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Amazon interfered with union efforts, judge rules

The court said Amazon came up with a pretext to discharge an employee over protected conduct.

BROOKLYN (CN) — Ordering the company to read her ruling to staff, a federal judge found that Amazon likely interfered with the rights of employees to unionize by firing a worker who spoke out about inadequate Covid-19 protocols. 

The National Labor Relations Board initiated the lawsuit on behalf Gerald Bryson, who lost his job about 2 1/2 years ago in the early days of the pandemic. Amazon employees at the Staten Island facility where Bryson worked formed the first Amazon union in the United States this past April, but the NLRB said Bryson’s firing could chill unionizing efforts at the company.  

U.S. District Judge Diane Gujarati denied the request to reinstate Bryson but found it likely that Amazon had interfered with organizing rights and hit the company with a cease and desist order to stop it from retaliating against workers for organizing. 

“The court finds that there is reasonable cause to believe that an unfair labor practice has been committed by Amazon with respect to the termination of Bryson,” Gujarati wrote in the 30-page order, “and determines that the issuance of an order directing [Amazon] to cease and desist from taking certain actions and directing Respondent to post, distribute, and read the Court’s order to employees at the JFK8 Facility is just and proper.” 

Gujarati's ruling is dated Nov. 18, but NLRB counsel sent it up the chain Monday, noting that Amazon faces similar unfair-labor-practice allegations before the board.

Teresa Poor, the regional director of the Brooklyn NLRB office, said in a statement that the order “provides the full force of a federal court injunction to prohibit Amazon from further discharging employees for engaging in protected concerted activity.” 

“This relief is critical to ensure that Amazon employees everywhere can fully and freely exercise their rights to join together and improve their working conditions, including by forming, assisting, or joining a union,” Poor said. 

Bryson was fired in April 2020, a year before the Amazon Labor Union started. The timing became a point of contention between the labor board and Amazon, which said that the successful union election proved it hadn’t thwarted organizing efforts. 

Amazon attorney Christopher Murphy made that point during oral arguments on the injunction, held in August in the Eastern District of New York. About a dozen Amazon Labor Union members sat in the gallery, many wearing union T-shirts.

“There is no evidence of a diminishing or waning support for the union … it's the opposite,” said Murphy, of the firm Morgan Lewis & Bokius, who complained that union leaders became “virtual darlings of the media and politicians,” who publicly promoted the union with demonstrations and union-branded swag like shirts and keychains. 

“There’s a couple of folks in the courtroom today doing the same thing,” Murphy said. 

NLRB attorney Matthew Jackson played down the seeming burst of union enthusiasm, noting that “the support is not where it should have been.”

“The union has been deprived of its legitimate level of support, even though it gained the amount of support required to win this election,” Jackson said. 

Judge Gujarati ultimately split the difference. 

“Indeed, when viewed in light of the required deference, the record evidence before the court amply supports [NLRB’s] position that Bryson was engaged in protected activity, that Bryson’s protected conduct was a motivating factor in his discharge, and that [Amazon’s] stated reason for discharging Bryson was pretextual,” the order states. 

Despite the new ruling, an administrative judge for the NLRB did order Bryson’s reinstatement in May. The final decision by the board could take months or years, a point that NLRB argued in asking Gujarati for immediate relief. 

Amazon is also facing a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, which accuses the company of retaliating against two other employees, Christian Smalls and James Palmer. Smalls is now president of the Amazon Labor Union

The e-commerce behemoth argues that those employees were fired because they flouted social distancing rules by attending a protest. It filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block James’ investigation, which was dismissed last August. 

Internal messages show that an Amazon human resources employee had multiple concerns about firing Smalls, including that Smalls had a right to attend the peaceful, socially distanced protest, and that his termination “is going to be perceived as retaliation.”

An Amazon representative did not immediately return a request for comment. 

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