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US labor board moves to block Amazon’s favorite anti-union tactic

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Companies like Amazon often hold mandatory meetings to deliver anti-union messaging

BROOKLYN, NY - APRIL 01: Jean-Michel Mutore (center)
Companies like Amazon often use mandatory meetings to persuade workers against unionizing.
Photo by Yana Paskova / For The Washington Post via Getty Images

The National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel plans to ask the board to rule that mandatory meetings about organizing are a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, a significant potential victory for labor groups. Sometimes called “captive audience” meetings, mandatory meetings are often used by company management to present anti-union rhetoric at meetings that employees are required to attend while at work.

Employees trying to unionize Amazon warehouses in Bessemer, Alabama, and New York City have previously filed complaints with the NLRB claiming that the company held such meetings to try to convince workers to vote against the union efforts. The NLRB has historically allowed such meetings, but a new memo from NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is pushing the agency to break from that policy.

In the memo to the agency’s field offices (pdf), Abruzzo wrote that forcing workers to attend meetings under the threat of disciplinary action, is “inconsistent” with existing labor law.

“This license to coerce is an anomaly in labor law, inconsistent with the Act’s protection of employees’ free choice. It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of employers’ speech rights,” she wrote in the memo. “I believe that the NLRB case precedent, which has tolerated such meetings, is at odds with fundamental labor-law principles, our statutory language, and our Congressional mandate. Because of this, I plan to urge the Board to reconsider such precedent and find mandatory meetings of this sort unlawful.”

Under the proposed rule, the NLRB would require employers to tell their workers that attendance is voluntary for any meetings to discuss unionization. This would protect employers’ free speech rights, while not infringing on employees’ right to decide whether to listen, Abruzzo argues.

Amazon has been accused of staging such meetings as “training” sessions or “small group meetings,” where managers speak about what the notoriously anti-union e-commerce company considers the downsides of joining a union. The company has claimed the meetings, which are mandatory, are meant to help educate workers, despite numerous reports that the information provided is questionable at best.

A recording of a recent meeting at the JFK8 warehouse includes a manager named “Eric,” who told the meeting that a union could include clauses in a contract that would “require Amazon to fire you if you don’t want to join the union” and that contract negotiators may have different priorities from union members. Workers can be heard pushing back against Eric’s claims on the audio.

Amazon didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment from The Verge.

The potential shift in NLRB policy comes after a string of recent wins for labor organizers, which have been encouraged by the Biden administration’s NLRB. Last week, workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island voted to join the fledgling Amazon Labor Union, the first successful union drive in the company’s history. Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse is currently awaiting the official results of its second union election.