Nov 30, 2022 - Economy

Andy Jassy sticking with anti-union talking points

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy speaking during the New York Times Dealbook summit

Andy Jassy speaking at the Dealbook Summit Wednesday. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Amazon CEO Andy Jassy on Wednesday appeared to double down on comments about the pitfalls of unionizing that got him into a clash with the National Labor Relations Board earlier this year.

Why it matters: The labor board under Biden has been remarkably pro-union — compared to both Trump and recent Democratic administrations — but the dust-up with Jassy over these comments tests the limits of the power it can wield over businesses, experts told Axios.

  • Jassy's comments are kind of "egging on the board," says James Cooney, a labor professor at Rutgers.
  • But ultimately the kinds of penalties the NLRB can dish out are "notoriously lame," he adds.

What happened: In an interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times DealBook Summit, Jassy said workers at his company are better off without a union.

  • "It's nice to be able to have a direct relationship with your manager," he said, implying that unionized workers wouldn't have that — but noting that the choice is theirs to make.
  • "We like to hear from all our employees as opposed to having a filter through one or two voices," he said, adding that with a union "you often end up with an 'us versus them' mentality."
  • Jassy also said that a unionized workforce slows down the work process.

Flashback: Jassy made essentially the same remarks in an interview with Sorkin on Squawk Box in April. A union is "much more bureaucratic, it's much slower," he said. And with Bloomberg in June: "It's much get things done quickly," he told Emily Chang.

  • The comments triggered a complaint from the Amazon Labor Union filed at the NLRB, saying Jassy's comments violated federal labor law because they are coercive and interfered with the organizing process.
  • "It's a threat," says Seth Goldstein, a partner at Julien, Mirer & Singla, who represents the Amazon union. Jassy is essentially saying that if you unionize you'll lose direct access to your boss, which isn't the case, he tells Axios.
  • Goldstein said in a tweet Wednesday that he would file another complaint over Jassy's latest comments.
  • Earlier this month, Amazon responded to the complaint saying that it was "without merit," that Jassy was well within his rights to speak freely and that the labor board's complaint violates the First Amendment.
  • On Wednesday, Jassy acknowledged the kerfuffle, telling Sorkin that he thought his comments were "fairly non-controversial and straightforward."

What they're saying: The NLRB's complaint is "pushing the envelope without question," says Cooney, who also worked for the labor board decades ago. "It's going to be a more difficult case for the board to win on."

  • The law generally allows CEOs to speak freely unless they're threatening or coercing employees over unionization. This complaint over comments in public — not at mandatory company meetings — is more of an edge case, he said.
  • The charges are just "the latest salvo" in the NLRBs "concerted attack on employer free speech," Glenn Spencer, a senior vice president of the Chamber of Commerce said in a post last month.

What's next: If the NLRB were to prevail here, it would issue a cease and desist order that Jassy not repeat comments like this. But there's no financial penalty.

  • Just last week, in a separate labor case, a court issued an order like that — telling the company it can't fire workers for unionizing. As a penalty, an Amazon employee is required to read that order aloud to workers at the Staten Island warehouse where a union has formed.
  • That's expected to happen Thursday, but there's already a dispute with the NLRB over how it's being done.

Go deeper: Labor board blasts Amazon's "flagrant" attempt to flout court order.

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