The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently alleged that Amazon chief executive office Andy Jassy violated federal labor laws by publicly saying that he didn’t think it was a good idea for the company’s workers to join a union. A NLRB regional director alleged that merely speaking those words amounted to interfering with the workers’ rights to collective bargaining.
The charges are part of a broader effort by the NLRB and the union movement to make it impossible for management to oppose union organizing drives in any way. Pro-union advocates call this ensuring “neutrality.” In practice, it means businesses passively accepting a union when it comes calling.
The National Labor Relations Act says that management may not “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights” under the law. This has traditionally meant overt threats or retaliation. Management has been allowed to make the case to workers that a union isn’t in their best interest. The company might argue, for example, that the union dues workers would have to pay would cancel out any wage gains they might get, or that individual workers would no longer be able go directly to manager with any concerns, having to go through the union instead.
Unions have been working hard to organize Amazon; the company has opposed those efforts. Jassy told CNBC that unionized workers would find their workplaces “more bureaucratic” with less individual autonomy. “I also think people are better off having direct connections with their managers,” he said. “You know, you think about work differently. You have relationships that are different.” He told Bloomberg that the workers would be “better off without a union.”
NLRB Regional in Seattle Director Ronald Hooks claimed in an October 25 complaint that the comments proved that Jassy was “interfering with, restraining and coercing employees” in violation of federal labor laws by making such statements. Amazon must respond to the charge by November 8 and a hearing before administrative law judge is set for February.
Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said in a statement, “These allegations are completely without merit, and the comments in question are clearly protected by express language of the National Labor Relations Act and decades of NLRB precedent.”
Nantel is correct as far as that goes. There is a longstanding precedent for comments like Jassy’s by management. That’s the problem as far as the NLRB is concerned. It wants to overturn that standard. NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has called on the board to prohibit businesses from being able to hold mandatory meetings to talk to workers regarding unionization. The Amazon complaint may be a test case for that.
The complaint was initially made by the Amazon Labor Union, which succeeded in organizing a Staten Island Amazon facility earlier this year, but has been voted down by workers at two other facilities, one in upstate New York and another in Alabama. The union has complained about Amazon holding mandatory meetings with workers to make the case against them organizing. The union would be winning more, they argue, if the workers were hearing only one side of the debate. Amazon Labor Union attorney told Bloomberg, “There hasn’t been accountability on these issues in several decades.”
The workers seem to have a different view. “Having a union come in and disturb the communication we have with leadership; why have that?” Amazon worker Yari Reyes told The Wall Street Journal after workers in Albany rejected a unionizing bid. “Bringing a union in would have just divided us more.”
“If anything, I’m concerned a union will take money out of my paycheck,” Dionte Whitehead, another Albany worker, told CNBC. “A union isn’t good for Amazon.”
The attempt to unionize Amazon has prompted several clashes with the NLRB. After workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted against unionizing last year, the board threw out the results. The NLRB claimed that the company getting the U.S. Postal Service to install a mailbox near the workplace, making it easier for workers to cast ballots, amounted to inference with the election. After a re-vote, the workers rejected the union a second time.
Amazon has pushed back, alleging that the NLRB’s “interference and mismanagement” prevented “a free and fair election” at the Staten Island facility. Among other things, Amazon alleged that the board arbitrarily excluded some workers from the bargaining unit, helping the union get 30 percent showing of support it needed to force the vote.