Amazon fires two employees linked to Staten Island union effort

Workers line up to cast their votes 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 linked to an organizing drive that resulted in the company’s first unionized warehouse in the US.

Mat Cusick and Tristan Dutchin told CNBC that Amazon has fired them in recent days. Both Cusick and Dutchin have been working with the Amazon Labor Union, an emerging group led by current and former Amazon employees, to organize workers at the e-commerce giant’s Staten Island warehouses in New York.

ALU won a historic victory last month, when workers at Amazon’s largest warehouse in New York City, known as JFK8, voted to join the union. ALU had 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 ALU has received high-profile recognition, most notably from President Joe Biden.

Dutchin, who worked as a package collector at JFK8 for nearly a year, said he was fired on Saturday after finishing his shift. Amazon told him that he hadn’t met the company’s productivity goals, which require employees to pick up hundreds of packages an hour.

Dutchin said he had received previous warnings from Amazon about his performance, but had since received additional training. Dutchin said that his manager even recently congratulated him on his best performance.

Cusick, who serves as ALU’s director of communications, said he was fired last week after taking “Covid care leave,” which allows employees to care for family members sick with Covid-19.

A woman holds a banner as Amazon and union workers attend a rally outside the company building on April 24, 2022, in the Staten Island borough of New York City.

Kena Betancur | AFP | fake images

An employee from Amazon’s human resources department allowed him to take 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 termination, Cusick said.

The next day, Cusick, who was sorting packages for delivery at an Amazon facility called DYY6, near JFK8, discovered that he had been blocked from 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 laid off.'”

“I think the first person may have said I didn’t get fired,” he said. “I went from China, to India, to a few different teams in the US, and they all had a different take on what was going on.” “

On May 3, Cusick received a letter from Amazon informing him that he had been terminated “due to job abandonment,” according to a copy of the letter seen by CNBC.

Amazon’s employee HR systems have come under scrutiny in the past. Investigations by the New York Times and Bloomberg identified problems with the highly automated system, which has struggled to keep pace with the company’s rapidly expanding workforce, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Cusick described his firing as “an automatic termination.”

“Amazon’s systems are almost entirely digital,” Cusick said. “I was locked out of the system where all that stuff is stored. I’m locked out of the building, so I can’t even go into the building where I work to talk to the people inside.”

Vice previously reported on the layoffs. It’s unclear if the firings were in retaliation for workers’ organizing efforts, and Amazon representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

‘They pay attention to those things’

Amazon has previously fired employees who were outspoken critics of the company’s employment practices, including Chris Smalls, president of ALU. Amazon was recently ordered to reinstate JFK8 employee Gerald Bryson after a judge found the company “illegally” 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 ALU and making national headlines, they pay attention to those things.”

The union victory at JFK8 was a major victory for labor groups, which have sought to organize Amazon facilities for several years. For ALU, the challenges are not over as it now has to try to negotiate a collective agreement with Amazon, which has already tried to delay a contract by challenging the election result in court.

In addition to firing an organizer at JFK8, the company has also made changes to the upper ranks of the site in recent days.

Last week, Amazon fired at least half a dozen top managers from JFK8, the New York Times reported. Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said the layoffs were the result of several weeks of “operations and leadership” reviews at JFK. 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 new fight from the National Labor Relations Board for firing union organizers, said Tom Kochan, a professor of the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“It is clearly immoral and a violation of the law to fire union organizers, but it can be profitable for the company to do so because the sanctions 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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