In news and commentary this weekend, a federal district judge ruled that Amazon must stop retaliating against employees for unionizing, but denied the NLRB’s request for an injunction to reinstate a fired organizer; over 100 employees from all workplaces met in Columbia, South Carolina to form the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW); and NLRB leaders sent a letter to Congress saying the agency will be forced to furlough employees without additional funds.
On November 18, U.S. District Judge Diane Gujurati of the Eastern District of New York ruled that Amazon cease and desist from all retaliation against employees for unionizing and ordered Amazon to distribute and read the order to employees at the Staten Island warehouse , who voted to unionize with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) in April 2022. However, Judge Gujurati also denied the NLRB’s request for an injunction to reinstate Gerald Bryson, a key ALU organizer who helped bring it about to boost union organizing efforts at JFK8.
Bryson was a warehouse picker at Amazon who was in unions at his previous job. On March 30, 2020, he led a protest against the lack of masks and other COVID-19 safety precautions at JFK8, the Staten Island warehouse. Bryson, along with ALU President Chris Smalls and Vice President Derrick Palmer, disrupted a managers’ meeting to lobby for pandemic protection and led a strike by workers from the facility. Bryson attended two other pandemic safety demonstrations before being suspended and then fired in April 2022.
Bryson was allegedly fired for “bullying a colleague” during a protest, but the NLRB argues that the employee started the argument and used profanity, including telling Bryson to “go back to the Bronx.” Although Amazon does not have to reinstate Bryson, Judge Gujurati said there was “reasonable reason to believe” that Amazon committed an unfair labor practice by firing him. Separately, in April 2022, NLRB agency judge Benjamin Green ruled that Amazon must offer to reinstate Bryson, but Amazon is appealing that ruling. Amazon failed to “prove that it had a good faith belief that Bryson committed serious wrongdoing that warrants dismissal,” Green wrote.
On November 18, more than 100 service industry workers met in Columbia, South Carolina to form a new union and promote unionization in the South. Employees from fast food restaurants, gas stations, retail stores, and other workplaces joined the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW), which is part of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and a Fight for $15 affiliate. “With eyes wide open to the past and high hopes for a brighter future, we are building a union to fight for a living wage, fair working conditions and a voice in the workplace,” said Brandon Beachum, a Panera Bread worker in Atlanta. “We’re all service workers, no matter what industry you’re in,” said Eshawney Gaston, an employee at Captain D’s in Durham, North Carolina, who helped plan the union’s formation. “We have to stand up for each other”
The USSW includes people from a variety of occupations and jobs “because businesses across the South employ a low-wage, high-turnover model,” the group said. The union launched several demands on employers across the region, including a seat at the table for workers to make decisions about working conditions, respect for workers’ rights to organize free from retaliation, fair pay and an end to wage theft, Dignity and equality of treatment including equal pay for all workers, health benefits including sick leave, safe workplace protection and equipment, and fair and consistent working hours.
Low-wage workers in the South have long faced discriminatory labor practices, including due to the exclusion of farm and domestic workers from federal labor laws. The South has the lowest union density of any region in the US, with only 6% of workers represented by a union. In South Carolina, only 1.7% of workers are union members – the lowest percentage in the country. Additionally, many Southern states have first refusal rights that have prevented cities from raising wages for decades. Terrence Wise, a fast-food worker and leader of the $15 struggle, said nearly 80% of South Carolina workers make less than $15 an hour.
However, the South also has a long history of labor activism. At the USSW summit, attendees discussed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which included white and black farm workers during the Great Depression; the 1969 strike by black hospital workers in Charleston; and the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union, led by Fannie Lou Hamer. Mary Kay Henry, President of SEIU, said: “[b]Shortaged, brown and immigrant service workers throughout the South are leading the fight for a fundamental transformation of our economy and democracy, aimed at rewriting outdated laws that have always held working people back and prevented them from gaining a voice through unions. “
On Nov. 18, 2022, NLRB Chair Lauren McFerran and General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a letter to the House and Senate subcommittees that oversee board funding that the agency will likely be forced to furlough employees if they unable to raise more funds. The threat of furlough comes at a time when “staff are unable to keep up with an increasing workload,” they said. Congress faces a December 16 deadline to pass spending legislation and avoid a government shutdown. Given that Republicans will have a majority in the House of Representatives next year, this could be the last opportunity for Democrats to address NLRB funding for the foreseeable future.