) and the instruction “Mail Your Ballot Here.” The union noted that Amazon’s surveillance cameras could record workers entering and leaving the tent. The company did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
If the labor board’s regional office accepts the recommendation to order a new election, Amazon has vowed to appeal to the five-member board in Washington. A recent shift there may affect the outcome: Democrats were assured control of the board in late July, when the Senate confirmed two of President Biden’s nominees.
Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which oversaw the union campaign at the Amazon warehouse, acknowledged in an interview after the first election that high turnover at Amazon and the company’s ability to hold mandatory anti-union meetings made winning a vote difficult. But he said that a long-term campaign could be victorious.
“I think that we’re going to be able to build on this,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “We pushed the ball downfield. Maybe it’s not the first election. Maybe it’s the second or third election.”
Workers have long complained that one of the most fundamental features of an Amazon warehouse is the amount of control the company exerts — over the pace of work, the way workers perform it, the frequency of their breaks, the time they must spend waiting at metal detectors on their way home.
In its objection to the election results, the union argued that Amazon had tried to assert a similar level of control over the voting itself, through measures like the collection box. Now the labor board appears on the verge of clawing some of that power back.
The board’s role in administering union elections was “usurped” by Amazon’s conduct in obtaining the box, the hearing officer said. That conduct, she said, “justifies a second election.”