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Court Rules Amazon Workers Can Occupy the Break Room for Union Organizing

After months of being locked out of break rooms, off-duty Amazon worker-organizers will be able to once again set up shop in the coveted organizing space.

Amba Guerguerian Mar 24, 2023

After a prolonged legal battle between Amazon and the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the National Labor Relations Board announced Wednesday that Amazon must grant break-room access to employees who are organizing their co-workers to vote for a union or to push for better working conditions.

“What was lost by not having access is the establishment of community among workers and organizers being able to engage in activity that would explain the benefits of unionizing to other workers,” says ALU lawyer Seth Goldstein, a partner at Julien, Mirer, Singla & Goldstein.

“We’ve switched up our strategy,” ALU president and co-founder Christian Smalls told The Indypendent last February, just five weeks before the historic union election at Amazon’s mammoth JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island. “We’re playing the inside game. We’re occupying the break rooms and have domains in the cafeterias.”

On April 1 of last year, the ALU won its election 2,654 to 2,131, becoming the first union to prevail over Amazon. With employees working 10-to-12-hour shifts and living in the furthest reaches of the New York City region, making house calls wasn’t a viable organizing option. The ability of ALU members to organize in break rooms before and after their shifts provided crucial access to their coworkers.

Amid Amazon’s heavy-handed and often illegal union-busting campaign, access to the break rooms was fought for tooth and nail. At the end of December 2021, the ALU secured a settlement agreement from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that said Amazon must allow break-room access to off-duty employees. 

The ability of ALU members to organize in break rooms before and after their shifts provided crucial access to their coworkers.

On June 30, 2022 the company broke that agreement, instituting a new access policy barring worker-organizers from break rooms except for 15 minutes before and after their shift time. All of the ALU’s core organizers have been penalized under this rule. The company’s crackdown has made it much harder for the union to build support at JFK8 and force Amazon to come to the table to negotiate a first contract. It’s also impeded organizing at other warehouses.  

Although there were many variables at play, a subsequent union election in the fall at the ALB1 Amazon warehouse near Albany, NY, did not benefit from break-room organizing and was defeated by a roughly 2-1 margin. 

Amazon workers in Kentucky have also been struggling to overcome lack of access to the break room. An organizing campaign was recently launched at Amazon’s biggest U.S. air hub, KCVG, at the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Prior to the JFK8 campaign, the first-ever union election at a U.S. Amazon warehouse took place in Bessemer, Alabama, organized by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). After losing an election in April 2021, the NLRB ruled that Amazon’s union-busting tactics were so harsh that a re-do must be held. In the second election at the end of March 2022, the results were still in the employer’s favor — 993 “no” votes and 875 “yes” votes.

The ALU’s legal team filed charges in the various regions of the country where Amazon workers are organizing. “Bessemer is also involved in it. Their lawyers also challenged the same issue of access,” says Seth Goldstein. The Bessemer losses occurred “predominantly due to the access problem,” he says. 

Wednesday’s Region 29 NLRB determination that Amazon violated federal labor law sets a precedent not just for JFK8 but for all U.S. Amazon warehouses. The Board may seek a federal order stating that the company broke the December 2021 settlement agreement. It may also push for a mandate that Amazon be taken to court and forced to pay fines if it continues to impede on break-room organizing, but it is still unclear whether it will take those actions.

The Board has not yet announced “remedies” that Amazon must adhere to in order to notify its workers of the new order. “We would like to get a public reading. We’d like management training on this notice and that it be widely dispersed to employees so that they know what their rights are,” Goldstein told The Indypendent. In December, the company was forced to make public announcements at JFK8 regarding a cease-and-desist order to stop firing workers for organizing. 

The NLRB also found Wednesday that Amazon has violated the law by refusing to bargain with the JFK8 workers after they won their union election nearly a year ago. That’s the first step in obtaining a bargaining order — when an employer is forced through court (NLRB or federal) to bargain with the union. Bargaining orders are implemented when it’s evident that an employer will not in good faith or on its own accord meet workers at the bargaining table to negotiate a first contract. 

Thus far, that has been the case at JFK8. “The bottom line is that this company is lawless and they think they can get away with anything. We need official intervention to make sure the company complies with the law,” said Goldstein.

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