Amazon Loses in Labor Complaint

April 7, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
A worker tapes a box while packing items on Cyber Monday at the Amazon Fulfillment Center on Nov. 28, 2016 in San Bernardino, Calif. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON – The National Labor Relations Board’s finding announced this week that online retailer Amazon retaliated unfairly against two of its headquarters staff members is paving the way for a possible lawsuit against the company.

The two workers publicly criticized Amazon for its climate policies and its treatment of warehouse workers. They said they were fired in retaliation for their activism.

The NLRB ruling coincides with a vote by Amazon workers on whether to unionize.

The results of the vote count are expected within days, which could have far-reaching consequences for Amazon’s millions of customers.

The unfair labor accusation by activist employees Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa were part of a stream of complaints that led nearly 6,000 workers to try to unionize at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., plant.

Dozens of workers complained to the National Labor Relations Board about working conditions in recent years.

In a high-profile case, employees criticized Amazon in 2011 after workers in the company’s Breinigsville, Pa., warehouse were required to continue working after the temperature at their job site reached 100-degrees. Some workers suffered dehydration and collapsed.

Loading bay doors remained closed out of concern for theft. Only after publicized complaints did Amazon install air conditioning.

In a more recent dispute, Amazon workers organized a walk-out in September 2019 that they called a Global Climate Strike. It was based partly on a report that the company’s operations emitted 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in the previous year.

A group called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice rallied more than 1,800 employees in 25 cities and 14 countries to participate in protesting Amazon’s environmental impact. Cunningham and Costa, who were designers at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, were leaders of the group.

The group petitioned Amazon’s top executives with three demands, namely to stop donating to politicians who deny climate change; to halt contracts with oil and gas companies that are not environmentally sensitive; and to work toward zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Amazon stepped up its environmental program after the protest, such as by committing to reducing half its shipments to net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Ongoing discontent among workers led late last month to the vote on whether to unionize at the Bessemer warehouse.

A victory for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in Bessemer would likely prompt other unionization efforts throughout Amazon’s national and international network.

The National Labor Relations Board is tallying the vote.

In the case of Cunningham and Costa, they won where other Amazon employees lost because their claim filed last October accused Amazon of retaliation. Other recent employee complaints focused largely on what they said was a lack of adequate safety and health protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amazon employs nearly a million U.S. workers. Its warehouse workers were categorized as “essential” under Centers for Disease Control guidelines. They were unable to work from home.

Amazon denies Cunningham and Costa were fired in retaliation for their public criticisms. They were terminated for violating policies that forbid external communications about company business, according to the company.

After they were fired in April 2020, powerful Democratic senators such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California — now the vice president — wrote to Amazon for an explanation of how the job action was different from retaliation.

“In order to understand how the termination of employees that raised concerns about health and safety conditions did not constitute retaliation for whistle-blowing, we are requesting information about Amazon’s policies regarding grounds for employee discipline and termination,” the letter said.

The decision by the National Labor Relations Board regional director that the unfair labor claims by Cunningham and Costa have merit does not by itself carry a punishment for Amazon. Instead, it recommends that the company try to settle with the women.

If Amazon fails to reach a settlement agreement with them, National Labor Relations Board procedures allow the agency to sue on behalf of workers.

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