Justice Clarence Thomas Suggests Amazon Warehouse Workers Should Unionize

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pauses while speaking about his time as a student at College of the Holy Cross after re
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pauses while speaking about his time as a student at College of the Holy Cross after receiving an honorary degree from the college, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012, in Worcester, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court came down unanimously against a group of temporary workers in Amazon warehouses. The workers were required to undergo mandatory, unpaid theft screenings once their shifts ended, and their case, Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk, focused on whether they should be compensated for that time.

In the end, even the court's liberal justices didn't believe the workers deserved pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal statute that sets minimum wage and overtime law. The theft screenings, the justices concluded, were not "integral and indispensable" to the work the employees performed (i.e., running around fetching Amazon items for shipment) and therefore were not compensable under the law -- even if the workers had no choice in the matter.

The ruling is a huge disappointment for workers such as Jesse Busk, a lead plaintiff in the case who told HuffPost last year that he regularly waited up to 25 minutes for his screening before he could go home. Busk earned around $12 per hour.

Addressing the workers' arguments, the court's opinion, delivered by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, included this curious line:

"These arguments are properly presented to the employer at the bargaining table … not to a court in an FLSA claim."

It's not clear whether the irony was intended. Amazon's U.S. warehouses, of course, are entirely non-union. Workers, therefore, have no bargaining table at which to sit, a fact noted Tuesday by the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers.

Amazon, notably, was not named in the Busk lawsuit, even though the case was all about the online retailer's warehouse policies. That's because the workers in question were technically employed by a labor supply firm, Integrity, which staffs Amazon warehouses with a seemingly endless procession of temps. Nevermind bargaining over conditions -- these workers don't even know if they'll still have jobs next week.

The high turnover, the precariousness and the subcontracting arrangement all create significant hurdles to unionizing such warehouses. But as Thomas suggests, it may be the only way for employees such as Busk to change their working conditions.



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