A small group of employees at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Middletown joined the front lines of the American labor movement this month by formally declaring their intentions to become the online retail giant’s first unionized workforce.
“These workers came to us; we didn’t reach out to them,” said John Carr, a spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which is seeking to represent 30 equipment maintenance and repair technicians at the 14-month-old distribution center. “But after they reached out to us, we held several meetings and gathered signatures off site.”
On Dec. 6, the IAMAW filed a union election petition with the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of those 30 workers, a move that’s believed to be a first among employees at any of the Seattle-based company’s 96 locations around the globe.
Those 30 employees are now scheduled to vote Jan. 15 on whether they will form a collective bargaining unit that’s authorized to negotiate contracts covering their wages, benefits and work rules.
The outcome will be determined by a majority vote among the workers who will cast secret ballots in the election. That vote will take place in a conference room at the Middletown distribution center.
The remainder of the facility’s 1,500 full-time workers would not be represented by the IAMAW even if the technicians vote to unionize.
But it would give the 700,000-member trade union a toe-hold at Amazon, which has successfully resisted similar efforts during its 18-year history.
“We’d have to be crazy not to realize there are another 1,500 employees working the same building whose daily working lives could be improved by joining us,” Carr said. “Any union would have to look at that and work to identify the concerns of those workers.”
Company spokeswoman Mary Osako said via email last week that Amazon already provides competitive wages and comprehensive benefits, as well as bonuses, stock options and, in some cases, pre-paid tuition fees.
She said the core of Amazon’s business model also depends on rapid innovation, flexibility and open lines of direct communication between managers and employees, which it calls “associates.”
“We respect the individual rights of our associates and have an open-door policy that allows and encourages associates to bring their comments, questions and concerns directly to their management teams,” she wrote. “We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce, and do not believe there is a need for third-party representation.”
Carr, however, said Amazon’s open door policy is at the heart of the workers’ desire for a labor contract.
Page 2 of 2 - “For instance, right now, if they bring a potential safety concern to management, there is no recourse to ensure that it’s going to be addressed properly,” he said. “A contract would fix that by requiring the creation of a safety committee and a standard procedure for handling grievances.”
He said the company’s desire to handle employee issues on a strictly individual basis has created a large degree of uncertainty among the workers, a problem made worse by numerous changes in management at the Middletown facility.
“To my knowledge, these guys have never once raised an issue with their wages, outside of wanting to know the procedures for reaching the next pay level,” he said. “Instead, they want to know that the rules today will be the rules tomorrow and that one employee will get the same treatment as another.”
While the IAMAW has managed to secure a vote, Carr said he still expects Amazon will fight hard against the union.
He says the company has already retained the services of Philadelphia-based law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, who he described as “union busters.”
Osako declined to confirm or deny the report.
“Typically, they’ll set up websites, hold what we call ‘captive audience’ meetings and send letters to the homes of employees, including letters to their family members urging them to vote against unionizing,” Carr said. “Sometimes they even line people up in the hallway leading to the room where the vote will take place, which can be scary and intimidating to some people.”
Regardless of how the vote turns out, the stakes are high for the 30 employees who will be voting next month, he said.
“They know that at the end of this could be their termination,” he said. “These days, everyone needs a job, so no one is going to take this lightly.”