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‘It’s war.’ Tensions remain high at first Amazon warehouse in US to unionize

By Catherine Thorbecke and Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business

In the two months since workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, voted to form the company’s first US labor union, the organizers have been on a victory lap.

Leaders for the newly formed Amazon Labor Union have visited the White House, testified before a Senate committee, been featured on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people and rallied alongside prominent progressive political figures such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The fired-Amazon-worker-turned-union-president, Chris Smalls, has also been recognized publicly, both as a labor leader and for his fashion sense, with his style written up by the New York Times.

But inside the Staten Island facility, known as JFK8, tensions remain high between the union and Amazon. Several worker-organizers at the facility have been fired, sparking heated responses from the union. Amazon has yet to sit down at the bargaining table with the union, prompting Sen. Sanders and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Friday to urge Amazon’s CEO to recognize the union rather than fight it. And Amazon is currently attempting to have the election results thrown out after filing more than two dozen objections, not only concerning alleged behavior of union leaders but also that of the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the election. The agency has denied Amazon’s charges against it.

A hearing on the objections kicked off Monday at an NLRB regional office in Phoenix, Arizona, given the accusations alleged in Amazon’s objections against the local regional office in New York. Amazon pushed to keep the hearing closed to the public, but the federal labor agency ruled against it in a recent filing. “The Board’s hearings are not secret. Accordingly, preventing the public from viewing its important processes is not an option,” the filing stated. The ALU, meanwhile, has indicated plans to travel to Phoenix to rally for recognition.

The ongoing saga at the facility shows how the surprise victory for the underdog Amazon Labor Union is far from the end of a long battle for collective bargaining between some warehouse workers and one of the country’s largest employers. It also points to a playbook Amazon could use with other warehouses, at a time when the pandemic has heightened concerns among some employees about working conditions at the e-commerce giant. At Amazon, only a few other US locations have held a union election and, so far, they’ve failed to successfully unionize.

“Amazon is not willing to recognize having a union,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of Labor Education Research Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She added that the developments at JFK8 reveal major weaknesses in US labor laws. “One of the problems under our labor law is that if a company refuses to bargain, the worst penalty is a piece of paper saying, ‘Go bargain.'”

Amazon has repeatedly emphasized in statements that while employees have a choice to join a union, it prefers to communicate with workers directly — a common refrain among employers facing a wave of workplace activism during the pandemic. In a recent interview at the Bloomberg Technology Summit, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy reiterated this point, stating the company believes its workers are “better off without a union.”

Among its complaints, Amazon alleged in a filing that the NLRB’s regional office, which oversaw the election at the facility, “unfairly and inappropriately facilitated the [Amazon Labor Union’s] victory.” Amazon also accused the grassroots union, spearheaded by Smalls, of intimidating employees, among other allegations.

Seth Goldstein, an attorney for the union, called the objections “racist, baseless, and absurd” in a statement online. Smalls added, “These objections are insulting to the workers of JFK8 who survived the pandemic and defeated a trillion-dollar company just to see Amazon use their highly-paid lawyers to silence the voices of thousands of their workers.”

The new union, meanwhile, has strongly taken issue with staff firings at JFK8. After news last week that the company had fired another worker-organizer at the facility, marking at least the third to have been dismissed since the initial election results, the newly formed union did not mince words.

“It’s war,” the Amazon Labor Union tweeted on Thursday. Days earlier, the union had issued a similar warning to “Amazon’s lawyers” in a tweet: “If you fire the person you’re thinking about firing right now we’ll take it as an act of war.”

In a statement to CNN, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the employee was let go due to violent workplace behavior. The union did not respond to requests for comment.

In early May, there was also a reported dismissal of a group of managers at JFK8. Asked about this by CNN Business at the time, Amazon did not provide a comment but, in an explanation to the New York Times, said the management changes came after evaluating “operations and leadership” at the facility.

Bronfenbrenner said Amazon’s actions since the union election are not surprising for an employer that has opposed and avoided unionization efforts for so long.

“They’re going to fight to stay non-union for a very long time,” she said, “until the cost of being non-union becomes greater than the cost of being union, and that’s going to take having their customers and their investors put a great deal of pressure on them.”

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