Some warehouse workers of Amazon, the largest American e-commerce retailer with 750,000 employees, have organized for workplace improvements in light of the company's scrutinized labor practices and stance against unions. Worker actions have included work stoppages and have won concessions including increased pay, safety precautions, and time off. There are unionized Amazon workers in both the United States and Europe.

In April 2022, Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York City voted in favor of a union, becoming Amazon's first NLRB-recognized unionized workplace in the United States.

Background

Inside an Amazon warehouse in Maryland
Inside an Amazon warehouse in Maryland

Main article: Criticism of Amazon § Treatment of workers

As the second-largest American employer[1] and the largest American e-commerce retailer with over one million workers and rapidly expanding, Amazon's warehouse labor practices have been subject to continued scrutiny, including reporting on work conditions, rising injury rates, worker surveillance, and efforts to block unionization.[2][3][4] In the late 2010s, Amazon began to address warehouse wages and training opportunities.[5] Despite increasing its minimum wage to $15/hour, providing healthcare benefits and COVID-19 testing, labor advocates and government officials have criticized Amazon's warehouse working conditions.[6] While unions are common among Amazon warehouse workers in Europe, none of Amazon's American workers are unionized.[7][8] Amazon has actively opposed unionization in the United States,[7] having stated a preference to resolve issues with employees directly,[8] asserting that unions would impede the company's innovation.[9] Prior to the 2020 Bessemer union drive, Amazon had not faced a major union vote in the United States since Delaware in 2014.[7]

United States

On April 1, 2022, the National Labor Relations Board announced that Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York City voted to approve the union. 2,654 voted in favor of a union while 2,131 voted against a union.[10][11] As of April 2022, the JFK8 warehouse is currently Amazon's only unionized workplace in the United States.[11]

On December 22, 2021, Amazon agreed in a settlement with the NLRB to allow more easily the 750,000 employees in the US to organize including allowing workers to be on property for longer than 15 minutes before and after their shifts for union organizing purposes. Since the beginning of the Corona pandemic, more than 75 complaints have been lodged against Amazon according to the NLRB.[12]

In 2000, the Communications Workers of America and the United Food and Commercial Workers launched unionization drives for Amazon workers after unrest over a number of layoffs and a significant drop in employee stock options. In response, the company set up a section on its internal website giving advice to managers on how to spot workers attempting to organize and how to convince them not to.[13] In 2001, 850 employees in Seattle were laid off by Amazon after a unionization drive. The Washington Alliance of Technological Workers (WashTech) accused the company of violating union laws and claimed Amazon managers subjected them to intimidation and heavy propaganda. Amazon denied any link between the unionization effort and layoffs.[14]

Technical Amazon workers held the company's first unionization vote in the United States in January 2014, which failed 21 to 6. The NLRB held the vote following a December petition from International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers on behalf of 30 Amazon warehouse maintenance and repair workers in Middletown, Delaware.[15]

Amazon workers protest in Minnesota, 2018
Amazon workers protest in Minnesota, 2018

Throughout the late 2010s, warehouses in Staten Island and Minnesota participated in union drives and bargaining. Workers organized for work conditions in particular, such as need for more frequent breaks. Workers have leaked Amazon manager training videos about discouraging labor organization. In response to changes following Amazon's 2017 acquisition of grocery Whole Foods, workers began to organize as Whole Worker.[16] The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union began to organize 2,500 workers from Amazon's Staten Island warehouse in December 2018, but this did not result in a union vote.[8][6]

When other businesses shut down during COVID-19 pandemic safety measures, the welfare and salary of workers ensuring the delivery of goods, including Amazon's labor, received renewed attention.[6] Amazon workers, amid increased demand, advocated for pay increases and safety measures through work stoppage including walkouts and not appearing for work.[3] Amazon increased pay for warehouse, transportation, delivery, and store workers and increased paid time off. Some workers described these concessions as a minimum for convincing employees to risk working during the pandemic.[5] Amazon responded to worker activism by increasing anti-union propaganda, firing organizers, hiring Pinkertons, and surveilling its workers.[1] In December 2020, the National Labor Relations Board found merit to a complaint that a Staten Island warehouse worker's firing was an illegal retaliation for organizing for pandemic safety procedure.[6]

Amazon Union – IAM

Chester union drive (2016)

In 2016, Amazon stopped a unionization drive in Chester, Virginia. Organizers were derided as "a cancer" to the workplace and some human resources officials were accused of tracking employee positions on the drive. The union filed a complaint and Amazon settled with the National Labor Relations Board, agreeing to post notices but not having to concede legal violations or fines. Most of the union supporters left.[17]

Amazon Union – RWDSU

Bessemer union drive (2020–2022)

Video of President Joe Biden expressing support for unionization in Alabama, saying employers should use "no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda."[18]
Video of President Joe Biden expressing support for unionization in Alabama, saying employers should use "no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda."[18]

Amazon opened a fulfillment warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, in March 2020. Within several months, Jennifer Bates,[19] a warehouse worker at the facility, began leading workers in organizing to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).[20] Bessemer warehouse workers filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in November to hold a unionization vote. The bargaining unit was originally proposed as 1,500 full-time and part-time employees.[21] The workers, who are 85% Black, were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.[22] Amazon fought the effort hard.[20] The company retained anti-union lawyers Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, the same firm Amazon used to successfully fight the Delaware warehouse unionization effort in 2014.[23] The NLRB denied the company's request to delay initial hearings.[23] Amazon recommended expanding the bargaining unit to 5,700 workers, and in a three-day NLRB hearing, lawyers from Amazon and the union established a broader bargaining unit membership than originally proposed, including seasonal hires and on-site medical, safety, and training workers.[7] These were common tactics to discourage unionization, as a larger bargaining unit would dilute the union's penetration, having only organized a portion of the originally proposed, smaller unit.[23] The union accepted the expanded unit to let the vote proceed sooner.[6] During the drive, Amazon held mandatory meetings to hear the company's anti-union position and hung signage to discourage unionization.[1]

The union drive received outward support from American politicians including U.S. Representatives Andy Levin, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Terri Sewell, Nikema Williams and US Senator Bernie Sanders, among many others. President Joe Biden alluded to the Alabama drive in a contemporaneous speech in support of unions.[24] Biden gave stronger support than any president has given unions in decades, and labor activists said his advocacy would build his support in the working class, fighting off Republican inroads there.[25] During the drive, the RWDSU reported interest from a thousand Amazon workers across the United States.[26]

Mail-in ballots were distributed on February 8, 2021, after the NLRB rejected Amazon's attempt to delay the vote.[27] Ballots were due by March 29[28] to be counted on April 8 and 9.[29] The vast majority voted against unionization: 1,798 to 738. Of about 6,000 eligible employees, about 40% had participated. An additional 505 ballots were contested and left sealed, not being numerous enough in count to sway the final tally.[20]

The RWDSU filed unfair labor practice charges against Amazon before the NLRB, alleging that the company interfered in employees' right to "vote in a free and fair election".[30][31] Their largest contention concerned potential worker intimidation based on the location of a ballot box. Amazon originally proposed on-site ballot boxes, which the NLRB rejected as giving the appearance that Amazon controlled the vote and potentially intimidating workers to not oppose the company's position. Instead, the United States Postal Service (USPS) approved a mailbox in the Bessemer warehouse's parking lot. Top-level management from Amazon and USPS were involved in the request, as Amazon strongly wanted employees to use this mailbox. After the USPS denied Amazon permission to add signage to the mailbox itself, Amazon built a tent around the mailbox to add its own signage calling attention to the mailbox as a place to vote. Amazon intended the tent to protect voter privacy, but the parent union held that the tent made the mail-in vote appear to be under company surveillance and control, rather than by the independent NLRB. Separately, a pro-union employee[32] testified to having seen company security guards open the mailbox. Amazon said their access was limited to incoming mailboxes. RWDSU had known about the mailbox in advance of the vote and chose to proceed. Former NLRB chair Wilma B. Liebman said that the mailbox contention is "strong grounds for overturning the election".[20] Several Postal Service employees testified that Amazon had not been provided keys to the mailbox.[32]

In August 2021, an NRLB report on the Bessemer union drive found that "a free and fair election was impossible" and that "possibility that the employer's misconduct influenced some of these 2,000 eligible voters [who did not vote]."[33]

On November 29, 2021, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ordered a re-vote.[32] In March 2022, the warehouse voted for a second time, but the result was too close to call with more than 400 ballots being contested and 875-993 counted votes in favor of unionizing.[34]

Amazonians United

In the first 12 months of the pandemic, 37 labor complaints have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), more than triple the prior year and multiple cases involving labor organizers. One complaint concerned an employee who organized a walkout over pandemic working conditions in a Queens, New York, warehouse. The employee, Jonathan Bailey, a co-founder of Amazonians United, was interrogated and accused of harassment. The NLRB filed a federal complaint against Amazon after finding merit to the worker's claims of company retaliation for protected activities. In another case, the NLRB sided with a Pennsylvania warehouse worker who had lobbied for sick pay for part-time employees. She settled with Amazon and withdrew her complaint. The increase in cases reflects rising activism among Amazon warehouse workers.[1] The warehouse worker firings led to public acts of solidarity from some Amazon corporate employees. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, both user experience designers, were fired for violating internal policies in April 2020, which the NLRB later determined had been unlawful resulting in a board settlement involving back pay and notice-posting around employees' right to organize.[35] Tim Bray, a vice president of Amazon Web Services resigned in response based on the handling of their case.[1]

Delivery Service Partners – Teamsters

The Bessemer union drive inspired a peer-organized poll of Amazon delivery drivers (Delivery Service Partners, or DSP), in which the vast majority of its 500 respondents showed interest in unionizing. Amazon's 158,000 DSP drivers are subcontracted across 2,500 companies spanning eight countries, such that Amazon can drop any one provider whose workers unionize. One DSP provider's Michigan office closed within a month of its workers voting to organize. Amazon supplies subcontracted companies with financing and surveillance technology to track driver movements in real time. The subcontracted companies, in turn, handle workplace management and liability, insulating Amazon.[36] After the Michigan example, Amazon advised other DSP firms on how to avoid union drives, which proved successful through early 2021.[36][37]

Following the failed drive, the major labor union Teamsters resolved with near unanimity to organize Amazon warehouse and delivery workers as a central focus.[38][39]

Amazon Labor Union (2021–2022)

Main article: Amazon Labor Union

On March 30, 2020, Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer led a walkout in response to Amazon's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly what the workers said was a lack of proper safety protocols at a Staten Island warehouse, JFK8. Smalls was fired the same day for violating the company's social distancing policies while on a required, paid 14-day quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19. Smalls had been exposed on March 11, 2020, but was not notified until March 28, 2020, prompting multiple government-led criticism and investigations. Smalls subsequently founded a labor-activist group, The Congress of Essential Workers, which orchestrated a number of strike actions in 2020. On April 2021, the group formed an independent trade union for Amazon workers, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU).[40][41][42][43]

The ALU's initial union drive encompassed all four New York City (NYC) Amazon warehouses. On October 25, 2021, the NLRB announced that enough JFK8 workers had submitted authorization cards to hold an election. The trade union withdrew their request the following November, after Amazon had contested the number of employees and the validity of some of the collected signatures, to collect a higher percentage of cards. On January 26, 2022, the ALU announced they had petitioned another vote with the NLRB, which was held over a five day period at the end of March 2022, and on April 1, 2022, the workers at JFK8 voted 2,654-2,131 in favor of the union, becoming the first NLRB-recognized unionized Amazon workplace in the United States.[44][45][46]

On March 2, 2022, the NLRB approved a union election at the second of the four NYC warehouses, LDJ5.[47]

Amazon Workers United (2022)

In 2022, an Amazon Fresh store in Seattle, Washington formed an independent union and declared themselves to be a union to their management. Amazon Workers United have not petitioned for recognition with the NLRB.[48]

Canada

In mid-2018, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada filed a complaint against Amazon with the Ontario Labour Relations Board, accusing the company of having fired delivery drivers for attempting to launch a unionization drive.[49]

In mid-September 2021, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Nisku, Alberta, filed for a unionization vote with the Alberta Labour Relations Board.[50] A few days later, the Teamsters Union launched unionization drives in nine Amazon warehouses across Canada.[51][52]

Europe

Some Amazon warehouses in Europe are unionized,[7] with strikes being most frequent in Germany, Italy, Poland, France and Spain.[53]: 218  Amazon and other American technology companies with philosophies against organized labor are often scrutinized for operating counter to European norms. European criticism of Amazon's labor practices exceeds that of its practices in the United States.[54][55] Members of European Parliament have also criticized Amazon's involvement with its European worker organization. In 2021, the European Parliament asked Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to testify on issues of workers' rights and unions. Amazon employs an intelligence team to monitor its European warehouse employees.[56]

France

Inspired by the 2013 German strikes, 3 French trade unions CGT, FO and Solidaires (SUD) called for industrial strikes at the Saran Amazon location in June 2014.[53]: 216–217 

In France during the COVID-19 pandemic, unions were involved in setting the terms of warehouse workers returning to work, including pandemic protections for workers, following a month-long dispute. Those who volunteered to return sooner, in a reduced capacity, received bonus pay and a reduced work day.[57]

Germany

Germany is Amazon's largest market outside of the United States as of 2019.[58][59] Amazon opened its first German logistics center in 1999 (FRA1) followed by FRA3 in 2009 in Bad Hersfeld.[60] Hundreds of Amazon warehouse workers in Leipzig and Bad Hersfeld, organized by the trade union Ver.di went on strike in 2013 over their worker classifications and salaries. Amazon subsequently improved overtime schedules, break rooms, and introduced Christmas bonuses.[9][61][62] Amazon confirmed it would be opening three logistics centers in Poland.[61][63]

Workers in multiple Amazon warehouses went on strike for better pay and working conditions during the company's June 2021 Prime Day.[64]

Italy

Amazon opened its first Fulfillment Center in Piacenza, Italy in 2011.[65][66] The first two industrial strikes happened later in 2017, which resulted in collective bargaining with Amazon management.[67] One year later, the May 2018 collective bargaining agreement between Amazon and the Italian Federation of Commerce, Hotel and Service Workers (Filcams CGIL) trade union, with 70% of voters in favor, was the company's first collective agreement anywhere in the world.[54][55]

On March 22, 2021, Amazon workers across the supply chain organized the first nation wide strike in Amazon's history, including warehouse, logistics and subcontracted delivery workers.[66][68][69]

Poland

Amazon opened its first logistics centers near the Polish cities Poznań and Wrocław in September 2014. While operating in Poland, they primarily serve foreign markets, notably Germany.[70] There are two trade unions involved in organizing Amazon workers. The more militant union Inicjatywa Pracownicza (Workers' Initiative) is active in Poznań. They are criticized by the more mainstream and established Polish union Solidarność (which is affiliated with UNI Global Union) as being 'too radical'.[70][53]: 214  During a German strike in 2015, due to Poland's close geographic proximity to Germany, orders shifted and increased in Poland. Several dozen workers in Poznań facility engaged in a work slowdown. Shortly afterwards, Amazon increased the hourly wage by one złoty to 15 PLN.[71]

United Kingdom

Cyber Monday protest organized by GMB outside Amazon's London HQ in 2019.
Cyber Monday protest organized by GMB outside Amazon's London HQ in 2019.

Amazon arrived in the UK in 1998.[72] It is the 2nd largest market in Europe after Germany.[53]: 215–216  In 2001, 80% of workers at the Milton Keynes Fulfillment Center (ALT1) voted against unionizing with Graphical, Paper and Media Union (GPMU, now part of Unite the Union),[53]: 215–216  which the union partly blames on union busting.[73][74] Amazon.co.uk hired a US union busting consultancy organization The Burke Group to assist in defeating the union campaign.[75] GPMU alleged that the company victimized or sacked four union members during the 2001 recognition drive and held a series of captive meetings with employees.[75]

Since 2020, GMB is the main union responsible for organizing Amazon warehouse workers in the UK.[53]: 215–216 

Climate change

Amazon employees have led tech worker activism on environmental issues.[76] In 2019, 7,500 Amazon workers supported a shareholder proposal for the company to create a climate change plan. Shareholders voted it down.[77] In advance of a tech industry walkout to protest inaction towards climate change, Amazon announced a plan for new electric delivery vans. Workers, seeking bolder action, proceeded with their walkout. Amazon fired two Amazon Employees for Climate Justice organizers in 2020 for violating company policy of speaking about the company. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that these firings were illegal and retaliatory. About 600 Amazon workers signed a 2021 petition to reach net zero pollution by 2030.[77]

Union busting by Amazon

Amazon has opposed efforts by workers to organize in trade unions in both the United States and the United Kingdom, and has actively engaged in union busting.[78][79][80][81][82] Unite the Union has stated that Amazon workers "are not currently free to join a union without fear and without obstruction and propaganda being deployed against them."[83] In September 2020, 37 European trade unions co-signed an open letter calling for the European Commission to investigate Amazon, saying the company "has led the raid on workers' rights, using its data-monopoly power to crush efforts by workers to improve their conditions. Now it is ramping up its espionage operations".[84]

Alessandro Delfanti of the University of Toronto has said that "something all Amazon workplaces have in common is the corporation's resistance to workplace democracy," pointing to the company's extremely high turnover rate, mass surveillance of workers, and accusations of firing workers attempting to lead unionization drives.[85] In late-2020, Motherboard reported that Amazon monitored environmental and social justice groups, and that:

"Internal emails sent to Amazon's Global Security Operations Center obtained by Motherboard reveal that all the division's team members around the world receive updates on labor organizing activities at warehouses that include the exact date, time, location, the source who reported the action, the number of participants at an event (and in some cases a turnout rate of those expected to participate in a labor action), and a description of what happened, such as a "strike" or "the distribution of leaflets." Other documents reveal that Amazon intelligence analysts keep close tabs on how many warehouse workers attend union meetings; specific worker dissatisfaction with warehouse conditions, such as excessive workloads; and cases of warehouse-worker theft, from a bottle of tequila to $15,000 worth of smart watches".[86]

Amazon has also hired anti-union organizations to help stop unionization drives and private detective agencies such as Pinkerton to infiltrate its warehouses.[87][88] The company has also run social media campaigns using fake accounts to spread anti-union messaging.[89]

An Amazon training video that was leaked in 2018 stated "We are not anti-union, but we are not neutral either. We do not believe unions are in the best interest of our customers or shareholders or most importantly, our associates".[90] Two years later, it was found that Whole Foods was using a heat map to track which of its 510 stores had the highest levels of pro-union sentiment. Factors including racial diversity, proximity to other unions, poverty levels in the surrounding community and calls to the National Labor Relations Board were named as contributors to "unionization risk".[91] Data collected in the heat map suggest that stores with low racial and ethnic diversity, especially those located in poor communities, are more likely to unionize. Amazon also had a job listing for an Intelligence Analyst, whose role it would be to identify and tackle threats to Amazon, which included unions and organized labor.[92][93]

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Further reading

External links[edit]