The lead organizer of a growing campaign to unionize a Kentucky Amazon warehouse says the company fired him in retaliation for his efforts, according to a charge he filed with federal labor officials.
Matt Littrell, 22, says he was fired on Friday after a year and a half working for the company, months into a campaign he was leading to form a union at the facility in Campbellsville, about an hour and a half southwest of Lexington.
Littrell, a picker at the warehouse, has been the lead organizer and main public face of the union drive, having been quoted about it in the Louisville Courier Journal, the Guardian and Bloomberg. He also runs a Twitter account for the effort.
“Amazon will go to any lengths to union bust even outside of New York,” Littrell said of his dismissal, nodding to the recent campaigns at Amazon sites in Staten Island and Albany. “They’re going to try to nip every movement in the bud,” he told NBC News.
Amazon denied that Littrell’s firing was retaliatory and said he was terminated due to his performance.
The move comes amid a spike in labor activism at Amazon and other major employers of wage workers, many of whom are demanding better workplace safety and higher pay amid soaring inflation. The spotlight has been shining on working conditions at Amazon in particular, as the nation’s second-largest private employer hired rapidly and broke profit records during the pandemic.
At the Campbellsville warehouse, Littrell and a handful of others have been working on warming co-workers to the idea of forming a union, which he says could have a bargaining unit of some 800 workers. They have been in the process of getting union cards signed, a show of support that organizers typically undertake before asking for voluntary recognition or filing for an election. Littrell said he and fellow organizers hoped to file for an election by the end of the year.
Filings for union elections are up 58% this year as of July compared to the same period in 2021, according to the National Labor Relations Board, with prominent wins at Starbucks, Apple, Trader Joe’s and Amazon helping to energize the movement. So far, the sites seeking to organize at each of those employers represent a small fraction of their respective workforces; many of the campaigns have been met with vigorous pushback.
Labor leaders say some major companies’ responses to unionization efforts in their ranks run afoul of national labor laws. Unfair labor practice charges, a category that includes retaliatory dismissals, are up 16% this year so far.
In two complaints filed with the NLRB, Littrell alleges that he was subject to a pattern of retaliation from managers that began in April, when he was given a written warning about his rate of work.
His job was to find items for orders, scan them and place them in a bag for a packer to ship, but his managers said they found there was too much time between his scans, Littrell says in an affidavit filed with the NLRB in July.
A manager had tried to give him a “final warning,” even though it was his first brush with discipline, he said in the filing, before his termination. Littrell says that his rate of work had slowed because the bins he was filling up were often full.
He says a co-worker told him the day before he was disciplined that management knew who he was, was aware of the union effort and had been meeting to discuss it. He said in the July complaint that he received another write-up for his rate of work and for using a cellphone in May, even though he says he was cleared by the company to do so.
Last week, Littrell told NBC News, a manager walked him into a meeting with human resources, where he was informed he would be dismissed for a productivity issue two weeks prior. He filed the NLRB charge on Monday with the help of a Yale Law School student assisting organizing efforts at Amazon.
“They treat us like robots,” Littrell said of management.
Amazon spokesman Paul Flaningan said that Littrell had been given three warnings since May and was performing in the bottom 5% of workers “despite being coached and offered additional training.”
“The facts of this situation are clear and completely unrelated to whether Mr. Littrell supports any particular cause or group,” he said in a statement. “This action is also consistent with how the site handles similar low performance situations.”
Littrell says one of the chief concerns he hears from co-workers he talks to about unionizing is that they’ll lose their job. He and his domestic partner, who also works for the company, felt a newfound sense of precariousness due to his termination.
“Both of us are really anxious and uncertain about the future because of this,” he said.
Seth Goldstein, a lawyer with the Amazon Labor Union, said that Littrell was one of at least eight other organizers the company had fired, as union efforts course through warehouses in New York, California, North Carolina and Minnesota.
“It’s widespread,” Goldstein said. “Amazon’s MO is to fire everybody — all the labor organizers. That’s why we need intervention through the federal government.”
Flaningan said Goldstein’s allegations were false.
“We do not retaliate against employees for exercising their federally protected rights,” he said. “We work hard to accommodate our team’s needs, but like any employer, we ask our employees to meet certain minimum expectations and take appropriate and consistent action when they’re unable to do that.”
Cases like Littrell’s at the NLRB can take months if not years to adjudicate, as the agency’s staffing has shrunk. Total personnel dropped by about 26% between 2010 and 2019, according to a 2021 report from the Government Accountability Office.
The country’s laws protecting workers’ rights to organize and speak out about working conditions date to the 1930s and are badly in need of an update, labor advocates say. They point, for example, to the lack of strong financial penalties for companies that violate workers’ rights to organize. Companies instead only have to reinstate workers who are found to have been wrongfully fired and pay them back wages — minus any compensation they’ve earned in the meantime.
The drawn-out legal process required for workers to get their jobs back also tilts the scale toward powerful employers, advocates say, and offers little disincentive for breaking labor laws.