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Amazon union prevails in ruling on warehouse access for organizing

Amazon employees wait to cast ballots in a unionization election on March 25, 2022, at the JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island, N.Y.  (New York Times)
By Noam Scheiber New York Times

NEW YORK – Federal labor regulators have concluded that Amazon’s policy of restricting the warehouse access of off-duty employees is illegal, backing a contention of the union that has represented workers at a Staten Island, New York, warehouse since winning an election there last year.

In a written communication sent to the union Wednesday, a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board’s Brooklyn region, Brent Childerhose, said the regional office had determined that the company broke the law by adopting the access rule last summer in response to union activity and that it had applied the rule in a discriminatory fashion against union supporters.

The Amazon Labor Union contends that the access policy makes it difficult for workers to exercise their right to talk to co-workers about joining or supporting a union.

An Amazon spokesperson, Mary Kate Paradis, said that the company had adopted the rule to protect employee safety and building security and that it applied the rule fairly and in a way that “has nothing to do with whether an individual supports a particular cause or group.”

Employees continue to have access to nonwork areas outside company buildings, she said.

Portions of the case will go to a trial before an administrative law judge unless Amazon settles it beforehand.

The losing side can appeal the judge’s decision to the labor board in Washington, D.C. A lawyer for the union, Seth Goldstein, said that if the labor board prevailed, Amazon might have to roll back the off-duty-access policy at warehouses around the country. The labor board did not immediately respond to a query about the potential impact.

The board also said the company had illegally failed to bargain with the union.

The result was certified by an NLRB regional director in January, but the company is appealing the outcome to the labor board in Washington.

The Amazon spokesperson said it wouldn’t make sense to negotiate changes to how the company operates at the site while Amazon continued to challenge the election’s validity.

Amazon has traditionally forbidden workers from remaining inside its warehouses, including break rooms, if they are not within 15 minutes of their shift. But the labor board reached a settlement with the company to ease the policy nationally in late 2021 as the union campaign at the Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, was gaining momentum.

Union organizers attribute their election victory at JFK8 partly to the ability of off-duty employees to talk to co-workers and distribute food and union material in break rooms.

Union organizers say the loss of such access last summer, not long after their victory, made it far more difficult to reach workers at the warehouse and try to enlist them in a pressure campaign to bring Amazon to the bargaining table.

Under the settlement, Amazon was allowed to reinstitute a more restrictive policy after a few months, but the labor board contends that the manner in which it did so was discriminatory and therefore illegal.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.