When the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) won a shocking upset victory at the JFK8 warehouse on April 1, photos of ALU’s worker organizers locking arms and celebrating were liked and shared by millions around the world. One of those organizers was Madeline Wesley, a young woman in a blue ALU T-shirt who was beaming from ear-to-ear. “I feel amazing. I’m so proud of this team and this is just the beginning,” she told The Indypendent just after the victory was announced.
Wesley, the ALU Treasurer, holds down 10-hour shifts at LDJ5, the sorting facility in Amazon’s four-warehouse complex on Staten Island. She is the most prominent member of the union’s organizing team who works at the facility, which is the sister warehouse to JFK8. With a second union election slated to be held at LDJ5 beginning April 25, Wesley says she is being targeted by managers frightened that a second warehouse could go union in less than a month.
In the past week, Wesley has been reprimanded by management for posting a banner in the break room and for talking about the union on the shop floor during work hours, even though it was other workers who approached her with questions and comments about the union.
“I think people are excited to join history and join JFK8 in the union,” Wesley told The Indypendent. Seeing the JFK8 win has warmed LDJ5 workers to the union, says Wesley, but “union busters are feeding people rumors that JFK8 is different than LDJ5. At the end of the day, the issues are the same for the most part,” she says.
The Indypendent reviewed a recording of the disciplinary conversation — referred to as “feedback” by Amazon — between LDJ5 management and Wesley when two managers issued her a written warning for “soliciting votes” while working. During the disciplinary conversation, Wesley asked her superiors at various instances what she was specifically saying or doing that constituted “soliciting” or breaking Amazon policy. The managers refused to respond clearly, repeatedly withholding details.
At one point she asks, “But what specifically did I say that made it solicitation?” With robot-like clockwork, the manager responds, “I just told you: soliciting votes on the floor.”
“If I was talking to a group of people about the union, it was probably because they came up to me and asked me some questions while I was working,” Wesley said to management during the conversation. “So my understanding is that I have freedom of speech and I’m allowed to talk about whatever I want to talk about during work hours. People are talking about the union all the time in the lanes,”
After a few-minute back-and-forth about what constitutes soliciting votes versus answering conversations about the union, which managers initially say is permissible, they come to the conclusion that if anyone asks Wesley a question about the union, she has to tell them to find her in the break room or during non-working hours.
If Wesley receives two more warnings, she will be fired. According to Amazon policy, an “associate” — or worker — is let go after three warnings, under all circumstances.
“Amazon recently brought productivity write-ups back where workers rated in the bottom 30% would be given a write-up for [low] productivity,” ALU member and JFK8 worker Brett Daniels told The Indypendent. (That means that a worker will be fired if for falling in the bottom 30% three times.) “They also brought back TOT, or Time-Off-Task, which tracks every second that you aren’t scanning an item,” said Daniels.
“It’s getting really intense over here and of course Amazon is really angry about losing at JFK8, so they’re taking it out on us at LDJ5,” Wesley, who is the only member of ALU’s executive board that works at LDJ5, told The Indypendent. “Union busters are feeding workers vicious rumors about me specifically and about [Chris Smalls, president of the ALU],” she added.
On Tuesday morning, a fellow ALU member was reminded the instant his shift started at 7 a.m. to “be careful” by management, claims the ALU.
According to Wesley, workers of anti-union sentiment are not reprimanded for going down work lanes (the space around conveyor belts) yelling “Vote no!”
“If anti-union workers were disciplined, I’d protect their rights as well, because they’re engaging in union activity. Nobody should be disciplined for expressing their views about the union,” Seth Goldstein, pro-bono attorney for the ALU, told The Indypendent. ”
Last week, ALU members were told not to post their banner on break room walls in LDJ5 due to company policy. When union members modified the position of the banner to be free-standing to fit within the policy, management said the policy changed and they were no longer allowed to have a free-standing banner. There is currently no banner in the break room.
“They changed the policy on us three times. Nobody bothered them in JFK8 when they did it but now that they won JFK8, they’re terrified and are doing everything to stop us including limiting our legal rights to have free-standing propaganda in the break room,” Wesley said. Despite having asked to see it multiple times, she’s never been provided with any of the banner policies referenced to by management, she says.
“It was a [legal] problem that the banner was attached to the wall. So, they made a contraption to make sure the banner was free-standing. The third time, two people were holding the banner. That’s been protected by the Supreme Court and NLRB law,” says Goldstein.
Telling Wesley to not talk about the union on the floor is “very illegal — it’s called first amendment rights. It’s protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act,” says Goldstein. “Amazon doesn’t care about the law. They seek an outcome, which is to bust the union.”
Goldstein has filed Unfair Labor Practice charges (ULPs) with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in regards to the banner and disciplinary action taken against Wesley. Even if the board sides with the union, ALU members won’t have the chance before the election to expand their union activity during work time without risking further discipline, as NLRB filings take months to process. Additionally, the penalties for violating NLRB rules are minor and treated as a minor cost of doing business for a corporation intent on busting its union.
“They know that if they try to fire me I’m going to file a wrongful termination suit against them,” Wesley said. “I’m going to be careful but at the end of the day, if they really wanna fire me, they can,” she added, noting that, “Because I don’t have a union yet, there’s nothing there to protect me until it’s too late.”
“We had to take the banner down so nobody gets disciplinary charges. And as the election comes soon, they are doing a bunch of illegal stuff because they won’t have to face the repercussions until after it’s over,” Wesley told The Indypendent.
Captive-audience meetings — anti-union sessions masked as “required trainings” by Amazon — have been a common element of the company’s anti-union tactics in Bessemer, Alabama, at JFK8 and now at LDJ5. Each JFK8 worker was made to sit in seven of these sessions before the election. Wesley says that coworkers often approach her to ask about the union after being made to attend one of these sessions. “If I am talking to someone in a group it’s because they just came out of a captive audience meeting and they’re trying to ask me about it,” she said.
On April 7, just six days after ALU’s win, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo wrote a memorandum to all NLRG regional directors and officers-in-charge titled “The Right to Refrain from Captive Audience and other Mandatory Meetings,” in which she urges the board to condemn those meetings which, she writes, “inherently involve an unlawful threat that employees will be disciplined or suffer other reprisals if they exercise their protected right not to listen to such speech. …I plan to urge the Board to reconsider such precedent and find mandatory meetings of this sort unlawful.”
During the “feedback” session between Wesley and management, managers say a reason they don’t want “associates” conversing about the union on the floor is to avoid a pile-up of boxes in a lane.
On Monday, that fear was realized, but not in the way they postulated. “In Lane 2, they pulled so many people off for their anti-union meetings that the lane backed up. It stopped functioning properly and people were surrounded by stacks of boxes taller than they were. … Even the managers were bringing down boxes. … One of the guys that was completely blocked in, he’s pro-union now,” said Wesley.
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