The NLRB decision against Amazon was correct and shows the need for stronger labor laws

In a closely watched decision last month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Amazon had cheated in order to defeat a high-profile union organizing campaign: the company violated federal labor law during its anti-union campaign at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., earlier this year and thus will soon face a do-over election. The NLRB attacked Amazon’s “flagrant disregard” for federal union election rules, writing that management “essentially highjacked the process and gave a strong impression that it controlled the process.”

In The Hill last week, Kirsten Swearingen, head of the virulently anti-union “Coalition for a Democratic Workplace,” published a fundamentally misleading op-ed on the NLRB ruling.

First, let’s be absolutely clear about why the NLRB has ordered a re-run election at Amazon. The op-ed claims that Amazon installed a mailbox to “make voting easier.” In reality, the NLRB told Amazon repeatedly that it could not have onsite balloting, after the company pushed for this and then unsuccessfully appealed the NLRB decision after being turned down. However, in an act of breathtaking arrogance, Amazon’s top management disregarded those clear instructions and pressured the United States Postal Service (USPS) to install an onsite mailbox immediately before the election period. At the NLRB post-election hearing, a senior USPS manager testified that this was the first time in his decades of service that it had installed a “cluster box” for a single business customer because of an upcoming NLRB election. Amazon then proceeded to cover the mailbox with a marquee plastered with huge slogans associated with its “Vote No” campaign after it had been instructed by the USPS not to place any stickers on the mailbox. When asked to explain his reaction to Amazon’s flagrant disregard for these clear instructions, the USPS responded, “Surprise”. Moreover, the NLRB found that Amazon management also engaged in unlawful monitoring of the workers’ voting intentions.

These are anything but trivial charges. Indeed, given the overwhelming evidence of unlawful activities, it would have been astonishing had the NLRB not decided to overturn the tainted election. To allow it to stand in the face of Amazon’s lawless conduct would be sending the message that the law does not apply to companies if they are powerful enough, rich enough and prepared to bully their workers. Moreover, the decision to overturn the tainted election was made first by the NLRB Hearing Officer, and then by its Atlanta-based Regional Director, neither of whom are political appointees – they are career lawyers — or “former union employees,” as the op-ed incorrectly suggests.  Instead, Swearingen resorts to misleading tropes about “Big Labor” to describe a small but tenacious union, the Retail Wholesale & Department Store Union, which is going up against one of the richest and most powerful corporations on the planet, Amazon. Nor was Bessemer the first time that the NLRB has found Amazon guilty of unlawful anti-union behavior: the ecommerce behemoth deserves to be at the top of our anti-union pantheon and it shows that the NLRB’s remedies are nowhere near sufficient to curb its lawlessness.

Second, it’s important to clear up a blatant falsehood about the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO Act) legislation, currently pending before the U.S. Senate. The op-ed incorrectly states that the PRO Act “potentially eliminates secret ballot elections” and allows for “card check certification” of unions (i.e., recognizing unions after they submit authorization cards signed by a majority of the workforce, which is practiced in many rich democracies). To be clear, the PRO Act says nothing — zero —  about card check certification; the author effectively invented this phantom provision out of thin air to boost her extreme anti-union arguments. The PRO Act would outlaw compulsory anti-union “captive audience” meetings – forced listening sessions, which, according to its own testimony, Amazon management conducted thousands of times at Bessemer —  and imposing harsher penalties on corporations such as Amazon that violate workers’ rights to choose a union. In addition, the op-ed states that “Big Labor… successfully pushed Democrats to include PRO Act policies in the budget reconciliation bill.” In reality, the bill contains only PRO Act provision: much-needed financial penalties for corporations like Amazon that repeatedly violate workers’ rights.  

The NLRB was absolutely correct to overturn the Bessemer election, which was fundamentally tainted by Amazon’s conduct. But what the Bessemer campaign really demonstrates is that the NLRB desperately needs stronger remedies at its disposal. The law as it stands is too toothless to rein in an enormously powerful, incredibly wealthy and repeatedly unlawful corporate bully. The Senate should pass the PRO Act without delay.  

John Logan is Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. 

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