Services & Software

Amazon Fires Employees at Unionized Warehouse as Its Tactics Come Under Scrutiny

A federal agency says complaints about the company's mandatory anti-union meetings have merit.

Amazon is facing a wave of labor activism.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Amazon recently fired workers and managers at a Staten Island warehouse that voted to unionize -- dismissals that come as a labor regulator found merit in allegations the e-commerce giant's anti-union tactics broke the law. 

Tristan Dutchin was told he was fired for missing productivity targets, as reported earlier by Motherboard. Mat Cusick was told he was dismissed for "job abandonment" when he was on leave to care for a loved one with COVID-19. Both workers organized on behalf of the Amazon Labor Union, which won an April vote to represent workers, and say they fear retaliation was a factor in their firings. 

Separately, six senior managers at the same warehouse lost their jobs, according to The New York Times. The firings reportedly came outside the normal employee evaluation cycle during an internal review that followed the union's victory. Amazon confirmed a change in management as well as the firings of Dutchin and Cusick, which it said were based on their work and not on their support of any cause.

The spate of firings comes as an official at the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections, found merit in allegations that Amazon may have violated the law during required anti-union meetings by implying workers would lose benefits or their jobs if they voted for the union.

The confluence of terminations and regulatory scrutiny has put Amazon in an awkward position as it battles continuing efforts to unionize its facilities around the country. The Amazon Labor Union's victory in Staten Island was widely seen as a setback for the company, which has tried to present itself as a more caring employer by improving pay and benefits. The company recently adopted a "vision" to be the "Earth's Best Employer and Earth's Safest Place to Work."

Amazon faces a wave of employee organizing, though the outcomes have been mixed. 

In a separate vote at a different Staten Island warehouse, workers voted in April against joining the ALU. In a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, workers appear poised to reject the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, but hundreds of challenged ballots still have to be resolved and could change the result. Other workers have formed groups to make demands directly of Amazon without voting on whether to join a union.

Amazon said Cusick was fired for not returning to work after an extended leave expired, and Dutchin was fired for performance problems he'd received multiple warnings about. 

"We work hard to accommodate our team's needs, but like any employer, we ask our employees to meet certain minimum expectations and take appropriate action when they're unable to do that," Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement. 

An Amazon spokesperson said the ALU's allegations about its meetings are false. The company also acknowledged it reviewed operations at the Staten Island warehouse, which it calls JFK8. 

"Part of our culture at Amazon is to continually improve, and we believe it's important to take time to review whether or not we're doing the best we could be for our team," Nantel said in a separate statement. "Over the last several weeks, we've spent time evaluating aspects of the operations and leadership at JFK8 and, as a result, have made some management changes."

Cusick confirmed his firing, and Dutchin couldn't be reached through the ALU.

Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor relations at Rutgers University, says the current interpretation of federal labor law typically gives employers a strong advantage over workers who want to unionize. The NLRB's actions could nudge that dynamic in the workers' favor in this case, she says.

"I think Amazon will receive ongoing scrutiny from the NLRB and may be forced to modify their tactics," Givan said.

Amazon has been repeatedly accused of unfair labor practices by unions and employees involved in organizing efforts. The NLRB threw out the result of an earlier union vote in Alabama, finding that Amazon had violated federal labor law in its anti-union efforts in the leadup to the 2021 election. The company was also ordered in April to reinstate a Staten Island worker who was involved in the union effort there. 

The company's use of mandatory meetings for workers has been a source of complaints from organizers. The ALU has complained the meetings provide false information and intimidate workers who are considering voting for the organization. 

Mandatory meetings are legal under current interpretation of federal labor law. However, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a memo in April that the precedent behind that rule should be overturned because so-called "captive audience meetings" are coercive. 

"Those meetings 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," Abruzzo wrote.