Amazon illegally fired labor advocates, federal board rules

Amazon’s Seattle headquarters. (GeekWire Photo)

The National Labor Relations Board said that Amazon illegally fired two Seattle-based employees who criticized the company for its climate impact and policies toward warehouse workers.

The ruling, first reported in the New York Times, could prompt the labor board to formally accuse Amazon of unfair labor practices if it declines to settle the case involving Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa. The Times learned of the ruling from a letter sent to the pair from the NLRB.

Cunningham called the ruling “a moral victory,” in an interview with the Times.

In April of last year, Amazon fired Costa and Cunningham, two of the leaders from the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice group, violating internal policies, according to a spokesperson. “We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions, but that does not come with blanket immunity against our internal policies, all of which are lawful,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Amazon later faced pressure from Senate Democrats to explain the rationale for the firings.

The NLRB letter comes at a fraught period for the online retail and cloud computing giant. This week in Bessemer, Ala., continues the vote count that could decide if approximately 5,800 fulfillment center employees can secure union representation. Over the past weekend, the company issued a rare apology for denying that its drivers have to urinate in bottles to keep up with exceptionally tight delivery schedules.

And while Amazon might find help for its potty problem, labor issues for its lowest-paid employees remain among its biggest concerns.

Company leaders worry that any union representation for the Alabama-based warehouse employees will spur additional unionization efforts in other warehouses nationally and, ultimately, alter the company’s relationship with hundreds of thousands of its lower-paid workers. The vote has also become a proxy for the health of the national labor movement as a whole.

Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said Amazon will break the law to silence its workers. The UFCW has helped to organize Amazon warehouse workers and has filed complaints about the company’s alleged whistleblower retaliation.

“Amazon’s illegal retaliation against these whistleblowers makes the Amazon union election in Alabama even more urgent as Bessemer employees exercise their right to make their voices heard,” Perrone said.

The NLRB also is the federal agency that is currently counting the unionization vote in Bessemer. In an interview with the Times, an Amazon spokesperson said the pair were not fired for criticizing the company or promoting unionization but instead for repeatedly violating internal policies.