How Amazon Destroys Labor Unions
Amazon swore off bullying and harassing employees in a secret deal in Virginia. The company's tactics are being scrutinized as it deals with rising labor unrest.
Amazon was forced to put a "warning to staff" on the break-room walls of an east-central Virginia warehouse five years ago.
The notice was printed clearly, in only two colors, and was densely packed with detail. It was a remarkable statement for any worker who bothered to look closely. Amazon stated that it would disavow 22 different types of actions, each of which began with capital letters: “WE ARE NOT DOING IT.”
According to a photo of the notice checked by The New York Times, Amazon wrote, “We will not threaten you with the loss of your job” if you are a union supporter. While you participate in union activities, "we will not interrogate you" about the union or "engage in surveillance of you." Since you are a union supporter, we will not threaten you with undefined retaliation. We're not going to try to "get" union members.
After the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers accused Amazon of doing just that during a two-year effort to unionize 30 facilities technicians at the warehouse in Chester, Virginia, the company released the list. Although Amazon did not confess to breaking labor laws, it agreed to tell employees that it would follow the rules more closely in the future as part of a deal with federal regulators.
The employee notice and unsuccessful union attempt, which had previously gone unnoticed, have suddenly become important as Amazon deals with rising labor strife in the United States. Over the course of two decades, as the internet retailer expanded from a virtual bookstore to a $1.5 trillion behemoth, it battled employee mobilization attempts adamantly — and successfully. In recent years, some workers in Staten Island, Chicago, Sacramento, and Minnesota lobbied for reform, but their efforts had little effect.
Last year, the coronavirus arrived and changed everything. It transformed Amazon into a lifeline for millions of people trapped at home and reshaped the company's relationship with warehouse employees. They were susceptible to the virus, as were many others in the service sector. They were also less likely to just move on if they had problems at work as society tightened.
Amazon is now facing a union vote at a factory in Bessemer, Alabama — the biggest and most viable labor challenge in the company's history in the United States. Nearly 6,000 employees have until March 29 to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. A labor victory will energise staff in Amazon's more than 800 warehouses, which employ more than 500,000 people throughout the United States.
Janice Fine, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, said, "This is happening in the toughest state, with the toughest business, at the toughest time." “If the union wins on those three grounds, it would send a message that Amazon can be organized anywhere.”
“The tradition of unions is mostly about failing forward,” she said, even though the union does not win. “Workers attempting, struggling, and attempting again.”
The campaign in Chester, which The New York Times reconstructed using records from regulators and the machinists' union, as well as interviews with former warehouse facilities technicians and union leaders, provides one of the most complete portraits of what motivates Amazon employees to join a union — and what tactics the organization employs to slam the door shut.
For staff, the employee note was a hollow triumph. The National Labor Relations Board, which reached the deal with Amazon, does not have the authority to levy monetary fines. Its compliance remedies are minimal and ineffective, restricting its ability to deter anti-union employers from violating the law. There were no public relations gains since the settlement was not publicized.
The real winner was Amazon. There have been no further attempts in Chester to form a union.
Amazon's tactics in Chester are being repeated elsewhere. According to the retail workers union, Amazon attempted to track employees in Bessemer and even changed a traffic signal to discourage organizers from approaching warehouse workers as they left. In a complaint filed last month, the New York attorney general claimed that Amazon retaliated against workers who attempted to criticize the company's pandemic safety measures as insufficient.
Amazon refused to state whether it followed labor laws during the Chester union campaign in 2014 and 2015. It said in a statement that when it released the employee notice in 2016, it was "compliant with the National Labor Relations Act," and that "we continue to be compliant today." In a separate statement, it said it didn't think the Alabama union push "represents the bulk of our employees' views."
The labor board did not respond to a request for comment.
Bill Hough Jr., a machinist who led the union push, is mentioned by name in the Chester settlement notice. Mr. Hough had been alerted by Amazon that he was about to be fired, according to the note. The alert will be rescinded, according to Amazon.
Despite this, Amazon shot him six months later, in August 2016.
Mr. Hough (pronounced Huff) was undergoing knee surgery when Amazon called to inform him that his medical leave had expired. He said he was told this was the end of the line because he couldn't do his work.
Mr. Hough, now 56, said, “Even after what they had done to me, there was no mercy.” “That's Amazon,” says the narrator. You're done if you can't send 110 percent.”
Mr. Hough was not listed by Amazon.
There are no limits.
Amazon was designed on the principles of speed, performance, and a lot of hard work. When Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, put out his first help needed ad in 1994, he said he was looking for engineers who could do their job “in around one-third the time that most professional people thought possible.”
Recruits were publicly warned by Amazon managers that if they preferred things to be comfortable, this would be a challenging, if not impossible, job for them. According to media reports and labor organizers, it was impossible for customer service representatives to keep up. Overtime was needed. Supervisors sent emails to workers with subject lines like "YOU Should Relax WHEN YOU'RE Gone."
A grass-roots party associated with the Communications Workers of America threatened the reps, who numbered about 400, in 1999. Amazon launched a full-fledged counter-offensive.
Managers were warned that if employees were anything less than docile, it was a sign of possible union activity. Increased grievances, growing aggressiveness, and dawdling in the bathroom were all red flags, as were "hushed conversations" and "small group huddles breaking up in silence on the approach of the boss."
Amazon was in tune with the zeitgeist. Unions were regarded as remnants of a bygone era. Disruption was a good thing.
“If you asked twenty years ago if the government or workers should be able to place any restrictions on businesses, the response was always ‘No constraints,'” Marcus Courtney, a labor activist on the 1999 Amazon initiative, said. “Hats off to businesses who want to drive customers 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.”
Amazon lost some of its luster when the dot-com bubble exploded in 2000. The very presence was questioned for a time.
The activists were also harmed as a result of this. The customer service center was reorganized and closed, though Amazon said there was no link to the union push. Amazon's 5,000 warehouse employees were not organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union or the Prewitt Organizing Fund, an independent organization.
A decade later, in 2011, Amazon's labor history hit a low point. Amazon was hiring paramedics and ambulances at a nearby warehouse during summer heat waves, according to the Allentown Morning Call newspaper. Workers who had fallen were escorted to hospitals in stretchers and wheelchairs.
Amazon introduced air conditioning but was unfazed by the challenge. There was no shortage of demand for its workers after the Great Recession of 2008 — and no united outcry about working conditions. There were occasional protests in Europe, where unions are stronger. Only a few employees participated in sporadic warehouse walkouts in the United States.
Mr. Hough spent 24 years employed as an automotive machinist at a Reynolds aluminum factory in Richmond. When a steel roller dropped suddenly, he saw a worker lose four fingers. Such events left a lifelong impression on him: Never approach machinery in a haphazard manner.
Mr. Hough was in his mid-40s when Reynolds closed the plant during the Great Recession. The fact that he was a member of the machinists guild softened the blow, but he wanted a new job. He entered Amazon in 2013 after a long period of unemployment.
The Chester warehouse, which was the size of many aircraft carriers when it first opened a year ago, was part of Amazon's multibillion-dollar plan to construct fulfillment centers all over the world. Mr. Hough was in charge of the goods conveyor belts.
At first, he got mostly positive feedback. In a March 2014 performance review, Amazon said, "He has a great attitude and does not engage in negative remarks or circumstances." “He gets along with everyone else in the lab.”
Mr. Hough, on the other hand, said he felt compelled to cut corners in order to keep the belts going. When the conveyor belts went down, Amazon's task of delivering orders to consumers quickly was jeopardized. He once objected to a belt being restarted because he was already working on it.
Mr. Hough said that his boss, Bryon Frye, had ordered him twice to avoid complaining.
Mr. Hough explained, "That sent me down the wrong path."
Mr. Frye is no longer employed by Amazon, and he declined to comment. He referred to a news report last month on Twitter claiming that Amazon was recruiting former FBI agents to deal with worker activism, counterfeiting, and antitrust concerns.
He wrote, "This doesn't surprise me." “They do some crazy stuff.”
The Union Drive is a street in New York City.
Mr. Hough and five other technicians addressed the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in 2014 with their proposal. The technicians at an Amazon warehouse in Middletown, Del., were already attempting to form a union. It would be the first for Amazon if any of them succeeded.
The National Labor Relations Board will be in charge of union elections. The first move was to determine how much interest there was. At least 18 of Chester's 30 technicians signed cards agreeing to be served by the union.
Russell Wade, a union organizer there, said, "It wasn't too difficult to sign people up." “However, once news reached Amazon, they turned on the afterburners, as employers do. The staff then began to lose confidence. Amazon invested a lot of money to scare employees.”
On March 4, 2015, the board set a date for an election. Union representation will be established by a simple majority of votes cast.
To counteract any traction, Amazon hired an Employee Resource Center staff, which is essentially the human resources department. The reps on the team followed staff around the factory, pretending to be polite but only wanting to know their place on the union campaign, according to a former warehouse technician who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution.
If the technicians' main concern was protection, they also had complaints about pay equality — machinists said they were compensated differently for doing the same work — and their lack of influence over their fate. Mr. Hough argued that forming a union would make management less subjective.
He said, "All I remember is one guy's name was Bob." “They paged Bob to the control room, and the next thing I saw was Bob coming down the stairs,” says the narrator. He'd removed his work vest. ‘Bob, where are you going?' I asked. 'They shot me,' he explained. I didn't inquire as to why. That was the situation.”
“You vote for a union, any one of you will be searching for a job tomorrow,” some technicians said they were informed at a conference. According to Mr. Hough and a union memo, the most vocal union supporters were identified as "a cancer and a plague to Amazon and the plant" at another location. (Amazon said it reviewed the incident and "concluded that it could not be substantiated" in a filing to the labor board.)
Mr. Hough, a cancer survivor, shared his displeasure with the comparison. He said no to another meeting arranged by that boss. He said that he had expected her to state that the union was canceling the election because it believed it would lose. Amazon had come out on top.
Mr. Hough received a written notice from his boss, Mr. Frye, on March 30, 2015.
“Your activity has been identified as having a negative effect by peers/leaders,” it said. A failure to attend the Amazon victory announcement was classified as "insubordination." According to Amazon, another incident could result in termination.
In July 2015, the machinists union filed a complaint with the labor board, claiming that Amazon had engaged in unfair labor practices such as surveillance, threats, and "informing workers that voting for union representation would be futile." Mr. Hough testified for eight hours during the summer. Despite the fact that labor leaders and unions believe the board is overwhelmingly skewed in favor of employers, union officials said a formal strike would at least show Chester technicians that someone was fighting for them.
Amazon reached an agreement with the board in early 2016. The two-page settlement's key point was that Amazon must post an employee note pledging good conduct and making no admissions.
The employee notice was reviewed by Wilma Liebman, a member of the labor board from 1997 to 2011, at The Times' request. “What strikes me as odd is how extensive and precise Amazon's pledges were,” she said. “While the corporation was not required to admit guilt, this list provides insight into what was likely going on.”
According to the labor board, Amazon was forced to publish the notice “in all areas where notices to workers are customarily posted” in Chester for 60 days.
It wasn't much of a penalty in the eyes of the machinists' union.
According to Vinny Addeo, the union's director of organizing, "This posting was simply a slap on the wrist for the crimes that Amazon committed, which included lies, bullying, threats, and intimidation."
The union also hoped to resume its activities with a potentially chastened organization by filing an unfair labor practices lawsuit. However, the majority of the staff who backed the Chester campaign resigned.
Mr. Wade, the union organizer, said, "They were threatened."
During his time at Amazon, Mr. Hough was plagued by illness. Several strokes occurred as a result of his cancer treatment with radiation. Susan, his wife, was also suffering from health issues. Mr. Hough questioned how much the fight for unionization led to their problems. He went on to say that he didn't know who he could trust.
Mr. Hough started driving trucks after leaving Amazon, first long haul and then a dump truck. It was less lucrative, but he said he was happy.
Maximum Green Times are available.
When Amazon defeated a union drive in Delaware in 2014, the company praised the victory as a win for "open lines of direct contact between managers and associates."
Amazon's "inSTALLments" program, which developed direct contact in warehouse bathrooms, was one area where it did so. The inSTALLments were fact sheets about Mr. Bezos, meeting schedules, and random notices, such as this one about unpaid time off: “If you go negative, your job status will be checked for termination.”
The direct contact was naturally about the union drive in Bessemer as it heated up. “How would you spend your dues?” Amazon questioned in a stall posting that went viral on social media. “Unions can't,” said another. “Yes, we can.”
Amazon has set up a website to inform employees that in order to pay their union fees, they would have to forego dinner and school supplies.
According to a pro-union organization, Amazon asked county officials in December to raise the warehouse stoplight's "maximum green times" in order to clear the parking lot faster. As a result, union canvassers found it difficult to target potential voters as they left work. Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
President Biden chimed in last month.
“There should be no bullying, coercion, threats, or anti-union propaganda,” he said in a video that didn't discuss Amazon but did mention “workers in Alabama” who were discussing whether or not to join a union. “You know, every worker should be able to enter a union in a free and equal manner. The option is guaranteed by the law.”
Having 25 different hats
In an interview prior to the pandemic, Mr. Hough said that part of him wanted to forget about what had happened at Amazon. Why waste time lamenting your defeat? Many of the papers from the union drive were thrown away. Since he was recovering from a stroke, he never saw the employee note.
He has not, however, forgiven the retailer.
He said, sitting in his home on the outskirts of Richmond, "You're just going to step on me once."
He said that Amazon's customers have no idea how depressing a work can be.
“I guarantee they'd think twice about buying products if their child had to work there,” he said.
Ms. Hough, who sat next to him, had a more grim outlook.
“Customers are unconcerned with labor unions. They don't give a damn about the staff. “All they want is their packages,” she said.
Brody, their son, appeared as if on cue. He was a twenty-year-old appliance technician. His mother told him that he had a package on his bunk. It was a fishing hat from Amazon. Brody said it was $25, which was half the price on the manufacturer's website.
“I buy everything I can find cheaper on Amazon,” Brody said. That's a lot of hats, about 25 in all. “I've never done any job for Amazon. He said, "I can't hate them."
Ms. Hough fixed her eyes on her husband. “How are you going to get the American public to care if your own son doesn't care?” she asked, sarcastically.
The pandemic aided in this transition by taking Amazon's safety concerns to the fore. The New York attorney general, Letitia James, said in a Feb. 16 lawsuit against Amazon that the company failed to monitor and punish workers based on their productivity rates last year. As a result, staff only had a small period of time to defend themselves against the virus. Amazon allegedly retaliated against those who protested, sending a "chilling letter" to all of its employees, according to the lawsuit. The accusations have been debunked by Amazon.
Thousands of Amazon employees at a warehouse near Toronto were also forced to quarantine themselves last week, effectively closing the plant. Even as the rate of infection in the region dropped, 240 employees recently tested positive for the virus, according to a government spokeswoman. Amazon announced that it would appeal the ruling.
The major test is now in Alabama. Mr. Hough is concerned that the unionists will be defeated.
“They will succumb to threats or believe, ‘I won't have a job, Amazon will replace me,'” he told me over the phone earlier this month. “It's very difficult to stand up to a company that can do things to you in secret.”
“I'm hoping for the best,” he said. To them, more power.”