More than a year and a half after Amazon workers on Staten Island voted to form the company’s first union in the United States, the company appears to be taking a harder line toward labor organizing, disciplining workers and even firing one who had been heavily involved in the union campaign.
The disciplinary actions come at a time when union organizers appear to be gaining ground at a major air hub operated by Amazon in Kentucky, where they say they have collected union authorization cards from at least one-quarter of hourly employees. Workers must typically demonstrate at least 30 percent support to prompt a union election.
In disciplining the employees, Amazon has raised questions about the extent to which they are free to approach co-workers to persuade them to join a union, a federally protected right. The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board has said Amazon is breaking the law through a policy governing the access that off-duty workers have to its facilities, which Amazon invoked in the recent firing. The board is seeking to overturn the policy at an upcoming trial.
Lisa Levandowski, an Amazon spokeswoman, said the recent disciplinary actions were strictly a response to rule violations, not to union organizing. “Employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union,” she said.
The company’s off-duty access rule is “a lawful, common-sense policy,” she said, “and we look forward to defending our position.”
The fired worker, Connor Spence, was a founder of the Amazon Labor Union, which won last year’s election on Staten Island. After a split within the union leadership, Mr. Spence helped start a separate group that sought to pressure the company to negotiate a contract at the warehouse, known as JFK8.
The company has yet to begin bargaining with JFK8 workers and is appealing last year’s union victory.
In October, Mr. Spence’s group led a walkout of a few dozen employees to push for higher pay and an end to what it says is discrimination against pregnant workers, whom it says Amazon refuses to accommodate with less strenuous tasks.
Mr. Spence was suspended a few weeks later for violating the company’s off-duty access policy, which forbids workers from being inside Amazon buildings or in outdoor work areas when they’re not working.
Mr. Spence said that he was on site while off the clock to build support for the October walkout and to plan a future walkout, and that these organizing efforts were protected by federal labor law. He filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the company of unfair labor practices.
On Nov. 29, while still serving his suspension, Mr. Spence was fired for the violations of the policy in October, according to a document the company gave him.
Mr. Spence has also been involved in the organizing effort at the Kentucky air hub, the company’s largest air facility in the country, and his firing came shortly after he had visited the site to help build support for a union.
Ms. Levandowski said that Mr. Spence had been fired “after multiple, documented warnings and violations” of company policy and that the termination “has nothing to do with whether Mr. Spence supports a particular cause or group.”
She said the company’s accommodations policy for pregnant workers “meets or exceeds state and federal laws.” Accommodations can include light duty roles such as box building.
Other workers involved in union organizing at the air hub say Amazon has targeted them with disciplinary action in recent weeks.
For several months, workers at the hub have set up one or more tables near one of two entrances, from which organizers distributed union material and information about working conditions. Three air hub workers who often tend to the tables said supervisors largely left them undisturbed during this time.
But on Nov. 7, the workers said, managers began checking the workers’ badges more than once per hour. The site’s general manager, Karthik Bagavathi Pandian, came out twice that day, they said.
According to the workers and videos that they shared, the managers threatened to discipline them if they did not remove their tables and an easel holding a poster board, citing safety issues tied to building access.
The visits from managers continued the following day, according to the three workers. On the third day, they said, roughly two dozen workers came to Mr. Bagavathi Pandian’s office to protest what they said was harassment and a violation of their labor rights.
The same week, human resources officials began questioning the workers involved in union organizing about their presence near the entrance of the air hub, according to the workers and a recording they provided. Beginning roughly one week before Thanksgiving, more than 10 of these workers received “final written warnings” citing their refusal to remove the tables when management instructed them to.
Ms. Levandowski, the Amazon spokeswoman, said that the employees had refused at least 10 requests to move their tables and that “we take appropriate action when policies are continually disregarded.”
The question of when and where Amazon employees can interact with co-workers has loomed large in union organizing efforts at the company.
For years, Amazon had a policy prohibiting workers from lingering in nonwork areas like break rooms before or after their shifts, making it difficult for employees to talk with co-workers about unionizing.
In December 2021, the company reached a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board allowing its employees to remain in these areas without time limits.
But the settlement with the labor board was temporary. In June 2022, a few months after the union victory on Staten Island, Amazon resumed barring off-duty employees from buildings and outdoor work areas, according to a consolidated complaint from the National Labor Relations Board covering several Amazon warehouses in different states.
The union contends that Amazon brought back the restrictions because the laxer approach allowed workers to win the Staten Island election. “In the break rooms, you can talk to hundreds of people every day,” Cassio Mendoza, a former employee who was involved in the union campaign there, said shortly after the election. By contrast, he said, an organizer might have to knock on 50 doors to have a conversation with one or two employees outside of work.
In the consolidated complaint, the N.L.R.B. general counsel called the current policy unlawful and is seeking to force the company to rescind it.
A judge will consider the Amazon policy in a trial likely to begin next year, unless Amazon settles the case beforehand.
In the meantime, the policy appears to have played a role in some of Amazon’s recent actions toward union supporters. The company cited the off-duty access policy when firing Mr. Spence on Staten Island and during meetings with workers in Kentucky regarding a gathering they held near the general manager’s office.
Three Amazon workers at the Kentucky air hub said Amazon appeared to be cracking down now because their organizing campaign had made progress in the fall. They said they had gathered union authorization cards from more than 1,000 of the hub’s roughly 4,000 employees.
“We’ve been more open about our campaign’s progress in the last month and change,” said Griffin Ritze, one of the Kentucky workers involved in the organizing campaign. “I think they have a sense that we have more momentum than we’ve ever had.”