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Amazon accused of intimidation tactics to stop unionization

June 13, 2022 Updated Mon., June 13, 2022 at 8 p.m.

An Amazon Labor Union rally is shown in Staten Island in April. Employees accuse the company of cracking down on efforts to organize.  (Washington Post)
An Amazon Labor Union rally is shown in Staten Island in April. Employees accuse the company of cracking down on efforts to organize. (Washington Post)
By Caroline O’Donovan Washington Post

Matt Litrell, a 22-year-old Amazon employee, was distributing union fliers outside the warehouse where he works this month when the cops showed up.

An Amazon manager had called the sheriff’s office in Campbellsville, Kentucky, that afternoon to report that protesters trying to start a union were trespassing on company property.

While the officers eventually determined that Litrell wasn’t on Amazon’s property and left, Litrell plans to add the incident to the illegal-intimidation charge he filed with the National Labor Relations Board in May.

“We were completely within our rights to be there,” Litrell told the Washington Post. But he said that didn’t stop a low-level manager from confronting him later to ask, “ ‘How’s the revolution going?’ ”

Employees at Amazon facilities around the country whose union hopes were buoyed by the labor victory at a warehouse in Staten Island in April say in labor board filings and interviews that the company has been calling police, firing workers and generally cracking down on labor organizing since that historic win.

Amazon has been accused of illegally firing workers in Chicago, New York and Ohio, calling the police on workers in Kentucky and New York, and retaliating against workers in New York and Pennsylvania, in what workers say is an escalation of long-running union-busting activities by the company.

It’s a sign that, even as lawmakers demand Amazon drop its objections to the union win in Staten Island, which it began arguing in a hearing on Monday, the nation’s second-largest private employer will continue to put up fierce opposition to any wave of union momentum.

“They’re scared,” said Seth Goldstein, an attorney representing the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), which pulled off the victory in Staten Island. “They want to stop the organizing, and this is how they want to do it.”

“Like every company, we have basic expectations of employees at all levels of the organization when it comes to attendance and performance, safety, and personal conduct,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement.

“Whether an employee supports a certain cause or group doesn’t factor into the difficult decision of whether or not to let someone go. The allegations mentioned in this story are without merit, and we look forward to showing that through the appropriate process.”

The labor board hearing in which Amazon plans to make its case for overturning the union victory in Staten Island began Monday .

Though the JFK8 warehouse is in Staten Island, Monday’s hearing is being overseen by the labor board’s regional Phoenix office.

National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo moved the proceedings after Amazon argued that the Brooklyn office was unfairly biased against the company and had mishandled the election there.

On Monday morning, lawyers representing Amazon argued that representatives from the NLRB’s Brooklyn office should be excluded from the proceedings entirely.

Previously, Amazon had filed a motion requesting that the general public, including the media, should be barred from attending the hearing, but a labor board judge denied the motion last week.

In its opening statement, Amazon argued that both the union and the regional office of the NLRB that conducted the election acted in ways that unfairly turned the election in the union’s favor.

The union, Amazon argued, intimidated, coerced and surveilled employees as they voted, specifically citing the “loitering” of union president Chris Smalls outside the voting tent.

One of the workers, Ashley Mercer, alleges that she was made to pick up cigarette butts in a parking lot, and the other, Jason Main, alleges he was fired in retaliation for union organizing. Lawyers for the union said the use of the word loitering, and implication that workers were afraid of Smalls, who is Black, had racial implications.

The company also argued that the NLRB office mishandled the election by treating anti-union workers unfairly, failing to deal with workers’ allegations in a timely manner and giving the impression of a bias by filing a lawsuit to reinstate a worker Amazon had previously fired.

“When you add up the troubling actions and inactions, it will be clear that Region 29 altered the playing field in a way that the board should not condone,” Amazon lawyer Kurt Larkin said in his opening statement on Monday.

A representative from Region 29, Lisa Weis, said the office “ran the election properly and fairly” in a statement during Monday’s hearing.

Eric Milner, a lawyer representing the Amazon Labor Union, called the company’s objections to the election “a frivolous sideshow.”

Union lawyers tried and failed to have a slew of Amazon’s objections dismissed earlier on Monday.

In his opening statement, Milner denied Amazon’s claims that the union intimidated workers, saying that “if anything, the evidence is going to show that employees were afraid of and felt coerced by Amazon, not the ALU.”

He also defended the NLRB’s conduct.

“It’s not Region 29’s fault that Amazon breaks too many laws to keep up with,” he said.

“Amazon doesn’t get to sit here and flagrantly violate labor law and then claim bias when the agency investigating those laws decides to do their job.”

Amazon’s lawyers said they plan to call “dozens and dozens” of witnesses and expect the hearing to go on for “the next several weeks.”

Even if the attempt by Amazon to get the Staten Island election results thrown out fails, it will probably be months or years before workers succeed in bargaining for a contract.

Meanwhile, an attempt to unionize a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, is ongoing, as both sides contest the results of an undecided union election that took place there in March.

A second Staten Island warehouse voted against unionizing last month.

“While Amazon likes to boast about its competitive starting pay, its generous benefits, and its support for select progressive policy items, this ‘pro-worker’ sentiment fades away the moment its own workers state they want to exercise their legal right to collectively bargain,” Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., wrote in a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy on Friday.Nonetheless, the original victory in Staten Island – and a revote in Alabama – triggered outreach from hundreds of new workers interested in unionizing some of the company’s warehouses, according to the unions.

In December, in response to allegations of union-busting across the country, Amazon made a deal with the labor board in which it agreed to make union organizing at its facilities easier.

But workers say Amazon has continued to push back against their efforts – helping prompt a wider array of filings with the NLRB.

The agency declined to comment.

To deal with all the requests for legal help from Amazon employees, the ALU’s Goldstein said, the upstart union has accepted help from 21 Harvard and Yale law students who volunteered their services.

Other unions have also stepped up to provide legal support and financial resources.

In Pennsylvania, an Amazon employee who claims to have been illegally retaliated against is being represented by the American Postal Workers Union, which has expressed interest in expanding its membership to include more employees of private companies.

A union lawyer declined to comment on the case.

The Postal Workers Union didn’t respond to questions about whether it is trying to organize Amazon employees, though it has publicly stated its intent to support them.

Amazon’s Nantel said the charge is without merit.

In the two months since the ALU’s victory, more than half a dozen Amazon workers claim to have been fired in what they call an effort to intimidate others who might be interested in unionizing.

Four Amazon workers in New York City’s Queens borough said in an April filing that the company discharged them for “protesting terms and conditions of employment.”

A worker in Cleveland, Joey Desatnik, said in a May 16 unfair-labor-practice charge that Amazon had terminated him to “discourage union activities and support among his fellow employees.”

And in Chicago in May, Amazon fired warehouse worker Rakyle Johnson, a member of Amazonians United who alleged in a labor board filing earlier this month that Amazon fired him because he “joined or supported a labor organization.”

Amazon’s Nantel disputed those allegations, saying Desatnik was terminated for aggressively avoiding a security screening and that Johnson “was terminated for a serious safety violation that involved jamming an object in a conveyor belt to stop production.”

Johnson and Desatnik did not respond to requests for comment.

But Goldstein, the ALU attorney, said, “I think there’s been more of a crackdown.”

One alleged victim of that crackdown is Pat Cioffi, an ALU organizer who said he was friendly with management at JFK8, the Staten Island warehouse, before he became a vocal union supporter following the arrest of union leader Chris Smalls.

Amazon fired Cioffi on Thursday; in an email, Nantel said Cioffi was terminated because an internal investigation found that he verbally and physically assaulted a female manager.

But Cioffi denies it and told The Post his termination was retaliation for union activity.

“I was very pro-union, and very vocal for the union and getting people to join our union, and they didn’t like that,” said Cioffi, who demanded to be reinstated to his job in an unfair-labor-practice charge with the NLRB on Friday.

Goldstein is also representing two workers at a facility in Clay, N.Y., who previously worked to organize the JFK8 warehouse.

One of the workers, Ashley Mercer, alleges that she was made to pick up cigarette butts in a parking lot, and the other, Jason Main, alleges he was fired in retaliation for union organizing.

Nantel said Mercer was not disciplined and that Main was fired because he “put himself and his fellow employees at risk on a number of occasions, which led to an injury to a co-worker.” Goldstein, their lawyer, said Main denies those claims.

When Kentucky-based worker Litrell heard about the Amazon Labor Union’s win in New York, he said he knew it had the potential to mobilize workers at his warehouse.

Though he’d considered affiliating with ALU, Litrell and his fellow organizers initially decided going with a more established union – the International Association of Machinists – was a safer bet.

Machinists spokesperson Jonathan Battaglia said the union is “gauging support” for an organizing drive in Campbellsville but hasn’t launched an official campaign.

Litrell said he is in the process of adding the incident in which Amazon called police on him, which the sheriff’s office confirmed to The Post, to the list of illegal retaliation charges filed with the NLRB.

According to a May 6 filing, Litrell, who has received written warnings from Amazon, is accusing the company of “administering discipline and harassing” him because of his “vocal support for the Union.”

Nantel said no employees in Campbellsville were disciplined because of union involvement and that “non-Amazon employees were asked to leave private property.”

The road to holding a union election in Campbellsville could be a long one. Already, Litrell said, members of his organizing committee have quit out of concern that Amazon will learn of their involvement and fire them.

Workers in Campbellsville can’t afford to lose their Amazon jobs, Litrell said.

“There’s other factories and such, but you’d have to go outside of Campbellsville to find a decent-paying job. Campbellsville is dependent on Amazon – it’s like a company town,” he said. “The other jobs are fast food or a telemarketing company and some small factories that don’t pay worth a damn.”

“Amazon is the best employer in Campbellsville,” he said.

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