HEBRON, Ky. — Amazon Inc. fired a union activist at its Northern Kentucky air hub last month. The company says the firing has nothing to do with an attempt to organize its 4,500-employee cargo facility.
The fired employee sees it differently.
“This was a corporate firing basically to get rid of a person who was very vocal about bringing people together, helping them organize,” said Edward Clarke, who signed an unfair labor practice charge against the company this week.
It's the sixth charge filed against the company since Unionize Amazon KCVG launched the effort in November, according to data from the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB investigates employee charges to determine whether they have merit, then tries to settle the dispute before filing a complaint against the company.
The I-Team’s review of NLRB data shows unfair labor practice allegations are on the rise in Greater Cincinnati, with 67 new cases filed in the last six months by employees and their representatives, compared to 33 in the six months prior. In the 12 months ended Jan. 31, Amazon ranked third in the region, while rival cargo hauler DHL Express ranked first with 17 charges filed against it.
Clarke’s case is of special interest because of his vocal support for unionizing Amazon's $1.5 billion cargo hub, one of Northern Kentucky’s largest employers. The group is trying to form a bargaining unit that would negotiate for $30 hourly pay, 180 paid vacation hours per year and the right to be represented at employee disciplinary meetings.
Clarke embraced the cause with a Nov. 18 TikTok post that drew 321 likes and was shared 22 times.
“Amazon makes over $1.29 billion every day,” Clarke said in the post. “There’s no question that they can afford starting pay be $30 an hour and KCVG.”
Is $30/hr possible? Absolutely. Inflation is over 7% & rents have increased 32% in the tri-state. Corporate profits have gone up for decades while wages flatlined. We’re fighting for $30/hr to afford gas, groceries & childcare. Take the pledge: tinyurl.com/AmazonUnionKCVG
To prevail on his labor complaint, Clarke will have to prove he was fired for that activism.
“The rule is that he can be fired for any legitimate reason, just like anyone else can,” said Jim Allen, founder of National Labor Relations Advocates, a downtown consulting firm that helps companies avoid union trouble. “He cannot be fired because he’s a union organizer. If that’s the reason for the firing, Amazon has some trouble.”
Companies that retaliate against labor organizers are subject to increased financial penalties after a December ruling by the labor board, which previously restricted damages to reinstatement and back pay. Now, the board can seek damages for financial harm caused by firings, including late fees, child-care costs, legal expenses and health care costs.
Beyond the case itself, Allen said the firing could make it easier for local organizers to achieve their goal of attracting a national union willing launch a formal petition for representation at CVG Airport.
“It’s unlikely that most of the major unions would file a petition in that case with less than probably 3,000 people signing,” Allen said. “Certainly, they’re going to use (Clarke’s firing) as a rallying cry to try to get some publicity, try to get some more exposure so that maybe they can interest more of that 4,500 to participate.”
Organizer Griffin Ritze said the campaign garnered the support of “hundreds of employees” and raised $23,000 since November. It’s hoping to announce a partnership soon with a national union that could hold a union election by year end. But in the meantime, Unionize Amazon KCVG is raising money to pay Clarke’s salary and demanding Clarke's reinstatement.
“I think that demonstrates to our co-workers that this is serious,” Ritze said. “We mean serious business with this campaign and we’re going to fight for Ed and fight for everybody that’s terminated unjustly.”
Clarke was a load planner at Amazon, which means he used a company laptop to determine how to arrange cargo containers for safe weight distribution in planes. While training an employee how to use the software, Clarke says he stepped away from his laptop. A third employee reported the incident to supervisors, leading to Clarke’s suspension on Jan. 4 and firing on Jan. 17.
Here’s what Amazon said about the firing:
“The decision to terminate Mr. Clarke is unrelated to whether he supports any particular cause or group. Mr. Clarke was terminated for directing an unauthorized and untrained employee to complete Mr. Clarke’s duties, which included allowing the employee to use Mr. Clarke’s personal account and workstation.”
Here's what Clarke told the NLRB:
“I am a known and vocal supporter of unionizing my workplace. I was … told that I was terminated because I left my laptop open at my workstation while performing another task.”
Clarke claims it is common for Amazon employees to leave their laptops open and insists it is not an offense worthy of termination. He also claims the “untrained employee” in Amazon’s statement never touched the laptop and was a 12-year veteran of the company, while the employee who reported the incident was opposed to unionization. Finally, he claims Amazon changed the rules of its appeal process after he challenged his firing on Jan. 19.
“Why is my appeal taking so long? Why is corporate involved with my appeal? There’s a lot of questions that we need to ask them in regards to why they are taking this stance,” Clarke said. “The bottom line is that they don’t have an answer.”