"Everything Amazon did had the underlying tone of fear"

The inside story of how the retail giant has managed to remain union-free across the United States

Published January 22, 2014 6:48PM (EST)

  (AP/Reed Saxon)
(AP/Reed Saxon)

After Amazon vanquished a rare U.S. union effort last week in a 21-to-6 vote, keeping the retail giant union-free across the United States, a union spokesperson blamed that result on a corporate campaign to make workers fear for their jobs -- and told Salon a much larger union campaign could be ahead at Amazon.

"Everything Amazon did had the underlying tone of fear," said International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers spokesperson John Carr.

Amazon did not respond to a Tuesday request for comment on the result and the allegations. Company spokesperson Mary Osako told CNN that the Jan. 15 "vote against third-party representation" showed workers "prefer a direct connection with Amazon," which she called "the most effective way to understand and respond to the wants and needs of our employees."

Carr said that the IAM is still reviewing whether it had sufficient evidence to file charges alleging law-breaking by Amazon in the lead-up to the vote among a handful of mechanics at a Delaware warehouse. Under federal law, it's generally illegal for companies to explicitly punish or threaten workers for supporting a union, but legal to hold mandatory anti-union meetings and to make "predictions" about dire consequences that could result from unionization. With the help of the firm Morgan Lewis, contended Carr, the company used such "captive audience" meetings to "put an intense amount of pressure on these workers," and thus "of course they feared for their jobs."

"Every single day there was a new sort of rumor mill, or means of misportraying, misinformation -- that we'll have to ship this work somewhere else, you name it," alleged Carr. In particular, he said, the Delaware facility had "plans to make lots and lots of expansion," and "I think they made it pretty clear that that's just not going to happen" with a union. "They beat around the bush in doing it," he added, "and I think they were very careful not to cross the line, but you know they plant that seed, put that thought in those workers' mind." In order to discourage workers from opening the door to union organizers who visited them at home, said Carr, "Amazon put out a posting that we were going to come during the holidays, and that they had the right to call the police if we didn't leave."

While the number of signatures on the pro-union petition that triggered the vote was nearly as large as the total number that voted last week, said Carr, the only six who voted for the union come election day appear to be the same "core group that started this campaign." Carr argued that if -- as organized labor urged in Obama's first term -- Congress had required companies to recognize unions once a majority of workers sign their names in support, "these folks would have a union right now. But you know, the companies just hold all the cards going into these elections. They've got the workers – they've got them every day...There's no better fear tactic than the threat of their job."

Research by Cornell's Kate Bronfenbrenner contends that companies hold "captive audience" meetings in 89 percent of National Labor Relations Board unionization election campaigns; threaten plant closing in 57 percent; and fire union activists in 34 percent. As I've reported, the specter of a shift in production has dramatically strengthened the hand of the aerospace giant Boeing in its dealings with the IAM, which this month agreed to a controversial pension freeze as the price of keeping a new line of aircraft in Washington state. In Germany, where workers at a third of Amazon's nine distribution centers staged December work stoppages in hopes of bringing the company to the table, CNN reported that over 1,000 employees "have signed an anti-union petition amid community worries that jobs could be moved elsewhere."

The night the Delaware results were announced, Carr told Salon, those who'd voted for the union "were a bit broken in spirit, in a way – you're always that way when you lose." But he said that by night's end, the consensus among the activist mechanics was, "All right, one year" – the period until they'd be eligible, absent a government finding of wrongdoing by Amazon, to file for a new unionization election. "Let's get ready."

In addition, said Carr, "my phone was ringing off the hook the next day" with calls from the warehouse's much larger population of packers and shippers, asking about a unionization effort of their own.

Asked if the IAM planned to mount such a campaign, Carr said the union would meet with interested packers and shippers, and what happened next would depend on "the showing of interest" by employees. Given that "these campaigns aren't cheap," he said, "to make that commitment I think you're going to have to have a real measure of what the support is." He added that "if it gets bad enough, and folks keep getting fired, or people keep getting hurt," agitation at Amazon could grow. In investigations by the Morning Call and the Seattle Times (published in 2011 and 2012, respectively), current or former Amazon warehouse workers alleged "brutal heat"; firings that "encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury"; and "pressure to manage injuries so they would not have to be reported to OSHA."

The IAM's Carr said that organizing the small unit of Delaware mechanics "wasn't...a strategic target where we put on a long, sustainable campaign," but rather a response to a plea for assistance from the half dozen workers who'd "got together themselves" and reached out to the union. The initial "indication," said Carr, was "that these guys were ready to go," and "the early meetings for support were all positive," and so the IAM moved quickly to submit the petition for the election to be held. "Things began to turn after we filed," Carr told Salon. He acknowledged that the union "didn't give itself a lot of time to, well, educate, I guess, the remainder of the group." He added, "I almost feel as if a longer campaign would've been better. But you know, they were ready to go."

"When we go back," Carr told Salon, "I think you're gonna have to measure the support all over again, and take the time hopefully to meet with more workers on a face-to-face basis." He added, "It would've been nice, I believe, to make two or three attempts to get them to talk to you" through visits to workers' homes. Amazon, he said, "played hardball. And you know, that's kind of the way a campaign will go in the future as well. So we'll have to be ready for that."

In the meantime, Carr said the IAM would be on the lookout for signs of management cracking down on the workers who led the failed election effort. "We'll make sure that they're not retaliated against," he told Salon. But, asked to elaborate, he said, "If they retaliate...there won't be anything we can do other than file the charge [with the National Labor Relations Board] and offer the support that we can to that individual, or whoever, if they could take action...We'll have to proceed accordingly. But there's nothing we can do to prevent it...We're staying in touch, I guess is what I should say."

By Josh Eidelson

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