Seattle groups rally against Amazon’s alleged union busting in Kentucky

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Edward Clarke traveled across the country to tell labor organizers in Seattle he had been fired.

Amazon, he alleged, fired him for helping organize a union.

Clarke had worked at the Amazon air hub in Kentucky as a load planner, monitoring the weight and balance of cargo that went on planes zipping in and out of the facility.

Amazon says Clarke was terminated for directing another employee to finish Clarke’s own work, but Clarke says he was training that employee.

Amazon maintains the decision to terminate Clarke was unrelated to “whether he supports any particular cause or group.” But Clarke disputes that.

“I was vocal,” he said. “I was the first casualty.”

Clarke and three of his former colleagues at Amazons’ KCVG air hub in Kentucky brought their organizing efforts to Seattle Saturday. . They joined local labor groups outside Amazon’s South Lake Union headquarters to pressure the company to stop what union advocates say has been a long-running union busting campaign. 

Workers Strike Back, a new labor movement launched by outgoing Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant and her political party, Socialist Alternative, hosted the rally. The event was a symbol of solidarity meant to connect Washington labor groups to Kentucky workers, as well as bind together union efforts at Amazon to similar campaigns at companies like Starbucks and Google.

“Without us, there is no Amazon. Without us, there is no Google. Without us, there is no Starbucks,” Clarke told the crowd. “Without us, these corporations have nothing.” 

Amazon says it doesn’t think unions are the best answer, but maintains that employees have the right to choose whether to join a union.

“While we support the right to gather and discuss important issues like the small group did today, the voices of a select few don’t represent the sentiment of the vast majority of our employees,” a spokesperson said Saturday. “Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.“

The company has faced a wave of union interest since workers in the New York City borough of Staten Island became the first Amazon warehouse to unionize last March. A year later, Amazon is still contesting the results of that election, and workers in Staten Island and elsewhere have accused the company of illegally interfering with campaigns and retaliating against workers who are involved.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in January that Amazon had violated federal labor law in its efforts to resist unionization in New York. Amazon illegally threatened to withhold wage increases and improved benefits if workers elected a union, the ruling said. 

At an air hub in San Bernardino, California, workers allege the company threatened and terminated an employee for signing a petition for a wage increase, wearing a sticker in support of the cause and participating in a walkout. Amazon workers in North Carolina fighting for improved working conditions have also accused the company of retaliating against employees for engaging in organizing efforts. 

In Kentucky, Amazon workers said the company tried to shut down a rally the union held earlier this month by telling them a 2-foot-by-2-foot table was a safety hazard. 

After that, colleagues texted one another pictures of tables in the break room inside the air hub and joked about the safety hazards. 

The NLRB filed a complaint against CEO Andy Jassy in October for allegedly violating labor law during media interviews where he said workers are better off without a union. In an interview last April, Jassy said unions could get in the way of change because they’re “much more bureaucratic” and “much slower,” according to the complaint.

In the years since warehouse workers began organizing at Amazon facilities, other labor groups have stepped in to offer support. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents 1.2 million people, held a rally at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters in September to demand the company end alleged union busting tactics. 

Now, Workers Strike Back is getting involved as well. Sawant and Socialist Alternative launched Workers Strike Back in January, coinciding with Sawant’s announcement that she would not seek reelection for a fourth term on the City Council. 

Workers Strike Back is an independent organizing movement focused on rank-and-file workers, according to its website. Its broad demands include raises for workers, quality affordable housing and health care for all. Earlier this month, the new group joined a rally in support of unionized workers at PCC who are asking the company to raise wages and stop cutting employees’ hours.

“Workers have no choice but to fight back,” Sawant told the crowd Saturday. “Step No. 1 is for us to have a union in our workplace.”

Workers Strike Back is donating $8,000 to the union drive at Amazon’s Kentucky air hub and Sawant is donating $5,000 from her solidarity fund, which she has built over the years by putting away part of her salary to support other labor causes. 

Workers at KCVG are gearing up for an election to unionize with Amazon Labor Union, the independent group that unionized in Staten Island. 

The workers in Kentucky began their union drive in October after Amazon refused to say whether they would offer employees extra pay during the holiday rush, organizers said. The group gathered over 460 signatures in less than two weeks. 

Now, they’re asking for $30 an hour, 180 hours of paid time off and union representation at disciplinary hearings. 

All it takes is a small mistake to get seriously injured, said Braeden Pierce, who works at Amazon’s air hub in Kentucky. Pierce helps train other workers on the job but says he doesn’t get any extra pay for the extra responsibility. 

“We’re out here risking our lives so that people can get their two-day shipping,” Pierce said at the rally. 

“We’re here not just to show the Amazon employees and the managers, but also the whole world that the workers still hold the power,” he added.

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