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Amazon facing charges it illegally fired activist workers


Environmentalists protesting outside Amazon’s shareholder meeting

Paayal Zaveri | CNBC

The National Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing on Sept. 28 to review charges that Amazon illegally retaliated against two of its most outspoken internal critics when it fired them last year, according to a filing.

Amazon fired Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, both of whom were user experience designers at the company’s Seattle headquarters, for “repeatedly violating internal policies” in April of 2020. Cunningham, Costa claimed they were fired because of continued criticisms about Amazon’s climate policies.

The NLRB in April found merit to Cunningham and Costa’s unfair labor practice complaint, which was filed last October. Cunningham and Costa alleged Amazon violated federal labour law when they fired them “based on discriminatory enforcements of its nonsolicitation and communicative policies.” This policy, which forbids employees from discussing Amazon’s business with their manager permission, was part of the complaint Cunningham and Costa filed to the NLRB.

They argued that these policies had also the effect of restricting employees’ rights to participate in federal labor law-protected activities.

The NLRB Seattle region office filed a complaint against Cunningham in Costa’s case. In a virtual hearing set for Sept. 28, an administrative law judge will hear the complaint.

CNBC was informed by a spokesperson from the NLRB that the hearing had been confirmed. However, the spokesperson declined to provide further information. Cunningham did not respond to a request for comment. Costa did not respond to our request for comment.

Amazon representatives did not respond to requests for comment. The company previously said it disagreed with the NLRB’s decision, noting that it agrees with employees’ right to speak out, but “that does not come with blanket immunity against our internal policies, all of which are lawful.”

Amazon might still come to a deal with Costa and Cunningham before or during the trial. If the trial is successful, one party may appeal the decision of the judge to the NLRB Board in Washington.

Amazon employees are filing increasing number of complaints alleging that they were retaliated at for speaking out. The volume of complaints have reached a high enough level that the NLRB is considering consolidating its efforts into national investigation, NBC News reported in March.

Amazon’s coronavirus outbreak has prompted a surge in demand for safer working conditions among delivery and warehouse workers. There have been protests, as well as organizing efforts. Increasingly, employees have also filed complaints at the NLRB, alleging unjust labor practices.

Amazon recently settled with Jonathan Bailey, an Amazon employee who led a walkout over Covid-19 concerns at a warehouse in Queens, New York, and later accused the company of violating federal labor law when it interrogated him following the walkout, according to the New York Times.

Amazon also reached a settlement with Courtney Bowden, a warehouse worker in Pennsylvania, who alleged she was wrongfully terminated after advocating for sick pay for part-time workers, NBC News reported.

Costa and Cunningham were vocal advocates for Amazon’s changes, despite the rise in delivery and warehouse worker activism.

Costa and Cunningham both were part of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. This group pressed Amazon to reduce its environmental footprint. The group in 2019 wrote an open letter asking Amazon founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos to adopt a comprehensive climate policy, which was signed by more than 8,700 employees. Later that year, more than 1,500 Amazon tech workers walked out in protest of its climate stance.

AECJ pressured Amazon to alter its approach to workers protesting against its policies. AECJ organized hundreds to protest against Amazon’s climate policy and threatened them with firing.

Costa and Cunningham expressed concern about the safety of warehouse workers during the coronavirus epidemic. Both of them shared a petition from warehouse workers advocating for more protections and offered to match donations up to $500 in support of the cause.

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