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'This effort does not stop': Fired Amazon union organizer resolves to get an election

Lisa Autry
WKU Public Radio

A former Amazon employee in Kentucky says he’s more determined than ever to form a union at the company’s fulfillment center in Campbellsville.

Matt Littrell says the world’s largest online retailer fired him in retaliation for his organizing efforts. Littrell says he'll now work from the sidelines while others inside the operation soldier on to unionize the first Amazon workplace in the bluegrass state.

On Aug. 19, Matt Littrell showed up to work his night shift at the Amazon warehouse in Campbellsville.

“It was all normal, and about ten minutes into my shift, I received a message on my hand scanner that I needed to go to HR," Littrell recalled.

That would be Littrell’s last night on the job. The company says his dismissal was over performance, but Littrell has a different take on why he was fired. The 22-year-old warehouse picker has spent months leading a very public campaign to unionize the Taylor County facility.

“I am alleging Amazon is union-busting because the momentum around the union effort all across the country has picked up quite a lot," Littrell stated in an interview with WKU Public Radio.

Littrell’s termination came three days after Amazon workers in Albany, New York filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. If successful, that operation would become only the second Amazon facility in the nation to unionize. Littrell is one of a handful of Amazon workers across the country who claim they’ve been fired in an effort to intimidate others who might be interested in unionizing.

“They want to start nipping it in the bud everywhere they can," he said.

Amazon declined an interview, but a statement from the company says Littrell had been given three warnings since May for performance issues and was consistently performing in the bottom five percent compared to his peers, 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," said Amazon spokesman Paul Flaningan in an email to WKU Public Radio.

But Littrell says he’s been the target of write ups, bullying, and discrimination since April. Amazon even called the police on him earlier this year for distributing union flyers outside the workplace. Littrell claims Amazon is retaliating against him after serving as the face of the movement to improve pay and working conditions.

“If you don’t have a seat at the table that the union offers you, then you’re begging for scraps," commented Littrell.

Littrell’s termination casts doubt on the future on the movement. While he says other workers are picking up the baton, no one is ready yet to speak publicly. Though he’s on the sidelines now, Littrell says he’s not pumping the brakes on pursuing a union drive.

“I’m still coordinating things even though I’m on the outside. We still have our weekly organizing committee meetings," Littrell explained." Yeah, we’re still planning on doing this.”

Organizers are in the process of collecting the required number of signatures from the 800 employees eligible to cast a union vote at the Taylor County facility. Thirty percent of the workforce must sign authorization cards before the National Labor Relations Board will schedule a vote. If the vote is successful, Campbellsville workers would become the first local chapter of Amazon Labor Union outside of Staten Island.

But some workers at the Campbellsville fulfillment center may be reluctant to rock the boat. What happened here more than two decades ago is still fresh on the minds of many in this community.

“In June 1999, Fruit of the Loom announced definitely they were leaving the community. Six months later, Batesville Casket announced they were leaving," recalled former Taylor County Judge-Executive Eddie Rogers. "We went from 4.9 unemployment to 24.9 unemployment.”

Rogers was at the helm of Taylor County during that difficult time. Today, he stands outside Amazon’s warehouse that was once home to Fruit of the Loom. Employing more than 4,000 workers at its peak, it was Taylor County’s largest employer. About a year after the company moved operations overseas, Jeff Bezos and company moved into the vacant warehouse.

“Amazon has been a God-send industry for our community," Rogers stated.

Sentiments like that could make some workers hesitant to pursue unionization, out of fear that Amazon could leave. The Campbellsville warehouse employs not only Taylor Countians, but residents of neighboring communities in Marion, Adair, Green, and Russell counties.

Even Matt Littrell, who’s fighting for his job back, knows the void the e-commerce giant has filled.

“It’s pretty much the best job you can get in Campbellsville, and most of central Kentucky," he acknowledged.

Littrell has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board seeking reinstatement and back pay.

The road to holding a union election at the Taylor County facility could be a long one. Campbellsville is conservative, farm country in a state whose unionization rate is below the national average. Still, union organizers hope to file for an election by the end of the year.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.
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