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Amazon could stymie unions for years by going to the courts

Even if Amazon workers win more historic union votes, bargaining and contracts could be years away.

Amazon union organizer Jason Anthony speaks to media on April 1, the day workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted to unionize their workplace. (Eduardo Munoz Avarez/AP)
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Last month, an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island became the e-commerce giant’s first U.S. workplace to unionize. But experts say it could take years for the union to formally secure a contract if Amazon chooses to dig in its heels and fight the effort in court.

Amazon has already sent objections over the union vote to the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency which enforces America’s labor laws. If it loses the objection, it will have several more chances to appeal. But even if the NLRB orders it to sit down with workers and bargain, the company could simply refuse, forcing a court battle that could play out for years.

“If Amazon follows this playbook, they can string the process out for a few years to break down workers’ newfound enthusiasm for organizing, and maybe try to get the union decertified,” said Lance Compa, a labor consultant and former professor at Cornell University.

Even if Amazon doesn’t drag its feet, it could take months for regulators to consider Amazon’s objections, and then months more to negotiate a contract if needed.

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The urgency to get a deal in place increased Monday, when workers at a second, smaller warehouse in Staten Island voted against unionizing. Over the weekend, Amazon said it was doing away with separate paid sick leave for workers with covid, and will stop sending sitewide notifications in most cases when a worker tests positive. Workers started organizing in Alabama and New York after expressing concern for covid protocols in the early stages of the pandemic.

The upstart Amazon Labor Union — which organized both of the Staten Island warehouse campaigns — and established national unions alike say the initial win won’t be a flash in the pan, and that they still expect more Amazon warehouses to unionize in the coming months.

“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees,” said Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel.

Amazon hasn’t said what it will do after its objections to the Staten Island union are considered, or if it will continue trying to block the effort. But the company has opposed unionization at its warehouses across the country for years. Even without going to court, the process could take a long time to sort out.

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In Bessemer, Ala., organizing efforts have been ongoing for more than a year and workers still don’t have an answer on whether they will join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Workers there first voted to reject unionization in April 2021 after voting by mail for weeks. But regulators called for a redo election more than seven months later, after finding that Amazon improperly interfered. That election didn’t take place for several more months, and when the votes were counted in April — one year after the first vote count — the tally was too close to call. Regulators will next have to hold a hearing to consider challenged ballots.

The surprise win at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, known as JFK8, in April, sent a bolt of enthusiasm through the U.S. labor movement. Union membership is at a historic low across the country, but difficult working conditions during the pandemic and the low level of unemployment has inspired many workers to demand better pay and conditions. The Amazon win added to recent successful drives at Starbucks stores, outdoor retailer REI and legacy media companies like the New York Times and Condé Nast. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Corporations have already been fighting back by hiring firms that specialize in fighting and neutralizing unionization attempts. Amazon has held attendance-mandatory sessions to tell employees why they shouldn’t vote for the union. During a union drive at an Alabama warehouse last year, the company posted fliers inside bathroom stalls asking “where will your dues go?

The first Staten Island warehouse voted to unionize on Apr. 1. But the next step, ironing out a contract through bargaining, is already being delayed. Amazon formally objected to the vote, alleging the union had improperly influenced voters. The NLRB will hold a hearing on the objection on May 23. If Amazon loses, it could appeal it directly to the NLRB’s five-member governing board.

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Generally, the NLRB takes months to decide an appeal, but it could move faster given how high-profile the decision is, Compa said. If Amazon exhausts its appeals with the NLRB, it could simply refuse to bargain, triggering another review from the board. But the NLRB is not part of the judicial branch, and if Amazon keeps refusing its orders, the case will go to the courts. If the case lands in front of a conservative-majority appeals court, Amazon may have a better chance of getting a ruling in its favor.

“This usually takes two to three years, and there is no reason to expect a circuit court to act more quickly than normal,” Compa said.

That means that workers, even after voting in favor of a union, would be waiting years before even being able to negotiate a contract. Because of the high turnover at Amazon warehouses, it’s possible many of the original workers wouldn’t even benefit in the end.

This tactic has been used by companies before. In 1993, workers at the massive Avondale shipbuilding docks in New Orleans voted to unionize, but the company refused to bargain, spending four years appealing to the NLRB. When the board finally ordered them to sit down with workers in 1997, Avondale went to the courts, according to a 2000 Human Rights Watch report on U.S. labor laws. The situation was only resolved when a new company bought the shipyard and agreed to recognize the union.

“Delay benefits the employer in these situations and they will use every tactic they can find,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor relations professor at Rutgers University.

Amazon has been vociferous in its opposition to unionization at its workplaces, but that doesn’t mean it will simply refuse to negotiate with the union barring a full-on court order. The company could choose to bargain with the union if its objections are dismissed.

“Amazon is no ordinary case, and it’s subjected to the public gaze in a way that is true of almost no other company,” said John Logan, who studies labor history and anti-union efforts at the University of California Berkeley. “None of this will be happening in the shadows, so to speak, but will be subjected to intense scrutiny by the media, social media, NLRB, elected officials and public opinion.”