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Can Amazon stop a union?

Amazon asks the NLRB to overturn the result of a historic union election in New York.

The National Labor Relations Board confirmed Monday that lawyers representing Amazon have submitted more evidence to support the company’s case against the Amazon Labor Union, which won a landmark election at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, last month.

The tech giant is asking the board to throw out the results of the vote, which was decisively in favor of unionizing — 2,654 of 4,785 ballots counted at the JFK8 warehouse were in support of the union. Amazon alleges that the union, as well as the NLRB itself, improperly interfered with the election by violating a variety of rules.

Some experts in U.S. labor law said the company’s objections, which were outlined in an earlier filing, appeared to have little chance of success. But they could still cause headaches and delays for union organizers just as another election is starting. Employees at LJD5, a separate Amazon facility in Staten Island, began voting Monday on whether to join the union.

“There is a huge incentive for Amazon to delay and delay and delay, to do anything to slow down the process,” said John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University. “They hope the workers will get discouraged.”

The objections are just the start of what is likely to be years of battles between the union and Amazon before they agree on a first contract. The union is seeking higher wages, longer breaks and other improvements. Amazon, which has said it prefers a “direct relationship with associates,” has a long history of thwarting unionization efforts. It spent millions of dollars over the last year fighting the campaign in Staten Island and campaigns at other warehouses.

“They’d stop production for five hours a day to get every single person into an all-hands-on-deck anti-union meeting with the general manager of the building,” Madeline Wesley, the union’s treasurer, said after a rally Sunday in Staten Island. “So they’re really scared of us.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. It has said the meetings are intended to educate workers about what a union would mean for their jobs.

Legal and management experts say the union may be uniquely well-positioned to face the challenges ahead. The union and its president, Christian Smalls, have attracted significant national attention and support from progressive lawmakers, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who visited Amazon workers in Staten Island over the weekend.

“Companies normally are able to engage in all sorts of different tactics to undermine the union during the first contract negotiations,” Logan said. “That’s not going to be the case with Amazon. Amazon is subject to the public gaze in a way that almost no other company is.”

Numerous objections

Amazon’s lawyers have accused the union of interfering with the election at the Staten Island warehouse by giving workers marijuana, staging confrontations during anti-union meetings Amazon hosted and polling workers in the lead-up to the vote, which is not allowed by the NLRB. 

Amazon first described the charges two weeks ago when it asked the NLRB for more time to gather evidence to support its claims. It submitted the additional information Friday; the filing has not yet been made public. Kayla Biado, a spokesperson for the NLRB, said that was because it is likely to be discussed at a hearing later.

Smalls said Amazon’s earlier accusations about the union were baseless. “It’s ridiculous really, so I hope the NLRB sees through that and they dismiss it.”

The union’s lawyers have filed a number of their own objections with the NLRB, accusing Amazon of threatening to retaliate against employees if they choose to unionize and prohibiting workers from displaying a pro-union banner in a break room. 

Kelly Nantel, a spokesperson for Amazon, said in a statement: “It’s our employees’ choice whether or not to join a union. It always has been.”

In an unusual move, Amazon also accused NLRB staff members in New York of unfairly influencing the vote. The company’s lawyers said the board did not have enough people staffing the polls, leading to long lines and lower turnout. To avoid a conflict of interest, the NLRB granted Amazon’s request this month to move the case from its regional office in Brooklyn to another branch in Phoenix.

Image: Union organizer Christian Smalls, left, celebrates following the April 1, 2022, vote for the unionization of the Amazon Staten Island warehouse in New York.
Union organizer Christian Smalls, left, celebrates after the April 1 vote to unionize the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y.Andrea Renault / AFP - Getty Images

“We’ve always said that we want our employees to have their voices heard, and in this case, that didn’t happen — fewer than a third of the employees at the site voted for the union, and overall turnout was unusually low,” Nantel said in a statement. “On April 22, we filed evidence supporting our objections which we believe will demonstrate that the actions of the Region and the ALU improperly suppressed and influenced the vote.”

Next Steps

Legal experts say it is unlikely that the NLRB will overturn the election results, because it will be difficult for Amazon to prove that the union or the board’s behavior meaningfully changed the outcome. In some cases, Amazon alleged that widely accepted union tactics shifted how workers voted, such as the fact that the union assured them that they will not need to pay dues until their first contract is passed.

Amazon’s real goal, some experts say, may simply be to delay the process for as long as possible, which could dampen enthusiasm among union organizers.

“Even if it seems patently ridiculous, it takes time for the members of the NLRB to do a responsible job and investigate all these allegations,” said Anastasia Christman, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for greater worker protections.

In the longer term, Amazon may be betting that some pro-union employees will move on to other jobs, Christman said. Annual turnover among Amazon’s hourly staffers is as high as 150 percent, according to data reported by The New York Times. 

In a statement in response to the turnover estimates, Nantel said: “We’re proud to create both short-term and long-term jobs with great pay and great benefits. Because of this flexibility, some employees stay with us throughout the year and others choose to only work with us for a few months to make some extra income when they need it. A large percentage of people we hire are re-hires, showing that they will choose to work with us when they want to, then come back when it’s convenient for them — and we’re glad they’re on our team.”

Amazon could also refuse to bargain with the union, and the case could wind up in a federal appeals court, where, experts say, Amazon may fare better than at the NLRB. A panel of judges, who are often not labor experts, would be responsible for determining whether the Staten Island election was conducted fairly.

“I think really what Amazon is trying to do is set the table to bring this to court,” said Michael Hayes, who was the director of the Office of Labor-Management Standards at the Labor Department during the Obama administration. “They’re hoping to throw enough stuff at the judge that they, or a majority of judges on a panel, say: ‘Well, when there’s smoke, there’s fire. Maybe we should make them do this election again.’”

Amazon declined to say whether it is planning for an appeal.

Bigger goals

If the election results hold in Staten Island, they could help build momentum for similar efforts at Amazon warehouses across the country. The union organizers say that workers at dozens of Amazon facilities have contacted them asking for help starting their own union drives and that preliminary efforts are already underway in New Jersey, North Carolina, New Mexico and elsewhere.

Amazon organizers are also inspiring unionization campaigns at other companies, including Apple, where workers at a retail store in Atlanta announced last week that they had filed to hold a union election. Groups of employees at hundreds of Starbucks stores plan to hold votes, as well, and at least two dozen have already chosen to unionize in recent months.

Even if Amazon continues to fight the outcome of the Staten Island election, union organizers can still work to create energy for their movement. They have proven adept at raising awareness about working conditions and other grievances on social media and in the press, said Iwan Barankay, a management and public policy professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“This is why I have some sense of optimism that Christian Smalls and his efforts will perhaps lead to lasting changes,” he said. “But, you know, only time will tell.”