NEW YORK — Amazon’s plan for a major corporate presence in New York ran headlong into concerns about the company’s labor practices in the city. The giant project fell apart, but the labor friction lives on.
A former employee at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island is accusing the company of firing him last month in retaliation for speaking out about what he says are difficult working conditions there.
A union trying to organize a few thousand workers at the Staten Island warehouse formally complained to the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday on behalf of the former employee, Justin Rashad Long, opening a new phase in the organizing push.
“Instead of firing Rashad, Amazon should have listened to him and addressed the specific issues that he and other warehouse workers have raised,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is pursuing the case.
The retail workers’ union played a leading role in resisting the deal that would have brought a second Amazon headquarters to Queens in exchange for nearly $3 billion in public subsidies. The union said it was opposed to the project unless Amazon established a “fair process” for allowing warehouse workers in the city to unionize, although it said it was willing to negotiate what that meant.
At a meeting with labor leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month, Amazon officials agreed to continue discussing the matter, but the company abandoned the Queens project the next day.
There are no unionized Amazon warehouse employees in the United States. Last year, some workers at a warehouse in Minnesota became the first in the United States known to have negotiated with management. The employees, many of them originally from Somalia and elsewhere in East Africa, were upset about strict productivity targets that some said made it hard for Muslim workers to pray at work. Amazon has said it saw this not as a negotiation but as an exercise in community engagement.
“Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees,” said Ashley Robinson, an Amazon spokeswoman. “We encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and workplace environment to other retailers and major employers.”
The union’s action on Long’s behalf is its first for a worker at the Staten Island warehouse. The union has also been involved in efforts to organize workers at Whole Foods Market, which Amazon owns.
Before he was fired, Long asserted at public meetings and in comments to the media that Amazon required him and other workers to work 12-hour shifts five or even six times a week with few breaks during the peak holiday season, and that warehouse managers had unreasonable production targets.
“Getting out customer orders is all they care about,” Long said in an interview. “They don’t care if you’re tired, if you’ve worked 60 hours. It’s irrelevant.”
Robinson, the Amazon spokeswoman, said that employees at the warehouse never worked more than 60 hours a week during the peak season, and that 52 hours a week was more common. More than three-quarters of the workers at the warehouse meet the production targets that Long complained about, she said.
While at Amazon, Long was involved in the retail workers’ organizing campaign, and he appeared at a rally with union officials who read a statement from him criticizing conditions at his warehouse. He also described the conditions at a breakfast the union hosted. Video from both events is available online.
Long, whose job was to pick items from robotic pods and to place them in plastic boxes for other workers to pack for shipping, was fired Feb. 12. The company cited a safety violation as the reason. Long said he had picked up the wrong item and reached back out to return it to the pod, something the company discourages because of the risk of injury.
The union’s filing says the safety violation cited as the reason for Long’s dismissal “was pretext for being outspoken against the working conditions at the facility.”
Under federal labor law, employees have the right to take part in organizing activities and are generally entitled to complain publicly about their working conditions. The labor board’s regional office will investigate Long’s allegation, and the agency’s general counsel could bring a complaint against Amazon if the case is found to have merit.
Several labor lawyers said that winning or favorably settling a case like Long’s, something that would probably entail his reinstatement with back pay, was critical for a union in the early phases of an organizing campaign because it would put other workers at ease about coming forward.
“Firing people silences other people,” said Molly Elkin, a labor lawyer at Woodley & McGillivary. “It becomes difficult to organize. But if the employee is successful getting his job back, you’re back at square one. It’s very, very important.”
Hanan Kolko, a labor lawyer at Cohen, Weiss & Simon, said that Long’s case would hinge partly on whether Amazon was aware of his public comments and his participation in union activities when it fired him. Kolko said the labor board would also have to consider whether the safety issue was a pretext for dismissal.
Perhaps most important, Kolko said, was determining whether the company had treated other workers similarly for comparable safety violations. Long said that some of his fellow workers had not suffered serious consequences for returning an item to a pod.
The Amazon spokeswoman said the infraction was serious and grounds for dismissal, and that if other workers went unpunished in such cases, it might only mean the violation had not been noticed. She said that the company had offered Long a chance to appeal his firing to a panel of workers and managers, but that he had declined. Long said he had not known he had that option.
Kolko said evidence of company hostility toward unions could bolster Long’s case. Amazon has distributed a video to managers at its Whole Foods stores on how to defuse union organizing efforts, but lawyers differed on whether that could be cited as evidence.