How Amazon is standing up to unions in the next two elections

In Staten Island, Amazon supervisors often call them “training.” At an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, supervisors ambiguously refer to them as “meetings.” Amazon says it’s officially “breakout meetings.”

Whatever Amazon names, the union-busting sessions the company has held for employees this year are part of an effort to push back against unions in two contentious elections.

Staten Island employees will vote Friday through Wednesday at their warehouse on whether to join the Amazon Labor Union, an independent union led by current and former workers. The National Labor Relations Council will announce the results in the following days.

Warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Ballots for the mail-in election, which the Labor Board sent out in early February, are due Friday and will be counted shortly thereafter.

A union victory at either facility – each employs more than 5,000 workers – would be the first in Amazon’s history in the United States and would almost certainly change the working model that makes delivery possible. same day. But the chances for the unions remain long.

The Amazon Labor Union only qualified for the Staten Island election on its second attempt, after failing to enroll the 30% of employees it needed in its initial petition to the NLRB Organizers generally seek to register a majority of eligible workers before filing for election because attrition is common once a union campaign begins.

The retail workers’ union is in its second election at Amazon’s Alabama warehouse, after losing by more than 2-to-1 last year. The labor board later ordered a re-vote after finding Amazon broke election rules, but unions tend to lose in so-called repeat elections.

Union supporters at both warehouses say they want to raise wages, improve health and safety conditions and receive more humane treatment from supervisors. “I went to the bathroom and was stalked by two managers to see where we were,” said Michelle Valentin Nieves, a Staten Island employee. “I feel like I’m in the twilight zone.”

Amazon used the regular meetings, which typically include a few dozen employees and last about 30 minutes, to create a false impression of what unionization would entail, union supporters said.

In one video message played for the workers at a recent Staten Island meeting, the company said of the union, “From their Twitter handle to their chants, their response to most things is that they should shut down Amazon. How would that solve anything?

Amazon says the decision whether or not to unionize is up to employees and that the mandatory meetings are meant to educate workers on what a union could mean to them. The company cites its competitive pay — just under $16 an hour for a full-time entry-level worker in Alabama and more than $18 an hour in Staten Island — and benefits, which include health benefits. health care for full-time employees upon arrival. the company.

“We are committed to creating an environment where our employees can thrive and feel valued and respected,” said Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, adding that the company has spent $300 million on security projects in 2021.

Companies are allowed to hold anti-union sessions, often called “captive audience” meetings, until a ban comes into effect shortly before mail-in ballots are sent to workers or the in-person voting begins. Amazon typically held more than 20 meetings a day before these deadlines at both warehouses.

During Labor Board hearings into last year’s union elections in Alabama, a senior Amazon employee relations manager said the company brought in up to 29 employee relations officers. moreover, many of whom led the meetings, and up to nine external consultants. A consultant testified that he usually attended meetings and answered questions from workers.

Labor Department filings showed that one consulting firm billed Amazon $3,200 per day per consultant, after expenses, and that Amazon paid another consulting firm more than $350,000.

The Amazon official testified that the meetings lasted four weeks and explored a variety of topics, including contracts negotiated with other companies by the retail workers union, which Amazon seized on to claim that the union “did not deliver its members”. In other meetings, the company told workers they “could end up with more wages and benefits than before the union, the same amount they had, or could potentially end up with less. “, according to the testimony.

Union workers typically earn more than similar non-union workers, and it’s extremely rare for workers to see their pay plummet as a result of union negotiations, said Jake Rosenfeld, a professor specializing in labor unions at the University of Washington in St. Louis.

Workers at both warehouses say the company has emphasized similar themes at its meetings this year. “If a union is elected, everything is up for negotiation and the Amazon Labor Union has never negotiated a contract,” reads the video message played to workers at the Staten Island warehouse.

The video later added: “Under any of their proposals, you’d be paying hundreds of dollars a year in dues, and the Amazon Labor Union would be taking millions. And remember the ALU doesn’t has no experience in handling this huge sum of money.

Perry Connelly, a warehouse worker in Alabama, said he attended a meeting where company officials presented a recent retail workers union budget and pointed out that there was no money in the union’s strike fund – suggesting workers would be safe if there was a work stoppage. A union spokeswoman said the money would be transferred from other accounts in the event of a strike.

Several workers at both warehouses said Amazon has adjusted its approach to meetings over time. For example, in the run-up to last year’s election in Alabama, some workers complained that company officials asked for their badges after asking questions or making skeptical comments, giving the impression that Amazon followed them. Company officials have generally not done so in recent months.

But workers at both warehouses said supervisors this year sometimes seemed to avoid inviting workers to meetings if they were outspoken in support of the union, a way of potentially excluding those who might push back on company talking points. Amazon said all employees typically attend one meeting a week and that didn’t exclude anyone.

The meetings appear to reflect a broader change in Amazon’s approach to labor campaigns: After a nationwide agreement with the labor board, the company appears to have eased in some areas, giving pro workers -unions more access to break rooms to put forward their case. to colleagues, for example (although the retail workers’ union has filed charges accusing the company of unfairly restricting such access).

But Amazon has become more aggressive in other ways.

In February, Staten Island police arrested Christian Smalls, a former employee at the facility who now heads the Amazon Labor Union, after warehouse officials said he trespassed while delivering food for the workers.

Police also arrested two current Amazon employees, Jason Anthony and Brett Daniels, for obstructing government administration during the incident. The three men spent several hours in a holding cell before being released. Amazon said it only called police on Mr. Smalls.

In an interview, Mr. Daniels said that he, too, had sometimes been banned from union-busting meetings for over a week. When he recently heard about a meeting his colleagues were attending, he said, he also sought to attend, but was told upon arriving that he was not scheduled.

Mr. Daniels said he persisted and was told by a manager that he could attend a meeting at 4.30am, towards the end of his night shift. But that didn’t work either. “I show up and they’re like, ‘Oh, no, you’re the only one planned,'” Mr Daniels recalled. “‘We have to cancel.'”

Karen Weise, Jodi Kantor and Coral Murphy Marcos contributed report.

Helen L. Cuellar