US Amazon workers make fresh push to unionise

E-commerce company watches as workers in New York and Alabama try to organise

Staten Island Amazon workers protest in Times Square as they demand union rights in New York City. Reuters
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US labour regulators on Friday began sending ballots to workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama to see if they want to form a union, 10 months after a first attempt to unionise failed amid accusations of foul play by the e-commerce company.

The re-do comes as Amazon’s union-blocking tactics are again in the spotlight, with labour authorities filing a complaint accusing the company of using threats and surveillance against workers trying to organise at a warehouse in New York.

Amazon fiercely opposes efforts to unionise, fearing a successful attempt at one warehouse would have a domino effect and increase costs at other facilities across the US.

In Bessemer, a city of about 27,000 people in the southern state of Alabama, Amazon easily secured enough votes last April to block a union drive, with workers voting more than two to one to reject forming a union.

The vote drew heavy media attention as it pitted supporters of the employees — artists, Democratic and Republican politicians and even President Joe Biden — against Amazon.

The US National Labour Relations Board (NLRB), which oversaw the process, in November ordered the union election to be redone since Amazon “hijacked the process” by installing a mailbox close to the employee entrance.

US labour law gives workers the right to take collective action to improve their working conditions, including union organising.

One union supporter, Isaiah Thomas, told Bloomberg he was reprimanded for advocating for the union in the warehouse during his break.

Last week, the NLRB filed a complaint accusing Amazon of coercive tactics against workers trying to form a union at a warehouse in New York City’s Staten Island.

Amazon violated federal labour law by threatening, interrogating and monitoring employees at the warehouse, the complaint states.

“These allegations are false, and we look forward to showing that through this process,” Amazon representative Kelly Nantel said.

Seth Goldstein, a lawyer representing workers at the Staten Island fulfilment centre, said Amazon hired an “anti-union consultant” who interrogated a lead organiser about her union activities and called other pro-union workers “thugs”.

“We believe this comment was racist, offensive and unacceptable,” Mr Goldstein said.

Amazon has engaged in “surveillance, interrogation, threats and unfair disciplinary action against union activists,” he added.

The company has rejected the allegations, saying they “are false and we look forward to showing that through this process".

A judge has been asked to order Amazon to educate workers as well as managers about employee rights when it comes to unionising, with a hearing set for April 5.

Union literature was reportedly removed from a breakroom and “confiscated” from some employees, the filing said.

The NLRB has found that enough employees at the Staten Island warehouse have supported the union effort to justify a vote, with next steps to be discussed at a February 16 hearing.

Response at the Staten Island warehouse to union efforts is mixed. Some workers want union representation, others don’t.

Several major unions have approached Amazon workers over the years to offer representation.

Amazon has garnered a string of negative headlines about its conditions for drivers and workers at its warehouses.

A tornado in Illinois in December destroyed an Amazon warehouse and killed six workers. The collapse is under investigation.

Amazon has worked to improve its image as an employer, through publicising their starting wages, which far exceed the federal minimum, and by offering benefits that include health care.

One worker at the Staten Island facility told The National they were willing to give a union a chance.

The union “said we’ll make more money per hour, get more vacation time”, the worker said, but added that they were sceptical of the promises being made.

“We’re seeing promises that are fake. Promises to cut [mandated overtime]. They can’t guarantee this. I’m still willing to take the chance.”

The employee said Amazon was assigning workers to propagate anti-union information in the warehouse.

“What I’m seeing is anti-union stuff on the boards, in the bathroom,” the worker said.

“One day, they made me put it up. They just take someone off the floor who doesn’t want to [pack boxes] that day. You have a nice easy day putting up flyers. The flyers say stuff like ‘Know your facts before you sign’.”

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: February 04, 2022, 8:36 PM
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