Amazon Unlawfully Confiscated Union Literature, NLRB Finds

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Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP

On the Clock is Motherboard’s reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Amazon illegally prohibited an employee from giving workers pro-union literature, confiscated that literature, and gave workers the impression that their organizing activity was being surveilled at the company’s Staten Island fulfillment center in New York, according to National Labor Relations Board charges and other documentation reviewed by Motherboard. 

An NLRB investigation found that Amazon illegally prohibited Connor Spence, a Staten Island employee involved in union organizing, from distributing pro-union literature in a break room on May 16—and then confiscated the literature—also in violation of U.S. labor law, according to evidence provided by the NLRB to the union’s attorney. 

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Connor Spence, a 25-year-old warehouse worker in Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island, who filed the unfair labor practice charge, told Motherboard that on May 16, he was in the break room distributing leaflets about unions and copies of a notice that Amazon had to post in a Queens warehouse for violating workers’ union rights, when an Amazon security guard approached him and told him he did not have permission to distribute the leaflets.

“He took the union literature away and wouldn’t give it back,” Spence told Motherboard. “I filed the charge so that there’s accountability in place that prevents them from doing this in the future.” 

Following the defeat of a high-profile union drive at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama this April, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island have been busy organizing their own independent union, known as Amazon Labor Union. 

“Amazon is very obviously anti-union. They cross the line a lot when it comes to stopping workers from unionizing,” Spence said. “Unfortunately labor law isn’t very strong in our country, but I’m hoping Amazon cares about its image and these stains on their record.” 

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The finding comes on the same day as an NLRB officer in Alabama released a report recommending the rerun of a union election in an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The Bessemer campaign marked the highest profile effort to date to unionize an Amazon warehouse in the United States, and inspired groups of Amazon workers around the country to take steps toward unionizing. The NLRB’s report on the Bessemer election found that Amazon illegally discouraged labor organizing, in part by pushing post office officials to install a mailbox outside the warehouse where workers were urged to drop their mail-in ballots, which an NLRB officer wrote “destroyed the laboratory conditions and justifies a second election.”

In recent months, Amazon has spread anti-union messaging similar to that used in the Bessemer union drive at its Staten Island warehouse with text messages that said “Don’t be misled by union organizers wearing Amazon vests,” signage in bathrooms, monitors throughout its warehouse.

The NLRB investigation also found that Amazon illegally created the impression of surveillance of workers’ organizing activity at JFK8 on May 24.

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Most weeks, large groups of workers have gathered for union barbecues on the sidewalk outside the warehouse with hotdogs, hamburgers, baked ziti, and seafood mac and cheese. Spence said that on May 24, a group of pro-union workers was holding one of these barbecues under a couple of tents, when a security guard approached from a nearby parking lot and held up her phone to take photos of the organizers. Motherboard reviewed a photo of the security guard taking photos. 

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Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, it is illegal for employers to interfere with or retaliate against workers involved in union activity, including by surveilling or creating the impression of surveillance of union organizing. During the past year, the NLRB has repeatedly found evidence that Amazon has illegally violated these laws. 

“The penalties for violating the [NLRA] are meaningless,” said John Logan, an expert on the union avoidance industry at San Francisco State University. “[For Amazon], it’s the cost of doing business. You can make a case that Amazon falls into the category of the worst offenders, a poster child for labor law violations.”

In Spence’s case, the NLRB has made a finding of merit to the charges, and has indicated that it plans to issue a formal complaint. A finding of merit is not an official decision, but a crucial step in an ongoing proceeding. Amazon will now have the opportunity to settle. If Amazon does not agree to do so, then the NLRB will schedule a hearing before an administrative law judge. 

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment about Spence’s charges and its anti-union activity in Staten Island, but told Motherboard regarding the election in Bessemer, “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.”