Articles Posted in Labor Law

Negotiations between unions and management over new collective bargaining agreements (“CBAs”) are usually contentious. Add in a corruption investigation affecting one of the largest labor unions in the country, in one of the biggest sectors of our economy, and those negotiations become exponentially more complex.  This scenario is playing out right now between the United Auto Workers (“UAW”) and the largest car manufacturers in Detroit (“Detroit”).

Over the past few years, the Department of Justice has conducted an investigation into alleged illegal payoffs between Fiat Chrysler and the UAW, which has led to arrests and convictions for both Detroit and the UAW.  The FBI raided the home of UAW president Gary Jones at the end of August intensifying the pressure.  The UAW argues that this raid was unnecessary as it claims it is fully cooperating with the Federal authorities, but it comes at a critical juncture as UAW’s current CBA is set to expire on September 14th.

The scope of the investigation has already placed the UAW in a difficult position.  In June, opponents of unionization used the investigation in their efforts to successfully prevent a Volkswagen plant from unionizing.  See Nick Carey, Federal Corruption Probe Hits Home for UAW Boss, Contract Talks Under ‘Storm Cloud’, Reuters (Aug. 28, 2019), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-corruption-labor/federal-corruption-probe-hits-home-for-uaw-boss-contract-talks-under-storm-cloud-idUSKCN1VI229.  This weakened position may also blunt the effectiveness of a threatened strike in the event both sides cannot make a deal by the 14th – as members might be more hesitant to engage in a prolonged strike if they feel leadership will not be able to obtain a satisfactory agreement.

Amazon – it’s the company that we all know and love for its lightning fast shipping, often getting your orders to you as quickly as next day. Not only does Amazon offer its customers a more convenient way to shop, but it also offers many items at cheaper prices than you would find at most major retailers. While it is easy to imagine that this industry trend setter has perfected some algorithm enabling it to deliver cheaper, and quicker than most retailers, it has recently come to light that Amazon’s services come at a different kind of  cost; long hours, little to no bathroom breaks, and hefty physical demands.

Many of the poor working conditions complained of by Amazon employees result from these hefty performance demands placed on the workers. Amazon utilizes a “rate” system, meaning that workers must fulfill a specified quota in a specified amount of time. For example, an individual who is employed as a “picker” with Amazon will often only have a few seconds to reach a shelf, regardless of its location, pick the item, scan it, and place it on a line to be packaged and sent to the consumer. In addition, workers are provided, on their scanning device, information announcing whether they are on par for meeting their rate or if they are behind. This sound quite efficient, but as many employees complain, a simple trip to the bathroom is enough to lower an employee’s rate to irredeemably behind schedule, placing them at risk of receiving a warning, being written up by a supervisor, or even terminated. The utilization of the bathroom is so detrimental to an employee’s career, that many suffer from dehydration out of fear that if they drink, they will have to use the bathroom and their jobs will be in jeopardy. The task of staying on time is complicated further when one factors in the distance an employee must cover between picks, sometimes being required to walk football fields away to obtain their next pick. On average, an Amazon picker will walk 10 to 12 miles a day, a feat for even the spryest of employees. So why does Amazon utilize a rate system? To achieve its daily goal of having an order processed every 10-20 seconds. Many employees at Amazon, however, claim that this goal and the rate system utilized are unsustainable.

This week, at several of Amazon’s warehouses across the globe, and in the midst of Amazon’s Prime day, several workers chose to voice their concerns about treatment.  Despite the complaints and strikes, Amazon has maintained its position that the protestors’ claims are in many respects baseless. Amazon prides itself on “industry-leading pay”, plentiful benefits, a 401k, and safe work environment for its employees. Amazon serves, moreover, as one of the United States’ largest employers, employing just under 600,000 individuals in 2018 and has served as an industry trend setter. Amazon claims to have revolutionized worker productivity, and has created an impressive business model with an economic benefit to consumers that extends far past just the consumers’ wallet. Amazon has had the effect of reducing inflation rights, reducing unemployment, an encouraging the growth of small businesses.

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