A federal agency is coming for Amazon over its anti-union bullying tactics

National Labor Relations Board says Amazon unlawfully confiscated union literature from an employee in New Jersey, and wants an election redo in Alabama.

LEEDS, ENGLAND - MAY 27: A general view outside an Amazon UK Services Ltd Warehouse at Leeds Distrib...
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The National Labor Relations Board, an independent agency within the federal government tasked with enforcing U.S. labor law, says that Amazon illegally interfered with union drives at two of its warehouses.

One of the union elections was defeated at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. An NLRB officer says that the high-profile election there should be run again, as the agency claims that Amazon illegally discouraged union organizing by pushing for the ballot box to be placed outside the warehouse, which could scare some workers to not vote out of fear of retaliation.

Fear tactics — In the other case, the NLRB is seeking penalties against Amazon in New Jersey, where it says that the company illegally prohibited a worker from distributing pro-union literature in a break room. Speaking to Vice, a warehouse worker said he was distributing leaflets that Amazon was required to post after violating workers’ union rights when a security guard approached him and confiscated the material. Workers there are pushing for a union after the defeat in Alabama.

Amazon was found requiring workers in Alabama to attend mandatory informational meetings where it could discourage the efforts. It stopped doing those following scrutiny, but in New Jersey, it continues to use aggressive tactics like sending text messages to workers that say, “Don’t be misled by union organizers wearing vests.” It also uses signage in bathrooms and other places to display anti-union talking points.

The NLRB also says that union organizers in New Jersey meet most weeks for a barbecue outside the warehouse, and that Amazon tries to intimidate them by sending out security guards to take photos of the gatherings. It is illegal for employers to interfere with or retaliate against workers involved in union activity, including by surveilling or even creating an impression of surveillance.

Unions — Amazon has used the common talking points to argue against unions, saying that labor organizations only want to take fees from them in exchange for little help. But that belies the fact that unions were historically accountable for some of the greatest wage increases before union-busting became a thing during the Reagan administration. A large body of work documents that unions raise the wages of their members relative to non-union, and the erosion of unions over the years has directly contributed to wage stagnation. Unions can also bargain for better treatment in the workplace so that workers, for instance, don’t need to pee in bottles or take breaks inside what’s effectively a soundproof box for crying.

Amazon workers may fear being fired if they try and unionize, and worry they may struggle to find another job that pays similarly. That’s essentially the story of how unions died after President Reagan fired the country’s air traffic controllers during a union protest. Workers’ wages haven’t kept up with inflation, and they have little leverage to negotiate.

For Amazon, of course, this is a good deal. Unions are antithetical to its model of monitoring workers closely and maximizing efficiency by essentially working them like robots. Organized labor would threaten that because workers could protest against its actions and have more protection from sudden firings.

But Amazon told Vice that workers in Alabama actually prefer to have a direct relationship with their managers rather than going through a union for labor negotiations.

“Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate, and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers and the company. Their voice should be heard above all else, and we plan to appeal to ensure that happens.”