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labor ‘They Are Breaking the Law’: Inside Amazon’s Bid To Stall a Union Drive

Retailer doing ‘whatever it takes’ to halt organizing at warehouse in Moreno Valley, California, workers say, as Amazon faces unfair labor practice charges

Amazon warehouse workers and Teamsters union members protest Amazon’s unfair labor practices and call for an end to retaliation in San Bernardino, California, on 14 October 2022. ,Photograph: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Facing an insurgent campaign which threatened to unleash a wave of unionization across its vast workforce, Amazon stands accused of reaching for dirty tricks.

Workers who tried to organize inside its warehouses claim the technology giant orchestrated an illegal counteroffensive, using scare tactics and spreading misconceptions.

Nearly two years have passed since workers in Staten Island, New York, voted to form its first US warehouse union. As the Amazon Labor Union took its battle nationwide, the company scrambled to ensure it did not suffer the same crushing blows.

The world’s largest retailer is “going to do whatever it takes”, Nannette Plascencia, who has worked for nine years at its ONT8 fulfillment center in Moreno Valley, California, said in an interview, “even knowing they are breaking the law”.

Photographs shared with the Guardian reveal how Amazon pushed back against an organizing drive inside ONT8 with anti-union messaging. “Unions run their business with your money,” and deduct dues “regularly” from paychecks, employees were warned on TV screens installed in the warehouse.

These tactics are at the heart of an operation by Amazon which is the subject of unfair labor practice charges, leaving battles to unionize across Amazon in limbo while both sides wait for months on actions and rulings by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency.

Amazon workers in Moreno Valley filed for a union vote in October 2022, only to pull the election petition after significant opposition from the company. Those who led the campaign allege managers violated labor laws to halt it in its tracks.

They cried foul to the NLRB, which last March consolidated their cases into a formal complaint seen by the Guardian. Managers at ONT8 “directed employees not to discuss the union on the work floor during work time”, but permitted discussion of other, non-work subjects, according to the complaint, which also alleges the company held “‘captive audience’ meetings with workers.

The charges will be heard before an administrative law judge in August. Amazon denies all allegations of labor law violations at ONT8.

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“A majority of the charges brought forth by the ALU have already been withdrawn or dismissed by the NLRB,” Eileen Hards, an Amazon spokeswoman, said. “We disagree with these allegations and look forward to showing that as the legal process continues.”

Amazon’s anti-union messaging at the ONT8 warehouse. Photograph: Amazon Labor Union

When workers at ONT8 first filed for a union election, Amazon quickly got to work, according to Plascencia, who described how operational managers from across the company descended on the warehouse for over a year.

Flyers were posted in the breakroom and employees summoned to meetings – referred to as “protect your privacy” meetings by Amazon – where external anti-union consultants are frequently said to have assisted.

“They scanned all our badges, took us in groups of 30, and there would be a TV monitor on, with slides … and a man in front we never saw before,” said Plascencia. “We were told they were there to talk to us about union authorization cards and what we should know about them.

“They would say, ‘Be careful, because this is a government form you are signing,’ and basically they would go on about how it’s not good to unionize. They would tell us we would lose all our benefits and start all over again.”

An anti-union flyer seen at the ONT8 warehouse. Photograph: Amazon Labor Union

Plascencia said the operational managers regularly interrogated workers at ONT8, including herself, about unions and their union support.

It was possible, employees were warned, that collective bargaining by a union could leave them with “less than you have now”. “Whatever the result, unions will charge you for representation,” according to one slide titled “Get the facts”.

“The truth is that with a union, there are no guarantees,” claimed one post on Amazon’s internal online board for employees.

The messaging instilled fear, anxiety and disrupted their union organizing efforts, Plascencia claimed – to the point where workers would berate her, and other organizers, over claims they would cause them to lose their pay and benefits.

“Managers would come up to us and say we’re not allowed to talk about unions. I personally experienced this,” she said. “A manager actually came up to me and some of my co-workers and said we’re not allowed to talk about unions on the shop floor.

“I pushed back and they said something as delicate as ‘unions … could upset somebody, you can’t talk about things like that’.”

Amazon was particularly vehement in its warnings against authorization cards, which authorize unions to negotiate employment terms on a worker’s behalf. “A third party may use it to call or text you or visit you at home,” it claimed on one flyer.

Such messaging made employees “very hesitant about signing”, Plascencia said. “They believed that this was coming from the company they worked for, and that the company they worked for would not lie, so it has to be true.

“We had to try to break it down to people that yes, the corporation will lie to you, because they don’t care. It’s all about them controlling and retaining their power, so they’re going to say what they need to say to scare us.”

A TV panel showing anti-union messaging at the ONT8 warehouse. Photograph: Amazon Labor Union

Amazon’s efforts upended union organizing efforts at ONT8, as concern over its claims became embedded among rank-and-file workers. “That was really hard,” said Plascencia. “It put a big dent in our movement.”

The company does not want its workers to have the “power they deserve” in its warehouses, she claimed. “They don’t want us seated at the table with them, when deciding important things for us and our families.

“They want to decide on their own without worker involvement, so they’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure they accomplish that, even knowing they are breaking the law.”

The events in Moreno Valley are not unique. Complaints over Amazon’s conduct during union elections that fell short at warehouses in Albany, New York, and Bessemer, Alabama, are still awaiting review at the NLRB.

At Amazon’s air hub in Kentucky, workers who have been organizing for over a year have also filed unfair labor practice charges. “The allegations in this complaint are without merit,” said Hards, the Amazon spokeswoman. “Our solicitation policy is lawful, and we will continue to defend our position as the legal process continues.”

Across the US, the wider fight to organize within Amazon – the country’s second-largest private employer – has lost momentum. Even at JFK8, in Staten Island – which remains its only US warehouse to unionize – the company has yet to have started bargaining with the union on a first contract.

Amazon continues to deny the election results, despite the NLRB certifying the results after its objections were dismissed. “We strongly disagree with the outcome of the election,” said Hards. The company is pushing for a review of a regional director’s decision which dismissed its objections to the election.

The process is slow. In Moreno Valley, workers at ONT8 filed again for a union election last September, only to again pull the petition while waiting on the NLRB to review and respond to the unfair labor practice charges they have filed against Amazon.

As its conduct comes under scrutiny at the NLRB amid labor law violation proceedings, earlier this year Amazon argued the agency is unconstitutional, joining the likes of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Trader Joe’s to question the legality of its structure.

Amazon’s leaders “don’t care” about breaking the rules, Plascencia claimed. “It’s not a big deal to them because it’s not going to come around until years later.”

The first campaign at ONT8 was in 2022, she noted, and the challenge over Amazon’s response is “barely coming around now”.

Seth Goldstein, a labor attorney representing the Amazon Labor Union, said: “The National Labor Relations Act’s toothless enforcement and remedies allow employers to exploit endless due process rights, delaying bargaining for years, as seen at JFK8, where workers are left disillusioned or forced out, and union organizers are targeted and fired.

“It’s outrageous that unions must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to force employers to bargain a contract. Fundamental labor reform is urgently needed to empower workers and hold employers accountable for their bargaining obligations.”

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