In this weekend’s news and commentary, a federal district judge ruled that Amazon must cease and desist from retaliating against employees for union organizing but denied the NLRB’s request for an injunction to reinstate a fired organizer; over 100 employees across workplaces met in Columbia, SC to launch the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW); and NLRB leaders sent a letter to Congress saying that the agency will be forced to furlough employees absent additional funding.
On November 18, US district judge Diane Gujurati of the Eastern District of New York ruled that Amazon must cease and desist from retaliating against employees for union organizing and required Amazon to distribute and read the order to employees at the Staten Island warehouse that voted to unionize with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in April 2022. However, Judge Gujurati also denied the NLRB’s request for an injunction to reinstate Gerald Bryson, a key ALU organizer who helped jumpstart the union’s organizing effort at JFK8.
Bryson was a warehouse picker at Amazon who had been in unions at previous job. On March 30, 2020, he led a protest against the lack of masks and other COVID-19 safety precautions at JFK8, the Staten Island warehouse. Bryson, along with ALU President Chris Smalls and Vice President Derrick Palmer, interrupted a manager’s meeting to advocate for pandemic protections and led a worker walkout of the facility. Bryson participated in two more demonstrations over pandemic safety before he was suspended and then terminated in April 2022.
Bryson was allegedly fired for “bullying a coworker” during a protest, but the NLRB argues that the coworker began the dispute and used profanities including telling Bryson to “go back to the Bronx.” Although Amazon does not have to rehire Bryson, Judge Gujurati said there was “reasonable cause to believe” that Amazon committed an unfair labor practice by discharging him. Separately, NLRB agency judge Benjamin Green ruled in April 2022 that Amazon must offer to reinstate Bryson, but Amazon is appealing that ruling. Amazon failed “to prove it had an honest, good-faith belief that Bryson engaged in serious misconduct warranting discharge,” Green wrote.
On November 18, over 100 service industry workers met in Columbia, South Carolina to launch a new union and boost labor organizing across the South. Employees of fast-food restaurants, gas stations, retail stores, and other workplaces joined the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and an affiliate of Fight for $15. “With eyes wide open to the past and immense hope for a better future, we are building a union to fight for living wages, fair working conditions, and a voice on the job,” said Brandon Beachum, a Panera Bread worker from Atlanta. “We are all service workers, no matter what industry you’re coming through,” said Eshawney Gaston, a Captain D’s employee in Durham, North Carolina who helped plan the union launch. “We have to stand up for each other.”
The USSW includes people from a variety of jobs and workplaces “because companies across the South employ a low-wage, high turnover model,” said the group. The union launched with several demands for employers across the region, including a seat at the table for workers to make decisions about working conditions, respect for workers’ right to organize free of retaliation, fair pay and an end to wage theft, dignity and equal treatment including equal pay for all workers, healthcare benefits including sick leave, safe workplace protections and equipment, and fair and consistent scheduling.
Low-wage workers in the South have long faced discriminatory labor practices, including due to the exclusions of agricultural and domestic workers from federal labor laws. The South has the lowest union density of any region in the U.S., with just 6% of workers represented by a collective bargaining unit. In South Carolina, only 1.7% of employees are union members – the lowest percentage in the nation. Moreover, many states in the South have preemption laws which have kept cities from raising wages for decades. Terrence Wise, a fast-food worker and leader in the Fight for $15, said that nearly 80% of workers in South Carolina make less than $15 an hour.
However, the South also has a long history of labor activism. At the USSW summit, attendees discussed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which included white and Black farm workers during the Great Depression; the 1969 strike by Black hospital workers in Charleston; and the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, led by Fannie Lou Hamer. Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU, said that “[b]lack, brown, and immigrant service workers across the South are leading the fight for a fundamental transformation of our economy and democracy aimed at re-writing outdated laws that have always held back working people and stopped them from gaining a voice through unions.”
On November 18, 2022, NLRB Chair Lauren McFerran and General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a letter to the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees that oversee the Board’s funding that the agency will likely be forced to furlough employees if it is unable to secure more funding. The threat of furloughs comes at a time when “staff cannot keep up with an increasing workload,” they said. Congress faces a December 16 deadline to pass spending legislation and avoid a government shutdown. Given that the Republicans will have a majority in the House next year, this could be Democrats’ final opportunity to address NLRB funding for the foreseeable future.