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Amazon accused of singling out, harassing union organizers

Bosses' bad behavior may, just may, have derailed crucial warehouse vote

Amazon is running out of time to answer allegations from an American watchdog that it unlawfully suppressed labor organizers at one of its warehouses in New York. 

If unable to mount a defense against charges [PDF] from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the internet mega-corp will be forced to tear up its rules on what staff can and can't do in break rooms and other non-work areas on Amazon property. Rules such as, you guessed it, not putting up pro-union posters.

It's those specific non-work spaces that are at the heart of the allegations against Amazon.

The NLRB on Tuesday consolidated three complaints against Amazon that were filed by the Amazon Labor Union in the weeks and months leading up to the failed unionization attempt at the web giant's LDJ5 warehouse on Staten Island in May.

It's claimed that Amazon unlawfully prohibited employees from hanging pro-union signs "in a non-work area on non-work time" and demanded they take them down, as well as interrogating them over union activity and threatening disciplinary action for hanging union material in break rooms.

According to the NLRB, Amazon later disciplined employees by selectively enforcing its solicitation rules, which cover what staff can and can't do on company property, both during and outside of work hours. Specifically, Amazon, it's claimed, cracked down on anyone putting up pro-union posters, and disciplined organizers. Ultimately, the union claims Amazon's aggressive anti-organizing tactics – intimidation and interference – led to that failed vote by staff to unionize.

By choosing to enforce its solicitation rules unevenly, the NLRB said that Amazon "selectively and disparately enforced the rule by discriminatorily applying it against employees who engaged in union activity."

The union organizing vote that failed at LDJ5 came just one month after workers at nearby JFK8 fulfillment center in New York City voted successfully to unionize, a process Amazon recently failed to undo when the NLRB said earlier this month that Amazon's objections didn't hold up. 

A remedy for Amazon's bad behavior

Amazon has until October 4 to file its response to the allegations, after which point the labor board could file a default judgment motion. Otherwise, a final decision won't be made until January 2023, when the NLRB will hold a hearing to decide whether Amazon is guilty of the allegations. 

If Amazon can't convince the NLRB of its innocence the company faces a number of penalties, including being required to rescind its entire solicitation rule. If it wishes to reinstate it, the NLRB said the company must specifically exempt union activity.

In addition, the NLRB will require Amazon to physically post the board's employee rights notice "in all locations where [Amazon] would typically post notices to employees, including in all employee bathrooms and bathroom stalls." 

Lawyer Retu Singla, general counsel to the Amazon Labor Union and its representative in several NLRB filings, said that the biggest win for Amazon workers right now may be a third action the NLRB would force Amazon to take: a truckload of employee rights training for supervisors. 

In its paperwork this week, the NLRB said all respondent supervisors, managers and agents, including security personnel and outside labor/management consultants, would be required to undergo mandatory training sessions "covering the rights guaranteed to employees under Section 7 of the [National Labor Relations] Act."

Singla said Amazon had a pattern of flagrantly violating worker rights, including "resorting to threats and illegal enforcement of a solicitation policy nationwide to punish workers for their support of unionization," she said. Singla told The Register that the training requirement included not just LDJ5, but all Amazon facilities nationwide. Singla said that's a significant move, if not potentially a first. 

"The board is rightly pursuing nationwide retraining and rescinding the policy across the country," Singla said. 

We've reached out to Amazon to get its side of the story, and spokesman Paul Flaningan told us the same thing he told The New York Times yesterday: "These allegations are completely without merit and we look forward to showing that through the process." 

An Amazon warehouse in Albany, New York is preparing to hold a union organization vote in mid-October, where all eyes are surely focused – and smartphone cameras are at the ready – for any sign of bad behavior on Amazon's part. ®

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