Deeper look: Amazon workers at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport seek to unionize

Company ‘is known for their union-busting tactics,’ one organizer says.

HEBRON, Ky. — After nearly two years as an Amazon employee, Griffin Ritze is ready for a change. He thinks thousands of his co-workers are ready too.

“Working people have had enough,” said Ritze, a tug driver at the Amazon Air Hub in Hebron, Ky. “I think through COVID people realized their worth.”

Ritze is one of about two dozen founding members of Unionize Amazon KCVG. They’re trying to form a bargaining unit of 4,500 employees, seeking $30 in hourly pay, 180 paid vacation hours per year and the right to be represented at employee disciplinary meetings.

The fledgling effort has so far convinced 98 employees to “take the union pledge” online. Organizers hope to collect more than 2,700 pledges by year end, enough to convince a national union to initiate a formal petition for representation through the National Labor Relations Board.

“Not just to attract them but to show that if they decide to back us, they supply the union cards, we can get those filled out with this list of people. We already know who to talk to. We can get it done,” said Braeden Pierce, who works as a job trainer at the Amazon hub.

Amazon declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement about the unionization effort.

“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have,” spokeswoman Mary Kate Paradis said. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”

The newer campaign has already led to two unfair labor practice complaints against the company, filed with the labor department Nov. 14.

In one complaint, Ritze alleged the company instructed him “to cease distribution of literature” on the campaign’s launch day, Nov. 10. In the second complaint, Ritze alleged the company “interfered with, restrained, and coerced its employees … by engaging in surveillance.”

Labor researcher Kate Bronfenbrenner said Northern Kentucky organizers can expect Amazon’s opposition to intensify if their movement advances to a union representation election.

“Amazon will run an extremely aggressive campaign,” said Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “They will stop at nothing to fight the union, including threats, intimidation, surveillance, harassment.”

Ritze and Pierce say they’re ready for the challenge.

“Sometimes you have to be willing to risk things you truly believe in, including your job,” said Pierce, a Simon Kenton High School graduate who joined Amazon about a year ago after working at Meijer and as a debt collector.

How it began

Ritze is a LaSalle High School graduate from Westwood in Hamilton County who previously worked for five years as a casino stagehand and member of the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees union.

“It’s about time the working class in this country got organized and started to fight for the things that we deserve,” Ritze said. “Most workers (at the Amazon hub) make a little over $40,000 a year and that’s just not enough for a family to survive.”

Both men said they were inspired by Christian Smalls, a New Yorker who founded the Amazon Labor Union after he was fired by Amazon in 2020. In April, ALU became the first — and still the only labor organization — to win a union election at Amazon. It organized a Staten Island warehouse with about 8,000 employees.

“Before that, even talk of unionizing scared a lot of people that worked for the company,” Pierce said. “I think that people are realizing that nothing is impossible … if they can do it, why can’t we?”

About a month ago, organizers found the spark they needed for a local unionization drive when Amazon told its Northern Kentucky employees there would be no $2 hourly bonus during the holidays.

“Just under 400 or so people signed (a petition) demanding peak pay and management wouldn’t even have a meeting with us,” Ritze said. “From that moment on people started talking union and started talking about these other things that we need.”

Ritze said workers are concerned about safety in an environment where heavy machinery is used to load and unpack freight containers, sometimes at a frenetic pace that leads to injuries.

“People are forced into these roles when they’re not ready or willing to do that work,” Ritze said. “And if they make a small mistake that could be their job on the line.”

Ritze and Pierce said workers are concerned about Amazon’s disciplinary rules. One of their friends received a final warning in his disciplinary file. He was one step away from dismissal, but wasn’t informed of the action until after it expired.

“We’re talking about what it would mean to have representation against discipline, you know to push back against firings that are unjust, to push back against there being two sets of rules, the rules for managers and the rules for regular workers,” Ritze said.

Pierce said the group has been talking to national labor organizations but hasn’t committed to joining forces with any particular union. The focus now is securing online pledges from 60% of the 4,500 people who would be eligible for union representation.

“Amazon is known for their union-busting tactics,” Pierce said. “With with this being their largest facility, they’ll pull out the big guns. They’re already paying people thousands of dollars to come out and try to court us in regards to being against the idea of unionization.”

The war for talent

The campaign is starting in the middle of a winning streak for unions, driven by the twin trends of inflation and labor shortages.

“It’s employees exercising their power,” said Janet Harrah, senior director of the Center for Economic Analysis and Development at Northern Kentucky University. “They feel they have more power because there’s been such a worker shortage.”

Harrah said a recession could reduce support for unions in 2023, but an aging workforce and slowing population growth should benefit unions long term.

“The war for talent is only going to heat up,” Harrah said. “So, we will start to see, across industries, employees looking to exert their power, through unionization and other efforts.”

Unions won 641 elections in the first half of 2022, or 76.6% of 837 elections held, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Law. The average win rate for unions was 72.4% in the five years prior to 2022. The wins have yet to increase the percentage of workers who belong to unions. That stands at 10.3%, same as it was in 2019, according to the labor department.

An analysis of labor department data for the Cincinnati region shows seven unions won elections this year, compared to five in the five years prior to 2022.

Amazon tactics

Amazon is bucking the national trend by winning four of the five union elections it faced in the last two years.

The company touted “great pay” and “comprehensive benefits” in its written response to the I-Team, including hourly wages up to $26 for fulfillment and transportation workers, a 401(k) plan with a 50% company match and a college tuition benefit.

Amazon was among the first local employers to boost starting pay above $15 in 2018, followed by several increases that lifted starting pay to $19 in October. That lags the starting pay at DHL, a rival shipping company that announced an 18% wage hike in August. That lifted DHL’s starting pay at CVG to between $20 and $23 per hour.

“Amazon’s strategy over the last two years of raising wages is probably a pre-emptive strike against efforts to unionize,” said Harrah, who wouldn’t predict whether the strategy will work at CVG.

But Cornell researcher Kate Bronfebrenner said Amazon is likely to win at CVG because it doesn’t play fair.

“Amazon has committed hundreds and hundreds of unfair labor practices at each place and has refused to honor the decision so the board, refused to accept the outcome of elections and has engaged in the most egregious unfair labor practices imaginable,” said Bronfenbrenner, a former union organizer who has published research on anti-union tactics since the 1990s. “Companies like Amazon have anti-union campaigns in process before even a union is there. They have pre-emptive anti-union action. But as soon as they even sniff the slightest activity they come in very strong.”

Labor department reports show Amazon spent $4.3 million in 2021 on consultants who travel to its warehouses nationwide, urging employees not to let third parties come between workers and the company. Pierce said those consultants have visited CVG in recent weeks, which he described as “a scare tactic.” Amazon also posted signs at CVG warning that “third parties may be asking you to give them your personal information” and reminding them they have “no obligation to speak to any person or group.”

Bronfenbrenner said Amazon’s anti-union tactics go beyond the use of consultants.

“They use ID badges and key cards and they monitor workers movements,” Bronfenbrenner said. “There’s so much technology that can monitor where workers are, who they’re talking with, when they leave the room who leaves the room at the same time they do.”

In December 2021, Amazon settled six unfair-labor practice charges with the labor department by agreeing to notify workers that it will no longer restrict their access to fellow employees for the purpose of discussing union activities. The settlement included a statement that Amazon was required to send to current and former employees:

“We will not tell you that you cannot be on our property, or that you need to leave our property 15 minutes after the end of your shift or threaten you with discipline or that we will call the police, when you are exercising your right to engage in union or protected concerted activities by talking to your co-workers in exterior non-work areas during non-work time.”

What’s next?

The settlement might level the playing field for upstart union organizers such as Ritze and Pierce. But it doesn’t mean Amazon employees can expect $30 pay any time soon.

“Many people think that organizing is just winning the election,” Bronfenbrenner said. “But it’s much more than that. You not only have to win the election, you have to get a contract. And then you have to stay union.”

Even in New York, where Amazon lost its first union election in April, Bronfenbrenner said contract might never materialize.

“Amazon is challenging the outcome of the election,” Bronfenbrenner said. “The board has filed numerous unfair labor practices against Amazon and Amazon has filed charges against the board and the union. So, they’re in litigation. It’s going to take a lot more than going through the board process to get a contract.”

Ritze said he’s aware of the obstacles. But he also thinks Amazon workers have reached a moment in time when all things are possible.

“Seizing on the moment, you know with inflation, the situation with the economy, people are ready to move,” Ritze said. “We’ve seen that in fighting back for our seasonal pay and now we’re seeing it with people yearning for these bigger things, like lasting things that we can win with a union.”

This article is by WCPO’s i-Team. WCPO is a content partner of Cox First Media.

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