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Workers in Amazon fulfilment warehouse

Workers sort packages at a distribution station in the 855,000 square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, on February 5, 2019. (Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

Leaked Audio Exposes Amazon's Anti-Union Scare Tactics

"An Amazon anti-union official evidently warns of illegal retaliation—Amazon might try to cut pay to the minimum wage—if workers vote in favor of unionizing," one labor journalist remarked.

Kenny Stancil

During a mandatory anti-union meeting on Wednesday, an Amazon official warned workers at the corporation's biggest New York City warehouse that if they unionize, pay and conditions could become worse, with salary negotiations possibly starting at "minimum wage."

"It's against the law and an unfair labor practice to make a threat of reprisal."

According to leaked audio obtained by Motherboard, the Amazon union-buster tells a captive audience that "the negotiation phase of the process is called collective bargaining, and in the negotiation, there are no guarantees... you can end up with better, the same, or worse than you already have."

After an employee asks the speaker to confirm what is meant by "we could end up with worse," the so-called union avoidance consultant says:

There are no guarantees as to what would happen, right?... We can't make any promises things will get better or stay the same. They could get worse. We can't promise what's going to happen. Amazon can't promise you that they're going to walk into negotiations and that the negotiations will start from the same [pay and benefits workers have already]. They could start from minimum wage for instance. I don't think that will happen, but it's a possibility.

"So you're saying that Amazon's gonna say..." the worker responds.

"I just said I'm not saying that," the Amazon union-buster fires back.

"So why put that out there?" asks the worker.

JFK8, a sprawling Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island where roughly 9,000 workers toil away under brutal conditions, is currently in the midst of a union drive. Following months of organizing, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in January collected enough signatures to file for a union vote with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Wednesday's anti-union meeting occurred on the same day Amazon and ALU "reached a tentative stipulated agreement for the terms of a union election that will be held at JFK8," Motherboard reported. Citing a text message sent to all workers at the warehouse, the news outlet reported that the in-person election is scheduled for March 25 through March 30.

ALU is led by Chris Smalls, a former employee at JFK8 who was fired after organizing a walkout to protest Amazon's refusal to adequately protect workers during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 100 workers at the Staten Island facility are organizers for the independent union, which was formed last year in the wake of Amazon's defeat of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in an election at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

RWDSU filed nearly two dozen complaints with the NLRB alleging that Amazon illegally threatened employees with loss of pay and benefits, installed and surveilled an unlawful ballot collection box, and expelled pro-union workers from captive audience meetings during which management argued against collective bargaining.

Last month, the NLRB threw out the results of the Bessemer election—the first union vote at an Amazon warehouse in U.S. history—and said that it would supervise a new election, which is ongoing. That announcement came three weeks after Amazon reached a settlement with the board regarding the cases of six workers who accused the corporation of union-busting.

Under the settlement, Amazon agreed to communicate with workers about their right to organize and to lift its ban on workers being on Amazon property longer than 15 minutes before or after their shifts. But according to veteran labor journalist Steven Greenhouse, the newly leaked audio suggests that the e-commerce giant is still failing to comply with federal labor law.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, it is illegal for employers to prevent, interfere with, or retaliate against employees' unionization efforts.

The Amazon union-buster "makes the threat and tries to walk it back but once you've poisoned the well you can't take it back," Frank Kearl, an attorney representing worker activists at JFK8, told Motherboard, referring to the consultant's comment that wages might decline if workers unionize.

"Even though she realized she made a mistake in making the threat, it doesn't mean the threat wasn't made and heard by all the workers who were forced to sit in on that session," said Kearl. "It's against the law and an unfair labor practice to make a threat of reprisal."

The Amazon official also apparently tried to dissuade workers from voting to unionize by focusing on the fact that "you will be liable to pay union dues or another representation fee. Everyone is liable to pay those union fees. You can't opt out, and everyone will have to follow what's negotiated even if you don't like what's in it."

"Electing a union is not like trying out a Netflix subscription for 30 days. It's very difficult to unelect a union once you've elected them," said the anti-union representative, who added that the election has "significant and binding consequences not just for yourselves but for future associates, your coworkers, and potentially for your family."

According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers covered by a union contract earn 10.2% more than non-unionized workers in the same sectors.

Motherboard reported that "in addition to holding weekly mandatory anti-union meetings, Amazon representatives at JFK8 have pulled workers aside to interrogate them about their union activities, surveilled them, barred them from distributing union literature, confiscated literature, and referred to union organizers as 'thugs,' according to a federal complaint filed in late January."

Since it opened in September 2018, Amazon's Staten Island warehouse has earned a reputation for violating workers' rights. Workers at JFK8 have reported unsafe conditions amid intense pressure to meet quotas, and according to data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, injury rates at the facility are much higher than the national average.

ALU, for its part, has said that "we intend to fight for higher wages, job security, safer working conditions, more paid time off, better medical leave options, and longer breaks."

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