News & Commentary

January 24, 2022

Fred Messner

Fred Messner is a student at Harvard Law School.

Last Friday, workers at a Manhattan REI store joined the nascent retail unionization wave by filing an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board.  The workers, who seek representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), are proposing a bargaining unit of roughly 115 store employees.  If successful, the Manhattan store would be the first of approximately 170 REI locations to unionize and would represent an important beachhead in a company with more than 15,000 employees.  The workers have also requested voluntary recognition, but have so far been rebuffed by REI management—the latest instance of a company with outwardly progressive branding  resisting organization by its own employees.  “We respect the rights of our employees to speak and act for what they believe – and that includes the rights of employees to choose or refuse union representation,” REI said in a statement.  “However,” the company continued, “we do not believe placing a union between the co-op and its employees is needed or beneficial.”

Also on Friday, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh announced the Good Jobs Initiative, a “coordinated effort to improve job quality nationwide.”  According to the Department of Labor, the Good Jobs Initiative aims to “advance[e] job quality” and “empower[] working people” by making information about labor rights more accessible, “[e]ngaging employer stakeholders as partners to improve job quality and workforce pathways to good jobs,” and “[s]upporting partnerships across federal agencies, and providing technical assistance on grants, contracts and other investments intended to improve job quality.”  While it is not immediately clear what, if any, new and concrete initiatives will emerge from the DOL effort, Secretary Walsh did explain that his office would be “centraliz[ing] agencies’ efforts to provide technical assistance on many job quality standards across the federal government, including anti-discrimination requirements, equal employment opportunity requirements in apprenticeships and supporting environments for free and fair union organizing and collective bargaining.”  Secretary Walsh unveiled the initiative in an address to the U.S. Conference of Mayors; his full remarks are available here.

Elsewhere in the federal government, Bloomberg Law reports that NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is “speeding through agenda items,” having made “significant strides toward boosting legal protections for workers and unions in her first six months in office.”  Less than six months into her four-year term, GC Abruzzo has already initiated cases that challenge “about a dozen” key precedents set during the Trump Administration, including anti-worker rulings on bargaining unit size, gag orders, severance deals, workplace rules, and the ever-salient test for whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee under the NLRA.  And beyond the cases that are already in litigation, GC Abruzzo has expressed interest in reviving Joy Silk bargaining orders and directed NLRB prosecutors to seek consequential damages in settlements with employers—both of which would mark visible breaks with recent practice.  At the same time, the agency continues to face challenges from budget cuts in recent decades: as Bloomberg Law explains, the NLRB’s personnel count still sits at less than 75% percent of its 2010 level with restoration hinging on an uncertain “budgetary boost.”

Finally, Vice reports that Amazon has begun forcing fulfillment center workers to attend mandatory “wellness huddles” in the middle of their shifts.  During the “huddles,” workers are required to watch short animated videos in which “warehouse worker and an animated robot demonstrate bending over and using their ‘powerzone’ (core muscles) to lift bins, gripping, and stretching.”  The huddles, Vice explains, are a part of Amazon’s “WorkingWell” program, another prong of which is the introduction of “AmaZen” mindfulness booths—“closet-sized room[s] in the middle of . . . warehouse[s] where workers can go to meditate and practice mindfulness activities on a computer.”  The huddles, which workers have described as “[h]ands down the most infantilizing experience I have to endure at work,” may be fodder for bargaining if and when the tide turns on workers’ ongoing organization efforts, the next phase of which is the February 4th re-vote at the company’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse.

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