Labor Advocates Denounce Amazon’s Presence at Workplace Safety Conference

Amazon is the top donor at a workplace safety conference attended by the same government workers that investigates the delivery behemoth.

Amba Guerguerian Mar 8, 2022

Click here to read “‘Occupy The Breakroom!’ Amazon Union Prepares for Election Showdown at Staten Island Warehouse.”

“This is gross! I’m speaking at this conference on representing workers’ rights, all I see is an institutional legal actor (@abalel) working with @OSHA_DOL to help Amazon buy access to regulators,” tweeted one panelist yesterday who is speaking at the American Bar Association Section of Labor and Employment Law Occupational Safety and Health Law Committee 2022 Midwinter Meeting. Within 24 hours, the tweet was gone. 

The same labor rights litigator deleted another Tweet that read, “…By my count there are a total of 10 workers rights advocates speaking in a four day long conference. We’re there for show!” That’s 10 out of roughly 65 moderators and panelists that will speak at the four-day American Bar Association (ABA)-hosted conference on workplace safety in Sarasota, Florida, which kicked off today. According to the ABA, the conference features “presentations by panelists representing management, union, employees and government perspectives on hot topics and cutting-edge issues in the field of workplace safety law.”

Tweets recovered by The Indy about the ABA’s Employment Law Occupational Safety and Health Law Committee 2022 Midwinter Meeting.

As seen in the event’s agenda, Amazon is a “Diamond Plus Level” contributor. There are six levels between Bronze and Diamond Plus and the delivery giant is the sole giver in the top category. Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C, a legal firm that represents Amazon, is a giver in the second tier. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, another one of Amazon’s anti-union law firms, is a third-tier giver. Attorneys with those two firms will also preside on various panels. And, the sole cocktail party during the conference is hosted by Amazon. 

“I really don’t think the DOL should participate in this because it’s a way for the management-side lawyers to meet all the OSHA lawyers they’re going to be fighting,” says Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a large regulatory agency of the United States Department of Labor (DOL). She now is a fellow with the Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and has presided twice on ABA worker safety conference panels. In 2020, she was faced with pressure to withdraw from the conference shortly after co-authoring a report critical of Amazon. 

In working on the report, she found that, “[Amazon’s] injury rates were far higher than other warehouses, let alone other industries. They had higher injury rates than any other company I’d been aware of, both at my time at OSHA and my time before that being a health and safety director of unions,” Berkowitz told The Indypendent.

“There are ambulances picking up workers at Amazon almost every day,” says Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) — a group of Amazon employees leading the struggle to unionize the company’s Staten Island warehouses. “Sometimes, it’s multiple times a day — for various reasons: hurt on the job, high blood pressure, COVID. We’ve seen it all during this campaign,” he told The Indy.

“This is why there is no justice in America. Because the regulators and the corporations are in bed together.”

Berkowitz was originally asked to serve on the 2020 panel to balance the views of another speaker, Heather MacDougall, who is Amazon’s vice president of worldwide employee health and safety. 

“It turned out Amazon was underwriting the whole conference. … My impression was these management lawyers all wanted Amazon’s business so they didn’t want me to piss off Amazon. … Then, I found out that the DOL Solicitor, Madeleine Le, who opposed me, went to work for Amazon. There was no worker representative on that panel in the end,” said Berkowitz. 

She was shocked to find out that Amazon is also bankrolling this year’s event, which she won’t be at. The 2020 convention she withdrew from was attended by Donald Trump-appointed Department of Labor representatives and the current convention is being attended by Joe Biden’s Department of Labor under Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh.

“They’re making something like $120,000 with the government and they have the potential of making half a mil at Amazon. They want their McMansions,” says Seth Goldstein, pro-bono attorney for the Amazon Labor Union. “This is why there is no justice in America. Because the regulators and the corporations are in bed together. If you’re a family member whose child died in Evansville, Illinois, how do you feel that Amazon is providing the happy hour that the regulator will attend?”

In December, an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois collapsed during a bout of severe weather and tornadoes. Six Amazon employees died. One of them had texted his girlfriend before the deadly tornado struck, saying the company wouldn’t let him drive home. Another was warned she would be fired if she returned to work without delivering all of her packages after she asked if she could come back early because she was hearing tornado sirens. 

Later that month, OSHA began a probe into the deaths and the warehouse collapse. Edmund C. Baird, Associate Solicitor for OSHA and Peter J. Vassalo,  Counsel for Special Litigation with the DOL, are attending the conference, which is sponsored by the employer they’re investigating. 

Shelly Anand resigned from the Department of Labor in January 2020 and started Sur Legal Collaborative, a non-profit organization in Georgia — a state where only 4% of workers are unionized — that educates workers about their rights regardless of immigration status. She is one of the few labor-advocate panelists at the conference. “I’m looking at the agenda, who the sponsors are, who the happy hour is with — and I see Amazon everywhere. I have a lot of respect and trust in my former colleagues [at the DOL], but it doesn’t look great. It looks really bad,” she said. 

Anand represents mostly undocumented and Latinx workers, and they make up the majority of worker fatalities, she says. “I wish workers were here. Especially with COVID… I’m not even happy that I’m speaking on behalf of my client. I wish he was here to say that as a poultry worker, he has experienced hell over the last two years.”

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