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Amazon settles charges over worker reprisals at a Chicago distribution center

The agreement filed with the National Labor Relations Board involves allegations the company disciplined or intimidated workers over walkouts on the Lower West Side.

Rakyle Johnson, a sorter, joins about a dozen fellow Amazon workers in a walkout and protest on Wednesday, April 7, 2021 to demand better working conditions at the online retailer’s Gage Park facility, 3507 W. 51st St.
Amazon has promised not to interfere with or interrogate workers involved in “concerted activity” to promote their interests, including organizing as a union.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Amazon has settled complaints that it illegally disciplined or retaliated against employees who staged job actions last year over COVID-19 safety procedures at a former distribution center on the Lower West Side.

In an agreement filed with the National Labor Relations Board, Amazon promised not to interfere with or interrogate workers involved in “concerted activity” to promote their interests, including organizing as a union. Management also agreed not to photograph participants in peaceful demonstrations.

The settlement stems from walkouts workers staged in April 2020. Workers charged that conditions at the warehouse, 2801 S. Western Ave., left them vulnerable to the virus. The location has since been closed and some workers were transferred to a Gage Park facility, 3507 W. 51st St., where there was a brief strike three weeks ago over pay and working conditions.

Employees said that during the walkouts last year, managers called people in individually to question them about the activities. Some were disciplined for not properly checking in to the facility to deliver petitions demanding changes, workers said.

The practical effect of the agreement is unclear because it applies only to the Western Avenue site that has been closed. Ted Miin, an Amazon employee who filed a complaint, said he submitted another complaint protesting the limited scope.

The online retailer has agreed to email the settlement terms to people who were employed at Western Avenue. A company spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Friday. In the past, the company has said it respects its workers’ rights to speak out without fear of reprisals.

But Miin said during last year’s walkouts, supervisors took cellphone photos of those who took part. He said the company also invoked a rule barring workers from company property more than 15 minutes before or after their shift.

In its settlement with the NLRB, Amazon agreed that the rule doesn’t apply to nonworking areas such as a parking lot. Miin said supervisors tried to invoke it during the recent protests in Gage Park.

Miin and another Amazon worker, Bekim Mehmedi, said the company has improved its response to COVID-19. They said their workplace is better equipped with masks and hand sanitizer but that social distancing is enforced inconsistently.

“It’s pretty much the same rules followed the same way. When it applies to managers, it doesn’t matter. When it applies to us, it’s the end of the world,” Mehmedi said.

Both are assigned to Gage Park and are active in Amazonians United Chicagoland. It is an independent group, unconnected to a union, that wants Amazon to raise wages by $2 an hour and to make schedules more flexible as it implements work shifts that are 10.5 hours long.

On April 9, Amazon fended off a union organizing drive at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. In an NLRB-run election, workers voted down union membership by a more than 2-to-1 ratio.

While Amazon insists it respects workers’ rights, the NLRB has ruled it illegally fired two workers at its Seattle headquarters for speaking out about the company’s carbon footprint and treatment of warehouse employees.