Labor Movement / Trade Unions

Amazon Seeks to Prevent Certification of Union at NY Warehouse

Retail Giant Escalates Attacks on Amazon Labor Union as Labor Board Hearing Begins

By Duane Stilwell

PHOENIX, Arizona, June 13, 2022 — The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) opened a hearing here today on Amazon’s objections to the landmark victory of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) at JFK8, the company’s giant fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York. The ALU — a newly formed union led by young workers at the 8,000-employee facility — won a representation election on April 1. Amazon has challenged the outcome of the vote.

Because Amazon complained of anti-company bias at the labor board’s Region 29 Brooklyn office, which certified the vote, NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo moved the proceedings to Phoenix, about as far away from the union’s membership as possible. In an unprecedented move, Amazon then sought to exclude from the proceedings anyone who is part of Region 29, which covers much of New York City and Long Island.

A June 13 article in the Washington Post — owned by Jeff Bezos, who is also Amazon’s executive chairman — revealed the corporation’s strategy. “Amazon calls cops, fires workers in attempts to stop unionization nationwide,” read its headline. “As Amazon prepares to argue that the union victory in Staten Island should be overturned, employees around the country are accusing the company of using illegal anti-union tactics.”

Union members and other supporters of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) greet ALU organizers arriving June 13, 2022, at the building housing the offices of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Phoenix, Arizona. The NLRB opened a hearing that day on Amazon’s objections to certifying ALU’s landmark victory at JFK8, the company’s giant fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York. (Photo: Duane Stilwell / World-Outlook)

Amazon’s pattern of coercion, intimidation, and disregard for labor laws did not keep the ALU from winning the representation election. Now the company has raised 25 objections and is trying to block or delay the NLRB’s final certification of the union. The company’s aim is to overturn the vote and slow the ALU’s ongoing unionization efforts.

Amazon hopes to tamp down the enthusiasm the ALU victory has generated at Amazon facilities across the country and among many other working people.

Although the meeting was open to the public online, several workers from the American Postal Workers Union in Arizona, Unite Here, and other unions, as well as a fired Starbucks worker and her supporters, attended in person the press conference organized by the ALU this morning. It took place in front of the building housing the NLRB offices here in Phoenix.

At the hearing, attorneys for Amazon presented 25 objections to the conduct of the ALU and the Brooklyn NLRB during the vote at JFK8. The company claims its objections are grounds for invalidating the election the ALU won by a margin of 523 votes.

Amazon also tried to keep the proceedings secret. But the NLRB denied that request. About 100 people were able to watch the first day of the hearings via Zoom.

The ALU’s officers were all excluded from attending the hearing after Amazon subpoenaed them as witnesses and used other legal maneuvers to prevent them from participating in the entire NLRB review.

Obstruct and delay

These moves put Amazon’s obstructionist tactics on display.

“Amazon wants to make their own rules, to decide what happens and does not happen, who gets served [as witnesses] and who can participate,” ALU counsel Eric Milner said in his opening statement at the hearing.  

“Amazon doesn’t believe the government should have any function in regulating employer-employee relations,” Milner continued. “That’s what this case is really about and that’s why we’re here. Amazon doesn’t think that the government, the NLRB in particular, should have any say in how they interact with their employees, or with the Amazon Labor Union. Amazon’s objections are essentially a frivolous sideshow.”

Amazon tried to introduce a number of irrelevant distractions at the hearing.

For example, the company’s lawyers described events at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where another contested election is playing out, but in which the ALU is not directly involved.

Amazon also claimed the ALU had tried to coerce workers into supporting the union on Staten Island.

Milner explained that Amazon’s claims of coercion required proof the company did not present. Amazon’s allegations, he said, were designed to “waste the time and resources of the ALU.” If anything, Milner continued, “the evidence is going to show that employees were afraid of — and were coerced by — Amazon, not the ALU.”

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.” In doing so, Amazon’s attorneys revealed the company’s strategy of trying to prolong the proceeding’s duration as long as possible. At this point, it is up in the air when the hearing may end.

NLRB Region 28 has in fact reserved time and space for Amazons objections hearing every day, starting at 10 a.m. EST, until July 29!

The ALU is urging its supporters to watch the proceedings online as much as possible. The hearing is accessible via Zoom at this link (Meeting ID: 161 292 3146; Passcode: 968885).

“They want to stop the organizing, and this is how they want to do it,” said Seth Goldstein, another attorney representing the ALU.

If it cannot block NLRB certification outright, Amazon’s goal is to push the date of a labor board ruling as far down the calendar as possible and thus delay any negotiations with the union for a contract at JFK8.

A national pattern by Amazon

Amazon’s anti-union strategy is national in scope. A growing number of news reports and filings by workers with the NLRB have shown that Amazon faces many accusations of illegally firing workers in Chicago, New York, and Ohio.

In the weeks since the ALU’s election victory, several Amazon workers — four in the borough of Queens, New York — assert they have been fired in order to intimidate other workers and keep them from joining the union. The four are members of Amazonians United, a group not affiliated with the ALU.

Amazon has also called the police on workers in Kentucky and New York. It has used retaliatory tactics against workers in New York and Pennsylvania, among other violations of U.S. labor law.

Amazon has a long and well-documented history of fighting unionization efforts in the United States and abroad. Since the ALU’s April 1 victory, however, the e-commerce giant has escalated union-busting activities.

As they fight to organize a union, the young workers leading the ALU have inspired Amazon employees across the United States and other countries. All eight Amazon fulfillment centers in France were hit by walkouts in April. Amazon has also tried to sidestep union demands in Italy and Germany. Currently, the unions that represent over 15,000 workers at the French arm of Amazon are demanding a 5% pay increase to combat inflation.

Targeting the leadership

Pasquale “Pat” Cioffi addresses April 8 ALU news conference in Staten Island, New York. (Photo: Mark Satinoff / World-Outlook)

A few days before the hearing, Amazon escalated its assault on the ALU. On June 9, the company fired Pasquale (Pat) Cioffi, a former longshore worker and a key ALU organizer at JFK8. Ciofi is widely known and respected at that warehouse. Many credit Ciofi with “flipping” hundreds of workers by convincing them to vote for the union.

ALU president Chris Smalls said the company has been retaliating against Cioffi since he spoke at pro-union rallies before the vote at LDJ5, Amazon’s smaller sort center across the street from JFK8. Cioffi described publicly how management targets and tries to intimidate workers (see “ALU: ‘Vote Yes at LDJ5! and “ALU Round Two: Be Part of a Movement!’”). That strategy appears to have had more success at LDJ5 where the union lost a certification vote by a large margin on May 2 (see “‘We Lost this Battle, But We’ll Win the War’).

Cioffi’s firing is the latest among many dismissals of ALU organizers by Amazon.

The ALU has filed its own charges with the NLRB concerning Amazon’s illegal tactics and is requesting what is known as 10(j) injunctive relief, including Cioffi’s immediate reinstatement. Section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act authorizes the NLRB to seek temporary injunctions in federal district courts to stop unfair labor practices while the case is being litigated before administrative law judges and the board.

Earlier, the ALU initiated similar proceedings for Gerald Bryson, resulting in a court order for Bryson’s reinstatement last spring. At the beginning of May, Amazon also fired ALU organizers Mat Cusick and Tristan Dutchin (see “Two Fired Amazon Labor Union Organizers Speak Out”). Amazon has also fired ALU supporters Alicia Johnson, James O’Donnell, and Gabby Rivera.

Outside the NLRB hearing here, under the scorching heat, Smalls and a handful of other ALU officers held a spirited press conference to reach out to other workers and explain the key issues in the fight.

“We are here in Phoenix, Arizona, all the way from Staten Island, representing the workers at JFK8,” said Smalls, referring to himself as the “interim president of the ALU.”

“This decision today, or whenever this decision is made about this court hearing, affects everybody in the labor movement, not just ALU,” Smalls explained.

The ALU’s challenge ahead

Smalls described what the ALU faces going forward. “After this hearing,” he said, “hopefully it goes in our favor and [we] are certified, officially by the government, that will provide more protections for these workers in the warehouse, number one. Now we can use Weingarten rights, we can have representation in the building.”

ALU interim president Chris Smalls (front, left), and other ALU organizers during June 13 press conference in front of NLRB office in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo: Duane Stilwell / World-Outlook)

Weingarten rights guarantee an employee the right to union representation whenever an employer’s investigatory interview could lead to discipline.

“Two, we are building our super-team. Right now, we have lawyers that are joining our legal counsel,” Smalls continued. “We are building our infrastructure within the union. We are getting our office space. We are getting the members involved with building up our shop stewards, we are building up our members to get on as organizers. Also, we are going to have our concrete demands out in the public, so workers know exactly what we are fighting for inside JFK8.

“The most important thing is keeping the members engaged throughout the process of the contract fight,” Smalls noted, “because we know that can go anywhere for a year, a year and a half, or even longer. And we know one thing: we don’t want this to be a long, drawn-out process. We won the election. Amazon needs to come to the table.”

In the meantime, Smalls explained, “We are going to fight for any worker that needs help and operate just as if we are an established union already.”

The importance of solidarity

While answering questions from reporters at the end of the press conference, Smalls spoke about the role that union solidarity has played in the fight to unionize Amazon.

“Right now, we have a wonderful opportunity to change everything, to change the whole system,” he said. “We have to take advantage of that. We’ve got to come together, all industries, no matter whether you work for Amazon, Starbucks, Whole Foods, FedEx, Target, Walmart, Dollar General, Durant’s across the street… It doesn’t matter. Unionize your workplace, don’t quit your job.”

Many of the union members, reporters, and others present reacted with cheers, and a chant: “Union Strong! Solidarity forever!”

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