Workers stand in line to cast ballots for a union election at Amazon’s JFK8 distribution center, in the Staten Island borough of New York City, U.S. March 25, 2022.
Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters
Amazon has fired two employees tied to an organizing campaign that resulted in the company’s first unionized warehouse in the U.S.
Mat Cusick and Tristan Dutchin told CNBC they were fired by Amazon in recent days. Both Cusick and Dutchin have been working with the Amazon Labor Union, an upstart group led by current and former company employees, to organize workers at the e-commerce giant’s warehouses on New York’s Staten Island.
The ALU notched a historic win last month, when workers at Amazon’s largest warehouse in New York City, known as JFK8, voted to join the union. The ALU hoped to replicate its success at a smaller facility nearby, called LDJ5, but the site rejected unionization last week. Still, the victory at JFK8 has spurred organizing efforts at other Amazon warehouses, and the ALU has received high-profile recognition, most notably from President Joe Biden.
Dutchin, who worked as a package picker at JFK8 for almost a year, said he was fired on Saturday after he wrapped up his shift. Amazon told him he had failed to meet the company’s productivity goals, which require employees to pick hundreds of packages per hour.
Dutchin said he’d received previous warnings from Amazon about his performance, but had since received additional training. Dutchin said his manager even congratulated him recently on his improved performance.
Cusick, who serves as ALU’s communications director, said he was fired last week after going on “Covid care leave,” which allows employees to care for family members sick with Covid-19.
A woman holds a placard as Amazon and union workers attend rally outside the company building on April 24, 2022, in the Staten Island borough of New York City.
Kena Betancur | AFP | Getty Images
An employee from Amazon’s human resources department allowed him to go on leave until April 29, Cusick said. But on April 30, he received an email from Amazon saying he had been absent from his job for three days, which was grounds for firing, Cusick said.
The next day, Cusick, who sorted packages for delivery at an Amazon facility called DYY6, near JFK8, discovered he’d been locked out of Amazon’s internal employee portal.
“I called ERC,” Cusick said, referring to the employee resource center, “and said, ‘What’s going on, it looks like I’ve been terminated.'”
“I think the first person may have said I wasn’t terminated,” he said.” “I went from China, to India, to a few different teams in the U.S., and everybody had a different take on what was going on.”
On May 3, Cusick received a letter from Amazon informing him that he’d been fired “due to job abandonment,” according to a copy of the letter viewed by CNBC.
Amazon’s employee HR systems have been a subject of scrutiny in the past. Investigations by the New York Times and Bloomberg identified issues with the heavily automated system, which has struggled to keep pace with the company’s rapidly expanding workforce, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.
Cusick described his dismissal as “an automated termination.”
“Amazon’s systems are almost entirely digital,” Cusick said. “I was locked out of the system where all that material is stored. I’m locked out of the building so I can’t even go to the building where I work to talk to the people inside.”
Vice earlier reported on the firings. It’s unclear if the dismissals were in retaliation for the workers’ organizing efforts, and representatives from Amazon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
‘They pay attention to that stuff’
Amazon has previously fired employees who were outspoken critics of the company’s labor practices, including Chris Smalls, the president of ALU. Amazon was recently ordered to give JFK8 employee Gerald Bryson his job back after a judge found the company “unlawfully” fired him two years ago for participating in a pandemic protest.
“I’ve been doing interviews, going to rallies,” Dutchin said. “Me being part of the ALU and making national headlines, they pay attention to that stuff.”
The union victory at JFK8 was a major win for labor groups, which have sought to organize Amazon facilities for several years. For the ALU, the challenges aren’t over, as it now has to try and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with Amazon, which has already sought to delay a contract by challenging the election outcome in court.
In addition to firing an organizer at JFK8, the company has also made changes to the site’s upper ranks in recent days.
Amazon last week fired at least half a dozen senior managers at JFK8, the New York Times reported. Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the firings were a result of several weeks of evaluations of “operations and leadership” at JFK8. But the fired managers saw the move as a response to the recent union victory, according to the Times.
While Amazon may be legally allowed to fire managers who are not part of the bargaining unit, the company could face a further fight from the National Labor Relations Board for dismissing union organizers, said Tom Kochan, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
“It’s clearly immoral and a violation of the law to fire union organizers, but it may pay off for the firm to do so because the penalties are so weak,” Kochan said. “It’s also very difficult to enforce the law to prove that the worker was fired for union activity, rather than not showing up on time or somehow doing the job effectively.”
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