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Inside an alleged Amazon union-busting campaign in Kentucky: ‘They want to scare us’

Written by on December 8, 2023

Jeffrey Dean/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

(HEBRON, Ky.) — Two months after Rubi Gomez began working at an Amazon facility in Kentucky, she woke up to a barrage of frantic text messages from her coworkers, she said.

“They were the kind of messages you would get if somebody was in a panic,” Gomez told ABC News.

Managers had confronted employees as they handed out union materials in a parking lot outside the building, checking the same workers’ identification multiple times and alleging that tables set up in the entrance pathway amounted to insubordination, a serious charge that could lead to termination, according to worker testimony and video reviewed by ABC News.

Recounting that hectic day in early November, Gomez said she headed to the scene and took a spot alongside her colleagues, prompting a demand from a manager that she take down the tables. The order frightened Gomez, who said she “wanted to be invisible.” Still, she refused.

The tables violated company policy because they obstructed people entering and exiting the facility, Amazon managers told the workers, the video shows. The workers objected to the claim, saying that their efforts qualified as union activity protected by federal labor law.

Workers kept tabling in support of the union on this occasion and others. Within two weeks, 11 workers had received write-ups telling them that they could lose their jobs if they didn’t stop.

The warnings marked a flashpoint in an alleged surge of anti-union backlash at the facility in recent weeks, workers told ABC News, describing mandatory meetings in opposition to the union, one-on-one questioning of workers active in the campaign, deployment of union-busting employee relations officers, as well as mass emails and text messages sent to employees.

“It’s a massive escalation and it’s meant to have a chilling effect on the union and workplace,” Griffin Ritze, a worker at the facility involved in labor organizing, told ABC News.

In response to ABC News’ request for comment, Amazon Spokesperson Eileen Hards said disciplinary action taken by the company came in response to infractions of company policy.

“These individuals repeatedly refused to follow our policies even after meeting with site managers more than ten times to address the violation and ensure the policies were understood,” Hards said. “This has nothing to do with any cause or group they support, but rather like any employer, we take appropriate action when policies are continually disregarded.”

“We believe employees should have the right to hear, learn about, and discuss important issues that could affect them and their families — and that includes union representation,” Hards added, noting the company believes it can serve employees best by directly responding in the absence of intervention from a union.

“We favor opportunities for each person to be respected and valued as an individual, and to have their unique voice heard by working directly with our team,” Hards said. “The fact is, Amazon already offers what many unions are requesting: industry-leading pay, health benefits on day one, and opportunities for career growth.”

The following account of the unrest at the roughly 4,000-worker facility, located near an airport in Northern Kentucky, draws on interviews with five employees involved in union organizing, as well as audio, video, texts, and messages in the workplace app reviewed by ABC News.

The outcome of the clash between workers and management in Kentucky may hold significance as a bellwether of union activity at Amazon in a moment when the nationwide campaign has encountered difficulty.

Last year, a worker-led independent group unionized a 6,000-employee Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, the first-ever U.S. union at the company in its history.

Since then, however, the Amazon Labor Union, or ALU, has lost two consecutive union elections at other facilities; and certification of the Staten Island victory remains tied up in legal challenges. A breakthrough in the labor-unfriendly South would indicate a significant resurgence for the ALU.

Workers at the facility began signing up colleagues in support of a union in February, Marcio Rodriguez, an employee at the location, told ABC News.

The union drive, Rodriguez said, featured an array of demands: $30 per hour base pay, fixes for faulty equipment, bolstered safety protections, on-site childcare, overtime pay and non-English translations of workplace materials for the facility’s sizable immigrant population.

Within a month, Amazon started holding mandatory meetings discouraging workers from joining the union, Rodriguez said. “I was in six or seven of them,” he added.

In response to ABC News’ request for comment, Amazon Spokesperson Eileen Hards said such meetings allow the company to inform employees about union-related issues.

“Like many companies, we hold meetings where we talk openly, candidly, and respectfully about these topics and encourage employees to learn more — so they have all the information they need in order to make educated decisions,” Hards said.

Workers used a small table as they signed up colleagues and handed out materials near the building’s entrance, Rodgriguez said. Once or twice each day, management checked workers’ identification badges to ensure that they were employed at the facility and permitted to access the site. But workers were largely left alone, he said.

By October, the union campaign had achieved significant progress, announcing that it had signed up over 1,000 employees, or roughly a quarter of the workforce at the facility.

Amazon’s alleged fight against the union campaign escalated over the ensuing weeks, five workers said.

One day in early November, workers used two large tables for union sign-ups, hanging a banner across the front of the tables that resembled a mock $10 billion check meant to indicate the amount of profit the company had earned in a recent three-month period.

Passersby were asked to place a red sticker on a nearby display board to vote for which workplace improvement they would most like to receive some of those profits, such as the $30 per hour pay floor or on-site childcare.

The frequent identification checks and warnings of insubordination began that day, eliciting the flurry of text messages that brought Gomez to the site, workers said. A manager acknowledged to a group of workers that he had checked their identification five times that day, a video reviewed by ABC News shows.

The company held one-on-one sessions two weeks later alerting each of the 11 workers of a write-up they had received as a result of tabling and the risk of termination if they continued, workers said. Jordan Quinn, an employee at the facility involved in the union drive, said he was walking to the bathroom when a manager brought him into a meeting and asked him questions about his conduct for roughly a half hour.

“I’m kind of scared I could lose my job,” Quinn told ABC News. “That’s the whole thing about intimidation. They want to scare us so we back down.”

The workers have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency, alleging that the write-ups violate their rights to organize on the job and amount to intimidation. The NLRB did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Amazon has policies in place that prevent obstruction of access to promote safety and deliver a positive employee experience, the company said.

Federal labor law protects workers’ right to solicit union support in the workplace while off the clock, the NLRB says.

Last week, the NLRB issued a decision finding that Amazon had illegally retaliated against union workers at its warehouse in Staten Island, New York over their support for the union or participation in union activity. Illegal tactics undertaken by Amazon included interrogating employees, subjecting them to closer supervision and prohibiting them from handing out union literature.

“We disagree with certain decisions within the ruling, but are glad the judge agreed that the terminated individual should not be reinstated,” Amazon spokesperson Mary Kate Paradis told Retail Dive. “We continue to review other parts of the decision and are considering our next steps in light of this ruling.”

Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor relations professor at Cornell University, said current staff at the NLRB have broadly protected union organizing carried out by employees at work while off the clock but it’s unclear how the board would rule in the dispute over tabling near the entrance of the Kentucky facility.

The tabling at the heart of the dispute at the Kentucky facility appears to have taken place in a non-work area, affording the workers significant protection under federal law, Bronfenbrenner said. However, Amazon my still be within its rights to prohibit union activity in the area if it has not permitted other third party groups to take part in similar activities at the location, she added.

Zooming out from the specifics of that dispute, Bronfenbrenner said, Amazon’s previous posture toward union campaigns leaves little doubt about its approach to the labor drive in Kentucky.

“Amazon is as anti-union as it gets and it has the resources to take it up a notch from everybody else,” Bronfenbrenner told ABC News.

Since the write-ups, workers have held two marches into the management office decrying alleged retaliation against the union. “The more we put ourselves into that setting, the more resilient I feel like we are,” Marisa Krull, one of the employees who received a written warning, told ABC News.

In recent weeks, the company has resumed mandatory meetings with employees discouraging them from unionizing, workers said. On Friday, Rodriguez and Ritze attempted to speak up for the union at one such meeting but were denied entry by an Amazon employee relations officer, according to audio reviewed by ABC News.

“You’ll be eventually asked to come to a meeting but if you haven’t been asked to come to this one, you’re in the wrong meeting,” the officer said, appearing to raise his voice.

“What are you so worked up about?” Ritze asked. In response, the officer said, “You’re right — I’m very worked up.”

Management has also held additional one-on-one questioning with Rodriguez and Ritze for an investigation into alleged violation of the company’s restrictions for workers while off duty, according to audio reviewed by ABC News.

Further spreading its opposition to the union, the company sent a text message on Monday to employees with a hyperlink to a message on the workplace app entitled, “You have the right to say no,” according to a copy of the message.

The message cautioned workers against signing a card in support of the union and urged them to alert human relations if they “ever feel like you are being treated in a rude, disrespectful, harassing bullied or intimidating manner.”

For now, the workers have started signing workers up without a table, they said.

Gomez said she just moved to a new, more expensive apartment counting on income from the job at Amazon. If she loses it, her savings won’t last long, she said. “I would cry a lot,” she added.

At work, however, she continues to talk about organizing with coworkers and wear a union pin, she said.

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