Marble Falls After dealing with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) off and on for the last more than forty years, I never expected to get a Seasons’ Greeting from them, but miracles never cease. The news is out of a major settlement between Amazon and the Board that is national in scope. The headlines are all touting the agreement as a major easing of workers’ ability to organize in Amazon warehouses. I’m not sure that is completely true, but embedded in the NLRB’s action is a significant advance for workers’ rights. Saying this differently, this may not advance the prospects of traditional unionization, but it does privilege internal organizing and agitation of the kind being done by Amazonians United by demonstrating that for a change the Biden NLRB is ready to actually stand up straight and step up on companies, even a behemoth like Amazon, to protect and advance workers’ rights.
I haven’t read the settlement yet, but here are the facts as reported. The agreement was based on merging charges from six different Amazon workers in Chicago and Staten Island where the company breached the protected rights for workers to engage in concerted activity. These charges were not related to the Alabama election by RWDSU or directly to the Amazon Workers Union’s filing for an election in New York City’s Staten Island. The worker quoted for example was an activist with Amazonians United in Chicago. The key issue seems to have been Amazon’s efforts to curtail discussion of workers’ rights and unions during workers’ free time and during breaks, and even curtailing the breaks in order to prevent collective action.
The remedy forced by the NLRB was huge. Notices of the right to organize under the Act will be posted at all facilities. An email and other notifications will be required to be sent to all current and former warehouse workers, perhaps as many as 750,000. These agreements typically include a non-admissions clause letting the company off the hook, although, importantly, this settlement seems not to do so. Additionally, Amazon has agreed that any breach of the agreement would not force the NLRB to go through their own lengthy and burdensome process of a hearing before an administration judge. All of this great for workers at Amazon, and, as critically, other workers trying to align their companies with their own interests and seizing on the precedent this establishes for the NLRB to buck up and enforce the law.
Is it really a breakthrough for workers’ organizing? Yes and no.
Allowing the NLRB to go directly into federal court to enforce the agreement is not a fast track to securing workers’ rights. Local 100 had a case where we got a 10j injunction, normally only issued by the Board in the most egregious cases, which they had to enforce in federal court that was then appealed to the 5th circuit and beyond and took years to settle. Furthermore, nothing in this settlement would necessarily gladden union organizers sitting around conference tables and whiteboards in Washington, DC., and hoping to see traditional union models and collective bargaining in Amazon or any other company. Where union’s like RWDSU tried to move from the outside with a weaker committee inside, nothing here helps much. The Amazon business model of high turnover with workers as widgets and divide and conquer will still thwart old school organizing tactics. That’s the “no” side.
The “yes” side is that this settlement and an NLRB with backbone gives a “get your job back” card to workers willing to stand up for their rights with their co-workers. Unionization models that prioritize strong internal organizing committees and in-plant actions and even “work-to-rule” strategies could potentially benefit from this decision if there is strong workers support behind the walls moving the organizing drives forward. This decision would give a huge boost to the kind of organizing we did at Walmart in organizing direct membership unions bypassing elections and bargaining.
In summary, this is a great decision for workers, not for unions, but that’s true of the National Labor Relations Act for the last umpteen years. With workers getting more active and realizing now that they have the ability to demand their money and rights now and realizing that there is another job waiting for them elsewhere, this decision could empower a huge wave of worker activism that will spread the headaches for bosses way past Amazon.