Amazon cracks down on unionization, workers say

More than a year and a half after Amazon workers on Staten Island voted to form the company’s first union in the United States, the company appears to be taking a harder line on unionizing, disciplinary, and even firing an employee who had been heavily involved in the union campaign.

The disciplinary action comes at a time when union organizers appear to be gaining traction at a major Amazon-operated airline hub in Kentucky, where they say they have collected union authorization cards from at least a quarter of hourly employees. Workers generally must demonstrate at least 30 percent support to trigger a union election.

By disciplining employees, Amazon has raised questions about the extent to which they are free to approach co-workers to persuade them to join a union, a right protected by the federal government. The National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel said Amazon violated the law by enforcing a policy governing off-duty workers’ access to its facilities, which Amazon invoked in the recent firing. The board is seeking to overturn the policy in an upcoming trial.

Lisa Levandowski, an Amazon representative, said the recent disciplinary actions were strictly a response to rule violations and not unionization. “Employees have the choice to join a union or not,” she said.

The company’s off-hours access rule is “a legal, common-sense policy,” she said, “and we look forward to defending our position.”

The laid-off worker, Connor Spence, was a founder of the Amazon Labor Union, which won last year’s election on Staten Island. After a split in the union leadership, Mr. Spence helped create a separate group that sought to pressure the company to negotiate a contract at the warehouse, known as JFK8.

The company has yet to begin negotiations with JFK8 workers and is appealing last year’s union victory.

In October, Mr. Spence’s group led a walkout of a few dozen employees to demand higher wages and an end to what it sees as discrimination against pregnant workers, which Amazon refuses to provide. cope with less strenuous tasks.

Mr. Spence was suspended a few weeks later for violating the company’s off-hours access policy, which prohibits workers from being inside Amazon buildings or in areas of outside work when they are not working.

Mr. Spence said he was there off-duty to rally support for the October walkout and plan for a future walkout, and that those organizing efforts were protected by federal labor law. He filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the company of unfair labor practices.

On Nov. 29, while still serving his suspension, Mr. Spence was fired for the policy violations in October, according to a document the company gave him.

Mr. Spence also participated in unionizing efforts at the Kentucky Air Center, the company’s largest air facility in the country, and his firing came shortly after he visited the site to help rally support for of a union.

Ms. Levandowski said Mr. Spence was fired “after multiple documented warnings and violations” of company policy and that the firing “has nothing to do with whether Mr. Spence supports any cause or to a particular group.

She said the company’s accommodation policy for pregnant workers “meets or exceeds state and federal laws.” Accommodations may include light tasks such as building boxes.

Other workers involved in unionizing at the airline hub say Amazon has targeted them with disciplinary action in recent weeks.

For several months, workers at the center set up one or more tables near one of the two entrances, from which organizers distributed union materials and information on working conditions. Three airline hub employees who often bussed tables said supervisors largely left them alone during that time.

But since November 7, workers said, managers began checking workers’ badges at more than eleven hours per hour. The site’s general manager, Karthik Bagavathi Pandian, went out twice that day, they said.

According to workers and videos they shared, managers threatened to discipline them if they did not remove their tables and an easel containing a billboard, citing security concerns related to access to the building.

The managers’ visits continued the next day, according to the three workers. On the third day, they said, about two dozen workers went to Mr. Bagavathi Pandian’s office to protest what they called harassment and violation of their labor rights.

That same week, human resources officials began questioning workers involved in unionizing about their presence near the entrance to the airline hub, according to the workers and a recording they provided. About a week before Thanksgiving, more than 10 of those workers received “final written warnings,” citing their refusal to remove tables when asked to do so by management.

Ms. Levandowski, the Amazon defendant, said employees had refused at least 10 requests to move their tables and that “we take appropriate action when policies are continually ignored.”

The question of when and where Amazon employees can interact with their colleagues looms large in the company’s unionizing efforts.

For years, Amazon had a policy prohibiting workers from working in non-work areas like break rooms before or after their shift, making it difficult for employees to discuss unionization with co-workers.

In December 2021, the company entered into an agreement with the National Labor Relations Board allowing its employees to remain in these areas without time limits.

But the agreement with the labor board was temporary. In June 2022, a few months after the union victory on Staten Island, Amazon again began barring off-duty employees from buildings and outdoor work areas, according to a consolidated complaint from the National Labor Relations Board covering several Amazon warehouses in different locations. States.

The union says Amazon reinstated the restrictions because the lax approach allowed workers to win the Staten Island election. “In the break rooms you can talk to hundreds of people every day,” Cassio Mendoza, a former employee who participated in the union campaign, said shortly after the election. In contrast, he says, an organizer might have to knock on 50 doors to have a conversation with one or two employees outside of work.

In the consolidated complaint, the NLRB’s general counsel called the current policy illegal and seeks to force the company to reverse it.

A judge will examine Amazon’s policies in a trial likely to begin next year, unless Amazon settles the case first.

Meanwhile, this policy appears to have played a role in some of Amazon’s recent actions against union supporters. The company cited the after-hours access policy in Mr. Spence’s firing in Staten Island and in meetings with Kentucky workers about a rally they held near the chief executive’s office.

Three Amazon workers at the Kentucky airline hub said Amazon appeared to be taking action now because their unionization campaign made progress in the fall. They said they collected union authorization cards from more than 1,000 of the hub’s approximately 4,000 employees.

“We’ve been more open about the progress of our campaign over the last month and the changes,” said Griffin Ritze, one of the Kentucky workers involved in the organizing drive. “I think they feel like we have more momentum than ever.”