Tesla, Google, Amazon And Facebook Launch Unions As Employees Appeal For Public Support
Employees of Google and parent company Alphabet Inc. announced the creation of a union on Monday, escalating years of confrontation between workers and management of the internet giant. Google, Amazon And Facebook Launch Unions As Employees Appeal For Public Support
The Alphabet Workers Union will collect dues, pay organizing staff and have an elected board of directors. It will be open to all employees and contractors in North America, regardless of their role or classification, and plans to take on issues including compensation and ethical concerns such as the kinds of work Google engages in. More than 200 workers have signed up to join so far, the group said.
“A lot of us employees are feeling disempowered, like we don’t have a say in the direction the company is taking anymore,” said Google software engineer Kimberly Wilber, an activist with the new group. “A union is of our way of building power so executives can’t ignore us.”
Google has clashed with some employees in recent years over contracts with the military, a plan for a censored search engine in China, the different treatment of contract workers and a rich exit package for an executive ousted for alleged sexual harassment.
“We’ve always worked hard to create a supportive and rewarding workplace,” Kara Silverstein, director of people operations at Google, said in a statement. “Of course our employees have protected labor rights that we support. But as we’ve always done, we’ll continue engaging directly with all our employees.”
The new union drew support Monday from U.S. lawmakers including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who wrote, “I’m in this fight with you all the way.”
The effort, a rare campaign within a major U.S. technology company, is supported by the Communications Workers of America, which has been pursuing tech-focused organizing through an initiative known as CODE-CWA.
Googlers who join the Alphabet Workers Union will also be members of CWA Local 1400. Members will pay 1% of their total compensation in union dues, which will help fund organizing staff.
CWA said the new organization isn’t currently focused on securing formal recognition by Alphabet or collective bargaining with the company, a process that has been aggressively resisted by U.S. corporations.
“We might need to see some substantial changes in labor law before that’s a realistic goal,” CWA communications director Beth Allen said. If the union can eventually sign up a majority of Alphabet’s workforce, that would be a “powerful statement,” but the group could effect change even without it, she added.
CWA’s membership includes some workers, such as public university employees in Tennessee, who engage in collective action while lacking legal collective bargaining rights.
U.S. law grants unionization rights to employees but not to independent contractors, and also makes it more difficult for sub-contracted workers employed by staffing agencies to gain the ability to negotiate directly with a company like Alphabet.
Such “temps, vendors and contractors,” known as TVCs, outnumbered Alphabet’s direct employees in 2018 for the first time, Bloomberg reported.
Union leaders said on Monday it was crucial that these TVC workers be part of the union as well. “We’re not going to make our growth and collective action dependent on labor law,” said Google software engineer Chewy Shaw, who was recently elected vice chair of the new union.
An Alphabet union could limit executives’ authority, while inspiring similar efforts across the industry, which has mostly avoided unionization so far. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union filed paperwork in November to represent frontline workers at an Amazon.com Inc. facility in Alabama.
The company’s U.S. warehouse workers currently aren’t unionized. A vote among the more than 5,000 workers at the site is expected in coming weeks.
Google worker protests in 2018 forced the company to let a Pentagon artificial intelligence contract lapse. Employee uprisings including a walkout by thousands of workers also led the company to limit the use of forced arbitration that same year.
Workers involved in the new union said they saw it as an extension of such efforts, one that could provide a more permanent structure to keep pressure on management, hold the company accountable for promised changes and respond to retaliation against activists.
The organization plans to deploy a mix of protests and legislative, regulatory and legal tactics, and to weigh in on issues like antitrust scrutiny of Google. CWA in 2018 joined a coalition urging the Federal Trade Commission to break up Facebook.
CWA has been working with Google activists since late 2019, and filed a complaint then with the National Labor Relations Board alleging workers were fired for taking collective action.
In December, the agency’s general counsel took up some of those allegations, accusing Google of illegally firing, interrogating and surveilling activist employees. Google has denied wrongdoing, saying it supports workers’ rights and that the employees in question were punished for “serious violation of our policies and an unacceptable breach of a trusted responsibility.”
Googlers of the World, Unite! Oh, Wait …
Some of the planet’s best-paid workers are forming a union to promote social causes. The solidarity part will be tricky.
As big tech companies have become more entrenched in our lives, the rise of remote work has made their employees more disposable. So it’s no surprise that the pandemic has catalyzed new efforts to unionize tech workers. Last week, a group of Google employees announced the formation of an Alphabet Workers Union in partnership with the Communications Workers of America. 1
But instead of mobilizing as most unions do for better pay, more benefits and better job security, this labor union hopes to seize the means of managerial decision-making. Unlike previous petitions and protests, the union at Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, will require a tangible commitment in the form of hefty membership dues. That’s a sacrifice it’s far from clear that many of the organizers’ colleagues are willing to pay.
“Why do we demand democracy from our government, then cede our individual power in our workplaces?” asks Raksha Muthukumar, a Google software engineer and union member.
OK, fair enough, but every time I read about Google employees staging a walkout over workplace grievances, I can’t help but wonder how such a privileged group of people became so convinced of their victimhood. Google frequently ranks near the top of Glassdoor’s annual list of best places to work (although it fell from #8 to #11 last year), with a hiring process even more exclusive than that of Ivy League admissions (over 99% of job applicants are rejected).
Sure, there are plenty of reasons one might disagree with the company’s business practices, but there’s an easy solution to that problem — go work somewhere else. Google employees have a lot more career mobility than the steelworkers and coal miners who organized unions during the industrial era.
That said, unions do have a long record of improving wages and conditions for the working class. And there is a tech worker contingent that suffers legitimate injustice with limited recourse: Contract workers. Google employs more than 130,000 temps, vendors, and contractors, a workforce that outnumbers the company’s 123,000 full-time employees.
Many temp workers put in the same hours as full-time employees, but with none of the insurance, benefits or worker protections. Efforts to unionize temp workers in the tech industry were underway even before the pandemic. The Teamsters union already represents shuttle drivers for tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google. In 2019, a group of Google contractors voted to join the United Steelworkers. 2
Full-time employees may also have a financial interest in organizing to secure their own positions. As tech companies extend remote-work policies into late 2021, the coordination and knowledge-sharing benefits of on-site employment become irrelevant. Alphabet union members may be motivated by concerns about managerial ethics, but they also have reason to worry about losing their jobs to cheap contractor labor.
While temp workers are invited to join the newly formed union, its website admits that membership is overwhelmingly comprised of full-time employees.
Social justice activism tends to be a divisive basis for organizing a union. In its mission statement, the Alphabet Workers Union promises, “We will ensure Alphabet acts ethically.” The group lists past triumphs, including a campaign that pressured the company to withdraw from Department of Defense contracts, protests to stop providing infrastructure for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and, most recently, a petition to stop selling technology to police departments.
It’s not clear that these goals are a top priority for Google’s entire workforce. It’s one thing for employees to join a one-day walkout while the servers are running automated processes; it’s a whole different matter when workers are expected to pay 1% of their total compensation towards union dues. The fact that the Alphabet Workers Union only has a few hundred members to date may be a hint that activism isn’t as popular as it sometimes appears.
Furthermore, corporations aren’t democracies. Alphabet’s executive team has a fiduciary duty to the company’s shareholders and might have a difficult time explaining why the company chose to forgo all these contracts. Tech employees who want to participate in workplace democracy may be better off working at a co-op.
They may also find opportunities at the fledgling tech companies trying to provide ethical alternatives to Google’s products. Google’s brilliant workforce is its greatest asset, and the company pays gaudy salaries to keep tech talent from joining the competition. If these disgruntled employees had been willing to take their talents elsewhere, maybe Google wouldn’t have ended up in its current monopoly position.
* The Communications Workers of America may prove to be an asset. In 2019, CWA launched a campaign supporting two major bills to prevent corporate off-shoring of U.S. jobs.
* Unionizing is a risky move. One of Google’s contracting companies was recently accused of shipping jobs offshore in retaliation for unionization efforts.
Amazon Ratchets Up Anti-Union Pressure on Workers In Alabama
Employees are being pulled into ‘propaganda’ sessions and exhorted to vote against joining a retail union.
Amazon.com Inc. has unleashed a public-relations campaign at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, hoping to persuade more than 5,800 workers to reject the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Employees have been ordered to attend meetings where managers sow doubts about the unionization drive, according to two workers who attended. The meetings typically last about half an hour and target about 15 employees at a time, one said, frustrating workers because they fall behind in their duties during the sessions and have to catch up later.
“They present anti-union propaganda thinly veiled as factual information,” said the worker, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. Both workers said questions about potentially positive aspects of union membership are brushed off. One recalled asking why “Amazon is beating us over the head with these ‘facts’ in such a one-sided way,” and said the manager responded: “Amazon is very clear with our stance with unions.”
With voting due to start next month and run through late March, the stakes are high for both sides.
A defeat for the union would dent the reputation of the labor movement, which has failed time and again to organize workers at America’s second-largest private employer after Walmart. A union victory, on the other hand, would provide a tactical roadmap for the hundreds of thousands of people toiling in Amazon facilities.
That, in turn, could force the company to ease the sometimes frantic pace of work and even bring wages more in line with the warehousing and transportation industry, where union jobs on average pay 34% more than non-union ones, according to federal data.
“I think that this is the most significant union election that has been held in many years,” said Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU’s president. “Because we’re not just talking about another company, we’re talking about Amazon.”
In an emailed statement, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said the company doesn’t believe the union represents the majority of its workers’ views. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”
Confirming that the company is holding information sessions with workers in Bessemer, Knox said: “We will help employees understand the facts of joining a union.
If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site and it’s important associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”
Amazon, which employs more than 800,000 people in the U.S., has long trained managers to spot and snuff out nascent labor activism. In a 45-minute video created several years ago, cartoon avatars wearing safety vests told managers to avoid threatening employees and instead to express as a personal opinion the company’s aversion to a unionized workplace.
“Opinions can be mild, like ‘I’d rather work with associates directly,’ or strong, ‘The unions are lying, cheating rats.’ The law protects both,” the avatar said. “Amazon prefers a mild opinion, expressed strongly.”
Managers have been known to invent negative stories about unions, despite being counseled to go easy on the rhetoric. During an attempt to organize a Middletown, Delaware, warehouse in 2016, a manager told hundreds of workers that when his father died, a union had abandoned the family. The story turned out to be fabricated, the New York Times reported at the time, but it resonated all the same.
Amazon says it no longer uses the training video. Yet its essential message remains the same: Unions may be appropriate at other companies, but at Amazon, they risk imperiling a business that prioritizes speed, innovation and the customer above all else.
Despite being criticized over the years for its treatment of workers, the company has had little trouble keeping unions out of its U.S. operations. Amazon offers a higher starting wage than most of the retail industry, and turnover is so high that employees rarely stick around long enough to become passionate about improving working conditions.
When activism has taken root, Amazon has responded by shuttering facilities, shifting operations elsewhere and firing up its public-relations machine.
Then came the pandemic. Besides fueling record sales with shoppers hunkered down at home, the outbreak ignited employee activism of unprecedented intensity.
Workers in several warehouses and Whole Foods stores walked off the job to demand better protections from the ravages of Covid-19. Amazon fired some employees who led or participated in the wildcat strikes. The workers say they were punished for their activism. Amazon says it respects workers’ rights and was reacting to policy violations.
The Bessemer warehouse opened in March, just as Covid-19 infections began appearing in Amazon’s U.S. workforce. Two months later, protests erupted over law enforcement’s treatment of Black Americans, amplifying calls for racial equity that spread from the street to the workplace. The rallies resonated in Bessemer, where most residents—and many of Amazon’s employees—are Black.
Workers there contacted a RWDSU organizer in the summer, frustrated by Amazon’s productivity quotas, The New York Times reported last week, an account confirmed by the union. Organizers began collecting signed cards proposing a vote in August.
The union registered a domain name in September for a website to make its case, and the following month union organizers, including local poultry plant workers, began showing up outside the warehouse before dawn to hand out fliers.
“We see it as much of a civil-rights battle as a labor battle,” Appelbaum said. “The overwhelming majority, perhaps, greater than 85% of the workers at this facility are African American. And their major concern seems to be that they’re not treated with respect.”
Amazon, for its part, initially stayed quiet, responding to news reports with a brief statement but eschewing the corporate blogs or Twitter posts from executives it often rolls out in response to critiques about working conditions.
Around Christmas, the company set up a website featuring upbeat Amazon employees smiling from behind masks (among them, the facility’s manager), criticizing union dues and suggesting a hashtag, #doitwithoutdues for like-minded workers.
So far, the hashtag has been hijacked on social media by union supporters. Now, workers are receiving texts from Amazon, and the facility is peppered with signs making the case the company is a benevolent employer. As the vote nears, workers expect Amazon to ratchet up its messaging campaign.
The drama unfolding in Bessemer has attracted considerable attention. The National Football League Players Association has thrown in with the workers, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has tweeted his support, and The Onion posted a satirical story about a drone masquerading as a worker and infiltrating a warehouse.
“Our total compensation package rules!” the drone exclaimed. “I just want to keep hovering, I mean, walking, around the warehouse floor without fear of retaliation from management. Plus, who wants to pay union dues?”
It’s hard to predict which way the vote will go, in part because Amazon’s health benefits and $15 starting wage go farther in Bessemer than in bigger cities previously targeted by unions. Bessemer has struggled economically since the decline of the area’s steelmaking and railcar manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s.
Moreover, Amazon has demonstrated before how persuasive it can be.
Back in 2014, Andy Powell, then an organizer for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, thought he had enough support to organize a few dozen technicians at the Amazon warehouse in Middleton, Delaware. Almost all signed cards in favor of holding a vote, he recalled in an interview.
But just days before an election to formalize union representation, some workers balked. Powell said Amazon’s internal PR campaign had convinced two technicians—both former union members set to receive retirement benefits from their past work—to tell their peers that unions weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
The vote, seven years ago this month, was 21 no, 6 yes. “They beat us up pretty hard,” Powell said.
Amazon Warehouse Workers Set To Vote On Unionizing: What We Know
Alabama employees will vote on whether to form first union for hourly Amazon workers.
Thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are set to begin voting in a union election that could alter the relationship between the nation’s second-largest employer and its hourly workers.
Amazon warehouse employees at the company’s Bessemer, Ala., fulfillment center are set to decide whether they will become the first group of U.S. Amazon employees to unionize. Pro-union workers have sought help from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, a frequent Amazon opponent that would represent the workers if they vote in favor of unionizing.
Organizers have said forming a union would allow workers to collectively bargain over safety standards, training, breaks, pay and other benefits. Those topics have been at the center of disputes between Amazon and its workforce sprawled across hundreds of facilities. Some employees have complained about what they say is a grueling workload and how the company monitors employees through an internal tracking system and cameras.
Amazon, which is on pace—based on recent hiring trends—to overtake Walmart Inc. within the next few years, has said that it offers some of the best pay and benefits available for comparable jobs in similar industries, and that the company provides a competitive compensation package that includes 401(k) and health-care coverage.
Here Is What You Need To Know About The Coming Vote:
Why Are Workers Organizing Now, And Why Does It Matter?
RWDSU leaders have said they believe the coronavirus pandemic, together with the past year’s civil-rights movements in America and tense political climate, has encouraged people to act. The union has touched on themes related to racial empowerment, as many of the employees at the Amazon warehouse are Black and have been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Labor experts say unionizing in Bessemer could lead to similar efforts at other Amazon facilities. The company employs more than 800,000 people in the U.S., most at its warehouses across the country.
How Could The Election Play Out?
Ballots are set to be mailed to roughly 6,000 workers on Feb. 8. Employees have until the end of March to return their votes. The majority of voters would have to support unionizing in order to join the union. Amazon and the union have been battling for votes through varying employee outreach. Even if workers vote to unionize, it could take years of bargaining to reach a first contract between Amazon and the union. Either side could also contest the results of the election.
Would A Union Change Amazon?
Initially, not much. The company would have to start working toward a contract with Bessemer workers and worry about similar efforts popping up at other facilities. Eventually, it could push the company to offer improved benefits or tweak its workplace policies.
Amazon helped boost pay for low-wage workers in 2018 when it raised its hourly rate to $15 an hour, though it simultaneously did away with certain incentive pay and stock compensation. The company the next year committed to retraining one-third of its workforce, in part to help its employees move into more advanced jobs inside the company or find new careers outside of it.
Amazon is in a favorable position to handle threats to its business. The company last year made record earnings and further entrenched itself as the most dominant online retailer. Roughly 40% of online sales are made on Amazon, according to market research firm eMarketer. The company’s recent success has come up among some workers, who point to its profits and growth as a sign that Amazon could make changes to improve conditions.
Why Has Amazon Opposed Unionization?
Many companies don’t favor unions because it can limit flexibility and force them to negotiate on workplace issues that executives might want to set on their own terms. Although Amazon has dealt with labor unions among its employees in Europe for years, the company has opposed unionization attempts in the U.S. in the past.
An effort backed by the RWDSU in 2018 to organize employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market fizzled. About four years earlier, a small number of maintenance and repair technicians voted down a unionization attempt at a Middletown, Del., facility. During the Whole Foods campaign, Amazon used a training video to coach Whole Foods staff on how to spot organizing efforts. The company has said this video is no longer in use.
And last year, Amazon posted, and later removed, job listings for analysts that included descriptions on monitoring labor-organizing threats. Amazon has said the postings weren’t an accurate description of the roles and were made in error.
How Has Each Side Campaigned In The Vote?
Organizers have set up a presence outside the 855,000-square-foot warehouse on an almost daily basis, talking to workers and handing them leaflets. The union in late January received employee contact information, making it easier to connect with workers. It also launched an information website and has sought to garner support by rallying employees through family members and union members who work in other industries.
Meanwhile, Amazon created a website—DoItWithoutDues.com—to encourage workers to vote against unionizing. Signs were posted around the facility, and managers have held frequent meetings there with workers. A central focus of the company’s message revolves around the cost of union dues, and Amazon has argued that a union is unnecessary because its workers receive better pay and benefits from the company than they would in other comparable jobs.
Biden Backs Amazon Workers’ Push To Unionize In Alabama
President expresses support for thousands of workers at Amazon warehouse in Alabama who are voting in union election.
President Biden expressed support for thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama who are voting in a union election, calling it a “vitally important choice.”
Mr. Biden, in a video posted to the White House’s YouTube account Sunday night, didn’t mention Amazon by name but said, “Workers in Alabama, and all across America, are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace” and pointed to his longtime support for union organizing and the right to collectively bargain.
“Let me be really clear: It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear: It’s not up to an employer to decide that either,” Mr. Biden said. “The choice to join a union is up to the workers—full stop, full stop.”
Amazon declined to comment.
The video marked the first time Mr. Biden has weighed in on an internal corporate dispute as president. During his campaign, Mr. Biden frequently said large corporations such as Amazon should pay higher taxes.
Mr. Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump, frequently issued tweets and statements urging changes in corporate behavior, including to auto makers such as Ford and General Motors, pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and large tech companies such as Amazon and Apple.
Mr. Biden, a longtime ally of labor unions, held his first 2020 presidential campaign event at a union hall in Pittsburgh. He has supported passage of legislation sought by labor organizations to increase union membership and bolster employee protections.
But his support comes as some union voters have drifted away from the Democratic Party and as union membership has declined in recent decades, falling to nearly 11% of the nation’s workforce in 2020, according to the Labor Department, compared with its recorded peak of about 20% in 1983, when the department started reporting the data.
In the video, Mr. Biden warned that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no antiunion propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences.”
The warehouse employees at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., fulfillment center are set to decide whether they will become the first group of U.S. Amazon employees to unionize. Workers backing the unionization have sought help from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, an Amazon critic that would represent the workers if they vote in favor of unionization.
Organizers have said forming a union would let workers collectively bargain over safety standards, training, breaks, pay and other benefits. Those issues have been central to disputes between Amazon and its workforce, with some employees complaining about their workload and how the company monitors employees through an internal tracking system and cameras.
“As President Biden points out, the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is by organizing into unions,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, in a statement.
The RWDSU led an unsuccessful effort in 2018 to organize employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market. About four years earlier, a small number of maintenance and repair technicians voted down a unionization attempt at a Middletown, Del., facility.
Labor experts say a successful union push in Bessemer could lead to similar efforts at other Amazon facilities. Amazon is the nation’s second-largest employer, with more than 800,000 employees in the U.S.
If employees do vote in favor of a union, it could still take years of bargaining to reach a first contract between Amazon and the union. Either side could also contest the results of the election.
Amazon set up a website—DoItWithoutDues.com—to encourage workers to vote against unionizing and held frequent meetings inside the Bessemer facility. It also sent employees mail with similar messaging and posted signs around the facility.
Amazon has said it offers some of the best pay and benefits available for comparable jobs in similar industries, and that the company provides a competitive compensation package that includes 401(k) and healthcare coverage.
Ballots were mailed out to roughly 6,000 workers in early February, and employees have until the end of March to return their votes. The majority of voters would have to support unionizing to join the union.
Amazon Union Vote Hit By Conspiracy Theories, False Bezos Sighting
Channeling Trump’s bogus electoral claims, some workers say they’re suspicious of mail-in union balloting in Alabama.
A U.S. representative from Yonkers stood outside Amazon.com Inc.’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, on Friday blasting Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos for hiding inside the sprawling facility while he and other politicians waited outside.
“He has members of Congress out here right now, at his plant where he is physically located,” Jamaal Bowman said on a video shared on Twitter, suggesting the world’s wealthiest man was avoiding a conversation about pay and working conditions. A day later, the video had been shared more than 400 times and garnered more than 1,800 likes.
There was just one problem. Bezos wasn’t in the building. He wasn’t even in Alabama, according to people familiar with his whereabouts. Instead, Bezos was 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away touring a rocket-building company in Southern California. (A Bowman spokeswoman declined to say why the representative thought Bezos was in the building.)
The post-truth age has landed with a thud in Bessemer, where Amazon employees are deciding if they want union representation amid a cascade of conflicting claims, conspiracy theories and fake news. The contest between the world’s largest e-commerce company and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union is one of the most consequential in a generation, and a union victory could upend Amazon’s U.S. operations.
As such, it has all the ingredients of a high-stakes election. A glaring media spotlight. Cameos from out-of-town celebrities. Airwaves clogged with advertisements, and mailboxes stuffed with pamphlets.
Amid the glare and noise, Amazon workers are struggling to sort fact from fiction—a reflection in part of a nation that spent recent years inhaling the serial fabrications of former President Donald Trump. Whether they’re for the union, against it or undecided, several employees interviewed by Bloomberg say they’re exhausted and confused by the onslaught of information—be it from Amazon, the union or outsiders keen to influence the election’s outcome.
A new mailbox installed outside the Bessemer warehouse—along with texts from Amazon encouraging workers to use it to vote—fueled a conspiracy theory that the company was looking to snatch up ballots before the count. Some pro-union workers say they deliberately mailed ballots from home or took them directly to the post office themselves.
Amazon says it’s simply trying to make it convenient for employees to participate. But the location also lets the company keep an eye on who is using the mailbox and what they’re putting in it, providing grist for critics who point to reports that Amazon has long monitored organized labor.
When Amazon requested the timing on the traffic light outside the warehouse be modified, it was interpreted as a move to prevent union organizers camped outside from having an opportunity to engage workers. Amazon requested the change to prevent traffic jams in its parking lot during shift changes, according to the Alabama news website AL.com, which quoted Jefferson County officials.
Nothing perhaps has sowed more suspicion than the election’s mail-in voting process, with some workers channeling Trump’s insistence that electoral fraud robbed him of a second term—a bogus claim that has taken root in the minds of millions of Americans.
As in last year’s presidential election, the National Labor Relations Board opted for mail ballots in Bessemer to avoid creating a super-spreader event during a pandemic.
Amazon appealed the decision and, echoing some of the arguments made by Republican officials last year, said mail balloting raised the risk of fraud and coercion. The company also said the process would depress turnout, arguing that as many as 29% of the more than 5,800 employees eligible to vote wouldn’t do so or would return incorrectly completed ballots.
Amazon lost the appeal, but the action almost certainly amplified doubts among workers—pro- and anti-union—in the balloting process.
One employee who is voting against joining the RWDSU wonders if Amazon will get a fair shake in the election. She has been suspicious ever since a union representative knocked on her door the very day she received a ballot in the mail and asked if she needed any help filling it out or if she wanted him to drop it off for her.
The worker, who requested anonymity to speak freely, says she believes the presidential election was rigged and worries that the same thing will happen in Bessemer. “I just don’t want to see the union do the same thing and Amazon get screwed over,” she says.
Another worker, who is also against the union, began to fret when his roommate received a ballot in the mail and he didn’t. The worker says he contacted the NLRB and was able to secure one.
Still, he says, “Everyone’s on edge to make sure the people on their side get a ballot.”
For Amazon Workers, Winning Union Vote Would Be Just A First Step
The company has many ways to thwart negotiations at its warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., including contesting the results or even closing the facility.
It’s impossible to predict the outcome of the union vote under way at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. As Bloomberg recently reported, workers are sharply divided about the benefits of organizing in a town where Amazon’s $15-an-hour starting wage goes a long way. But one thing is almost certain: Even if the union emerges victorious, Amazon’s own campaign is far from over.
Winning recognition of a union “is sort of like a sports team getting to the playoffs,” says John Budd, who tracks labor issues at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “It’s important, but it really isn’t the end goal.”
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is running the organizing campaign, says its goal is a contract with Amazon.com Inc.
But Amazon has fought hard to keep unions out of its U.S. operations and will have a menu of options if the vote doesn’t go its way, such as contesting the result, dragging out talks with the union, or closing the 855,000-square-foot warehouse entirely, a prospect already on the minds of some Bessemer workers and politicians.
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on its plans should its workers vote to unionize. The company has defended its working conditions and says it doesn’t believe the RWDSU represents the views of most of its employees. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum has said that even getting to a vote is a victory for labor because it sets an example for other unions.
Labor organizing in the U.S. is refereed by the National Labor Relations Board, the New Deal-era creation whose staff will tally ballots from the warehouse’s 5,800 eligible workers beginning on March 30. If a majority of votes favor the union, Amazon and the RWDSU will be required to enter bargaining talks.
But Amazon could postpone talks by filing charges with the NLRB of unfair conduct by the union during the vote. “You can get six months to a year out of that sometimes, if you’re really good,” says Sally Klingel, who teaches labor-management relations at Cornell’s ILR School.
Talks between union and company negotiators often wind up at an impasse, fueling additional rounds of NLRB rulings.
Unions have long criticized the NLRB’s enforcement of the bargaining process as weak. It’s usually not labor law but solidarity and public pressure that make collective bargaining work, says Kate Andrias, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
“First contracts are won not because of an effective legal regime but because of workers’ decision to stick together and demand improvements in their workplace, combined with public and political pressure on employers to behave responsibly,” she says.
That kind of pressure is already building on Amazon. The union drive has drawn wide support from labor groups, including the union representing NFL players, and Democratic politicians all the way up to President Biden. The frenzy has made the vote a flashpoint in debates about the beleaguered U.S. labor movement and the power of one of the world’s most valuable companies.
Amazon executives tend to brush off outside critiques as misunderstandings of its values and intentions. But the company has bowed to public pressure in the past, as it did in 2018 when it raised its starting wage to $15 an hour or in 2019 when it retreated from a planned corporate campus in New York amid local opposition.
Companies have been successful in waiting things out. A 2009 study found that one year after voting to unionize, in 52% of cases workers hadn’t yet won a collective bargaining agreement. That’s significant because if there is no contract a year after the NLRB certifies a union, workers can call a vote to decertify it.
Amazon could also pull the plug on the facility entirely, something that happened after 15% of successful union drives, according to the study, which analyzed elections from 1999 to 2003. The company has a pattern of steering work away from labor hot spots.
It closed a Seattle call center in 2001 after workers began a union drive, built warehouses in Poland after being challenged by powerful German labor groups in 2013, and earlier this year closed a small Chicago depot that had been a locus of worker organizing. In each case, Amazon cited factors other than worker organizing in explaining the decisions.
Labor law protects employees from dismissal for advocating changes to their working conditions, and workers can allege that such closures were motivated by retaliation against the union. But even winning those cases doesn’t mean victory.
When Walmart Inc. shut down a store in Quebec and all its meat-cutting departments in the U.S. after successful union drives, it sparked legal action that dragged on for years. By the time it was resolved, workers had moved on or settled with the company, and unions were still on the outside looking in. “It’s often too late, the deed is done,” Cornell’s Klingel says of challenges to closure decisions. “It’s very hard to win those.”
Unions Notch Win With House Passage Of Bill Opposed By Uber, Lyft
Labor groups looking to President Biden to deliver legislative victories following campaign.
The House late Tuesday passed legislation that would represent the most significant change to labor law in decades, advancing a priority for unions that are pressuring President Biden and Democrats to deliver legislative victories.
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, was approved by the House 225-206, with the support of nearly all Democrats and five Republicans. Backers say the legislation would be a major advancement in employee rights following recent setbacks for organized labor and diminished union membership.
Business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the App-Based Work Alliance, which includes Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc. and DoorDash Inc., assailed the bill, saying it would trample on state laws and endanger the flexibility that ride-share and delivery drivers enjoy.
Mr. Biden called on Congress to send the legislation for his signature, but it faces a steep challenge in the evenly divided Senate. Progressive Democrats want Mr. Biden to endorse eliminating the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for most legislation, a change he and some centrists in his party oppose. There is also no guarantee all 50 Democratic senators would support the union bill.
Labor groups are looking to Mr. Biden to push for the bill as the latest sign he is delivering on his campaign promise to boost unions. The president has fired officials at the National Labor Relations Board seen by unions as hostile to their goals, sided with Amazon.com Inc. workers’ unionization drive in Alabama, picked a union ally to run the Labor Department and backed increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, though that effort is currently stalled.
The PRO Act would establish penalties up to $50,000 for employers who violate the National Labor Relations Act and set a 10-day timeline for union-employer negotiations to commence; currently there is no enforceable timeline.
The bill also makes it easier for gig workers—including independent contractors and online platform workers—to unionize unless their employer meets certain requirements. It would codify into law a decision made by the National Labor Relations Board under former President Barack Obama and reversed under former President Donald Trump that could have paved the way for contractors and workers at franchised businesses to form unions.
“The PRO Act is our litmus test and if progress is delayed or denied yet again, the suffering of the past year will only get worse,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. “But if our leaders step up to the plate and deliver generational change—the change we voted for—we will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever before.”
Companies such as Uber and Lyft won a victory against labor groups last year in California, after spending $200 million in support of a ballot measure allowing them to bypass a state law intended to provide employee-like protections for drivers. Now, despite low Senate prospects, the industry is working to defeat the federal legislation.
The App-Based Work Alliance, the industry group, on Tuesday said the House “voted to put at risk the flexibility that millions of app-based workers rely on by including the same overly narrow definition of independent work” as the California law. The Chamber of Commerce said that the bill would upend right-to-work laws passed in 27 states and that the group would run TV ads in opposition.
Many Republicans say the House bill will stifle business and empower union leaders, and some key moderate Democrats haven’t yet weighed in. The legislation could draw more attention to the brewing fight over the Senate filibuster, the requirement that most legislation have 60 votes to pass, because Democrats only have 51 votes if they stick together.
Mr. Biden is already facing some criticism from progressive Democrats and some in organized labor who say he should have fought harder to include the minimum wage increase in his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. The White House and centrist Democrats disagreed with calls from the left to overrule a Senate parliamentarian ruling that the wage increase is outside of the scope of the budget maneuver Democrats used to pass the relief bill without GOP support.
“The administration talked a good game about $15, but they failed to deliver,” said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the progressive group Our Revolution, which held a rally outside the Capitol on Tuesday in support of the PRO Act. “The president can do much more.”
Mr. Biden opened his 2020 campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh and, near the end of the run, pledged to be the most pro-labor president. The message was in part aimed at rank-and-file union members who have shifted support to Republicans, particularly Mr. Trump, even as union leadership supports Democrats. The candidates battled for the union vote across several Midwestern states crucial to Mr. Trump’s 2016 win.
In the 2020 cycle, some union members knocked doors in support of Democratic candidates even while many of the campaigns were still focused on virtual campaigning because of the pandemic. Democratic candidates in the election received more than 88% of the $79 million donated by labor PACs and union-affiliated individuals, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Union membership fell to 10.8% of the overall workforce in 2020, down from its recorded peak of 20.1% in 1983, according to the Labor Department, due to factors including corporate resistance and a shift from manufacturing. Some public opinion polls, though, show rising support for unions since the 2009 recession.
Labor leaders were disappointed by a lack of major victories under Mr. Obama. And some of Mr. Biden’s moves as president have drawn complaints, such as derailing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which unions said would create 10,000 jobs, though many would have been temporary. His support for reducing fracking and other energy policies could also put him at odds with unions. The White House says Mr. Biden’s push for clean-energy projects will spur longer lasting job growth.
Mr. Biden’s push to open schools in the pandemic also has put him in the middle of a conflict between some parents and officials who want to quickly return to in-person learning and teachers’ unions, some of which want members vaccinated or other steps in place before fully reopening.
The White House says Mr. Biden is committed to working with lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, pass the PRO Act and move another economic package, which is expected to include infrastructure spending that could benefit union workers. During his campaign, Mr. Biden proposed requiring companies receiving government contracts to commit to paying at least $15 an hour and guarantee a choice to join a union and bargain collectively.
Democrats are discussing using reconciliation—the budget maneuver they used to pass the $1.9 trillion Covid measure with no Republican votes—for the second economic package. But Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), one of his party’s most prominent centrists, has expressed concern about another party line legislative push.
Marco Rubio Backs Amazon Workers’ Union Push, Citing ‘Culture War Against Working-Class Values’
Republican senator adds rare GOP support to an organized-labor effort.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) voiced his support for a union-organizing drive at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Alabama, accusing the e-commerce giant of waging a culture war that hurts its workers and the economy.
In an op-ed article in USA Today on Friday, Mr. Rubio said that adversarial relations between workers and companies could harm the country’s competitiveness. But he said he would support employees “when the conflict is between working Americans and a company whose leadership has decided to wage culture war against working-class values.”
“The days of conservatives being taken for granted by the business community are over,” Mr. Rubio wrote, citing what he called Amazon’s anticompetitive strategies against smaller companies and the removal of conservative content from its site as among the reasons he was backing the workers’ effort to unionize.
Mr. Rubio was one of a group of senators who wrote to Amazon earlier this month about its decision to remove from its site and its Kindle and Audible platforms the book “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment,” written by the conservative scholar Ryan T. Anderson.
Amazon later told the senators that it had decided not to sell books that frame transgender and other sexual identities as mental illnesses.
Amazon rejected Mr. Rubio’s criticism from his op-ed on Friday.
“When Sen. Rubio says Amazon is ‘waging war on working class values,’ does he mean our $15 starting wage, comprehensive benefits, or the paid parental leave we provide for hourly workers?” said Amazon spokeswoman Jodi Seth. “If he stands with American workers like he says he does, he should endorse Sen. [Bernie] Sanders’ minimum wage bill today,” referring to the Vermont senator’s push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Mr. Rubio earlier this month voted against Mr. Sanders’s measure to raise the wage floor.
Mr. Rubio’s backing of the unionization drive of Amazon warehouse employees in Bessemer, Ala., marks a rare instance of GOP support for organized labor. In the past, even Republicans like former Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and former Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who had themselves once been union members, later came to oppose unions as harmful to business.
President Biden, a longtime ally of unions, has voiced support for the Alabama workers, who are set to decide whether to become the first group of U.S. Amazon employees to unionize. Mail-in votes by the more than 5,800 warehouse employees are due to the National Labor Relations Board by March 29.
In a statement Friday, an Amazon representative said the company doesn’t believe the union organizers represent a majority of its employees’ views: “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”
The warehouse opened in March of last year.
Amazon launched a website to persuade the warehouse workers to vote against the creation of a union and unsuccessfully sought to delay the process.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is conducting the unionization drive. The group’s president, Stuart Appelbaum, welcomed Mr. Rubio’s support, adding that it “demonstrates that the best way for working people to achieve dignity and respect in the workplace is through unionization. This should not be a partisan issue.”
Organizers have said forming a union would let the workers collectively bargain over safety standards, training, breaks, pay and other benefits.
Mr. Rubio’s backing for the organizational activity follows years of thought on the subject. The son of a casino bartender, he has written that one of his earliest political memories was of joining his father in a Culinary Workers Union strike in Las Vegas.
“Any discussion of the dignity of work should mention unions,” Mr. Rubio wrote in a 2018 article in the Atlantic. “No other American organizations occupy the same unique space as labor unions, which straddle the line between jobs and community. At their local levels, unions have historically served as an integrating force for the dignity of work.”
In Friday’s op-ed, Mr. Rubio also called for “a more productive relationship” between labor and businesses. He said that union-supported legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which passed the Democratic-led House on Tuesday, “would essentially mandate adversarial relations between labor and management.”
Those comments drew criticism from supporters of the PRO Act, who say the labor legislation would be a major advancement in employee rights.
“Positive words for workers organizing at Amazon are welcome, but positive actions for workers organizing everywhere distinguish true champions from political pandering,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement on Friday. “If you oppose the PRO Act, then you’re not pro-worker and you’re not pro-union.”
Union membership has been falling for years in the U.S., a reflection of the declining power of organized labor and slower employment growth in traditionally more unionized industries, such as manufacturing, transportation and utilities.
But workers at tech companies have demonstrated an increased appetite for organizing of late, with Google employees forming a union in January that since has quadrupled its membership to at least 800 workers.
Unions Are Back In Favor. They Need To Seize The Moment
A revived labor movement is needed to reverse decades of income inequality.
Labor is having a moment the likes of which it hasn’t experienced in decades.
In Joe Biden, the labor movement has the first full-throated, pro-union president since Harry Truman. A drive to unionize Amazon.com Inc. warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, is being watched closely as a possible harbinger of a broader effort to unionize nonmanufacturing industries.
And earlier this month, the House passed the most sweeping pro-union piece of legislation in nearly a century, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which seeks to strip away some of the advantages companies have long had in successfully fighting off organizing drives.
There is no doubt that the U.S. needs a revived labor movement. According to one important study, between 1973 and 2007, labor’s decline accounted for 30% of the rise in income inequality among men and 20% for women.
If the country hopes to rebuild the middle class and reduce income inequality, it simply has to do more to push the percentage of private sector workers who belong to unions, which stands at 6.3%, closer to the public sector rate, which is five times greater and lifts the overall number to 10.8%. What is less clear is whether this moment turns into anything more than, well, a moment.
A surprising fact: By statute, the federal government is pro-union. In 1935, two years into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (also called the Wagner Act).
1. Its stated purpose was “to protect the rights of employees and employers, to encourage collective bargaining, and to curtail certain private sector labor and management practices, which can harm the general welfare of workers, businesses and the U.S. economy.” (Emphasis mine.)
After decades of labor battles, many of them violent, the Wagner Act established rules designed to put workers on a more equal footing with management when trying to organize and bargain.
For instance, the law says that companies can’t refuse to negotiate with workers who have chosen to unionize, and it created the National Labor Relations Board to adjudicate organizing drives and make sure everyone plays fair. John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, called it labor’s Magna Carta.
Within two years, the United Auto Workers conquered General Motors Co. and Chrysler Corp. In 1941, Henry Ford grudgingly succumbed and Ford Motor Co. became a union shop as well. As Timothy Noah points out in his book “The Great Divergence,”
2. by 1950 the UAW had won not only middle-class wages for its workers but cost-of-living adjustments, health insurance and pensions — benefits that would soon spread far beyond the auto industry. By 1954, “union density” — the percentage of the workforce that was unionized — stood at 28%, up from 7% in 1933.
Most people mark the decline of unions with Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire striking air-traffic controllers in 1981. But that’s not quite right. In fact, union density never topped that 1954 mark and declined gradually in the 1960s and 1970s. Why? Because of the Taft-Hartley Act, which a Republican-dominated Congress passed over Truman’s veto in 1947.
Taft-Hartley didn’t overturn the Wagner Act, but it crafted new rules that returned the advantages to management. In vetoing the bill, Truman denounced it as “deliberately designed to weaken labor unions.” He was right.
Taft-Hartley, wrote the labor lawyer and writer Thomas Geoghegan in his 1991 book “Which Side Are You On”:
3 * [E]ncouraged employers to threaten workers who want to organize. Employers could hold “captive meetings,” bringing workers into the office and chew them out for thinking about the union. And Taft-Hartley led to the “union busting” that started in the late 1960s and continues today.
Reagan’s firing of the air-traffic controllers turned a slow decline into a rout as corporate executives — and the anti-union law firms that sprang up to advise them — realized that in addition to taking advantage of Taft-Hartley, they could simply ignore the Wagner Act because the penalties were minimal and the government wasn’t going to stop them anyway.
Other factors were at play as well, of course. Globalization made it easy to shift manufacturing to countries such as Mexico and China, where workers were paid a fraction of a union member’s wage. Advances in logistics made international supply chains — once nearly impossible to pull off — routine.
When foreign automakers began building assembly plants in the U.S. in the 1980s, they chose right-to-work states in the South that were fiercely anti-union — indeed, the UAW has consistently failed to unionize those plants.
4. In 1979, the UAW had 1.5 million members; as of 2019, that number had fallen below 400,000.
As good-paying manufacturing jobs dwindled, they were replaced by low-paying service jobs. U.S. law makes industrywide union drives extremely difficult, so union efforts are invariably restricted to individual workplaces. Were employees at a McDonald’s restaurant ever going to have the wherewithal to form a union? Of course not.
Meanwhile, the largest private employer in the country, Walmart Inc., with 1.5 million U.S. employees, used every trick in the Taft-Hartley book whenever a union threat arose in one of its stores. Noah recounts the one successful union drive in the company’s history, in 2000, when 10 meat cutters at a Supercenter in Jacksonville, Texas, voted 7-to-3 to join a union:
* Within days of the vote Walmart announced that it was phasing out meat cutting at all its Supercenters, starting with the 180 stores that just happened to include the one in Jacksonville. … “This decision was in no way related to the Jacksonville situation,” a Walmart spokeswoman explained, presumably with a straight face.
There’s another factor I need to mention: Many of the people who had traditionally supported unions stopped caring. By which I mean liberals, particularly the liberal establishment, which became disconnected from the union movement as it became more technocratic and elitist. Bill Clinton, after all, was the president who signed Nafta into law and then spent the rest of his presidency ignoring the harm it did to manufacturing workers.
During the 2008 financial crisis, many of Barack Obama’s aides were willing to let Chrysler go under — until Ron Bloom, the one aide who had actually worked with unions, argued vehemently that the government couldn’t abandon all the people who would lose their jobs. “There wasn’t one guy in that room who’d spent any serious time having beers with real workers,” Bloom later told the journalist Ron Suskind.
5. By the 1970s, Kurt Andersen writes in his 2020 book “Evil Geniuses,”
6. “The basic college-educated-liberal attitude towards unions was evolving from solidarity to indifference to suspicion.” He does not exempt himself. As he made his way in New York as a prominent writer and editor, he looked down his nose at “boring” unions.
It took him the better part of a lifetime to realize that the indifference to unions by liberals like him had allowed them to ignore growing income inequality and the pain it was inflicting on so many working-class Americans.
Andersen’s mea culpa hit me hard because that’s my story, too. My parents, both public school teachers, were staunch union members who had spent time on picket lines. Yet once I began focusing my journalism on business, I started to see things through the same prism as the rest of the liberal establishment.
Sure, globalization hurt workers in Detroit or Akron, Ohio. But it kept prices low, right? And all the economists said that there were more winners than losers. Maybe out-of-work Detroit residents should move to Texas. Or join a retraining program. The liberal mindset — my mindset — decried Walmart’s poverty-level wages but never connected those wages to the fact that Walmart had successfully shut out unions.
In another of his books, “Only One Thing Can Save Us,”
7. Geoghegan writes that the House passed labor reform bills three times during his life only to have them die in the Senate. Geoghegan is only a few years older than me. When I read that sentence, I realized, with some embarrassment, that I had no memory of any of those efforts.
I read Noah’s book, “The Great Divergence,” a decade ago when it was first published. The book is about the causes of income inequality; there are chapters on maximizing shareholder value, on the effect of globalization, on the widening advantage for people with college degrees and so on. These solidified the impression I already had about the factors that contribute to growing income inequality.
But when I read the chapter on unions, it was as if the lightbulb went on. Of course labor’s decline was an important reason the rich were getting richer at the expense of everyone else. But like many liberals of my generation, I had overlooked it.
Unions didn’t just raise wages for its members; nonunion shops in similar industries often had to raise wages to keep pace. And the lack of unions meant that companies faced no pressure to pay a decent wage.
Noah told me recently that by the time he was writing his book in 2011, the connection between labor’s decline and income inequality was well established in the academic literature. But the same was not true among the general population.
“When I went around hawking my book in 2012,” he told me in an email:
* There was a curious resistance to my chapter on unions, among both liberals and conservatives. They just didn’t want to hear that solving the inequality problem might require handing power back to workers.
He Continued: “I found myself telling audiences that if they cared about inequality and didn’t want to discuss reviving unions, then they should take up chess because they were wasting their time.”
During his eight years as vice president, Biden didn’t talk much about unions — nor, of course, did Obama — but as a candidate in 2020 and now as president, he has made strengthening unions a core plank in his plan to create millions of middle-class jobs. A few weeks ago, he took the unprecedented step of inserting himself in the fight between Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in Alabama.
In a short video released by the White House, Biden didn’t mention Amazon by name, but there was no mistaking what he was referring to. “Unions built the middle class,” he began. He continued:
* Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama and all across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. … There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should control employees about their union preferences.
Biden concluded: “Make your voice heard.”
Of course, intimidation, coercion, threats and anti-union propaganda are exactly what Taft-Hartley legalized in 1947. And while Amazon is hardly the only offender, it is nonetheless going to great lengths to persuade its employees to vote no.
According to the Washington Post, workers get four or five anti-union emails a day from the company, and anti-union signs have even been posted in the bathroom stalls. The New York Times reported that “at certain training sessions, company representatives have pointed out the cost of union dues.” The union even says that Amazon had the county change the timing of a traffic light where union organizers handed out flyers.
(Amazon says that it asked for the light change because of traffic issues. As for the larger issues, a spokeswoman told the Times, “It’s important that employees understand the facts of joining a union. We will provide education about that and the election process so they can make an informed decision.”)
The voting by employees is taking place now and won’t end until the end of March. The issues are less about pay — the company pays its warehouse workers a minimum of $15 an hour — than working conditions. (The union drive appears to have been prompted by cases of Covid-19 among Amazon workers.)
The stakes are high not just for Amazon and its employees but for the nation. The company employs 1.3 million people, and should the union win, one could easily see union drives at other Amazon warehouses — which, in turn, could spur other service workers to attempt to unionize, especially knowing that the president will be shining a light on their efforts.
Still, the odds are against the Amazon workers, given the company’s built-in advantages. Democrats are trying to change that with the recent passage of the PRO Act. Among other things, the bill would allow for certain kinds of picketing and strikes that Taft-Hartley outlawed, prevent employers from permanently eliminating striking workers and add penalties and remedies that would inflict real pain on employers that violate labor laws.
In the House, only five Republicans voted for the bill. In the Senate, at least as things currently stand, it would need 10 Republican votes to pass. Like virtually all progressive legislation, the PRO Act won’t become law anytime soon unless the filibuster is eliminated.
Even so, there is reason for optimism. Celine McNicholas, the director of government affairs at the Economic Policy Institute, a worker-focused policy group, pointed to a recent Gallup poll showing that 65% of Americans approved of labor unions, up from 48% in 2009. According to McNicholas, the number of young people who are pro-union is even higher. “Younger workers have none of the outdated hang-ups,” she told me.
Geoghegan noted that several of Biden’s top aides, including his chief of staff, Ron Klain, and Jared Bernstein, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, are fiercely pro-union. Andrew Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union, was also encouraged by Biden’s pro-union stance, but he also said that the unions have to be willing to spend money on organizing drives — even if some of them fail — to take full advantage of the moment.
“They have to invest money and time and talent if they are going to grow again,” he said.
There’s another cause for optimism: The liberal intelligentsia is embracing unions again. The connection between unions and inequality has become too glaring to ignore anymore.
For instance, when Toys “R” Us Inc. went out of business — and the private equity firms that had sucked it dry didn’t even offer to pay a dime in severance to workers — it offended the conscience. Would a union have made a difference to those workers?
“It’s a really important moment,” Stern told me. “The Amazon fight is shedding light on the lengths one of the most successful corporations in the world will go using traditional anti-union tactics. The president has decided that unions are his partners and workers deserve a fair chance to have a union. The contextual atmosphere is really strong.”
But workers won’t get representation without a fight. Unions need to take advantage of this moment to start organizing drives, and they need everyone’s support. Otherwise we might as well just play chess.
Amazon Workers Consider Unionizing At Several More U.S. Sites
The efforts may falter, but labor experts say they could presage a multi-front campaign to improve working conditions at the company.
Inspired by the high-profile campaign to unionize an Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center in Alabama, workers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver and Southern California have begun exploring ways to form unions at their own Amazon facilities. The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is leading the drive in Bessemer, Alabama, says it has heard from 1,000 Amazon workers around the country.
These efforts are nascent and may fade, but labor experts say they could presage a multi-front campaign to improve working conditions at the world’s largest e-commerce company even if the RWDSU loses in Bessemer, where the vote to unionize ends March 29.
“There are strikes and elections that become historical pivot points,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University. “This is one of them.”
As the RWDSU focuses on Alabama, the Teamsters are taking the battle beyond Amazon’s warehouses and into its delivery operations, where drivers earn about half as much as some of their unionized counterparts. Even the construction unions, which help build Amazon facilities and have an uneasy truce with the company, are starting to find common cause with warehouse workers over workplace safety.
Union leaders also point to a favorable political climate. President Joe Biden recently backed the Alabama workers’ right to unionize, and on Wednesday a Bessemer worker activist testified before a Senate hearing on wealth inequality that Jeff Bezos—chief executive officer and the world’s wealthiest man—declined to attend.
On the other hand, Amazon has spent the last quarter-century stamping out labor activism before it could spread and constrain the company’s ability to deliver packages quickly and cheaply. Amazon is waging a fierce information war against the RWDSU in Bessemer and can be expected to do the same at other facilities if the activism takes root.
In interviews, workers who support at least talking with the unions acknowledge that they fear retribution and are struggling to persuade those colleagues who believe the wages and benefits are fair.
An Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on the potential spread of labor activism to other facilities.
During the pandemic, working conditions became Topic A in internet chat rooms where Amazon employees around the U.S. congregate. More recently the conversation has turned to the union drive in Bessemer.
A warehouse worker in Portland, Oregon, last month argued with a colleague online about the pros and cons of joining a union. The conversation began when a worker posted a screenshot of a manager’s text challenging a team to a race. The fastest worker would win a $25 gift card.
To many workers on the thread, the text was a reminder of how managers pit them against each other with the chance of a small reward rather than investing in better wages to motivate the entire team. Shortly after debating another colleague about pay, the Portland worker received a private message encouraging him to “channel his discontent” into forming a union, along with contact information for a labor organizer. He followed up and has been discussing the idea with a small group of colleagues.
“I feel as though helping create a union at Amazon is something I could be meant for,” says the worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering his managers. “Without collective bargaining, nobody on this planet wins except for billionaires with lobbyists.”
A warehouse worker in Baltimore says he was inspired by the Bessemer campaign and began scrawling pro-union messages on an employee bulletin board. But the worker says he has received little support from colleagues, has yet to hear back from the RWDSU and is thinking about contacting a different union.
A 28-year-old New Orleans warehouse worker drove five hours to Bessemer last month to support a pro-union rally and says the workers there are creating a blueprint that their colleagues around the country can follow.
“If the most powerful company in the world can be unionized in an anti-union state like Alabama, it gives hope to people in Louisiana, in Mississippi, in West Virginia who are trying to do the same thing,” he says. “We just have to support the fight wherever it’s at because the fight is going to come to us.”
Another worker in Denver created an online chat room where workers could discuss organizing that facility but admits to being too scared to do anything further.
Workers say retaliation for organizing is a real threat. An employee in Nashville was fired in retaliation for discussing workplace conditions, and another in Illinois was pulled off of a shift “to discourage employees from engaging” in activism, according to complaints filed in February with the National Labor Relations Board.
The Amazon spokeswoman declined to address the allegations that the company retaliated against the two workers.
Also in February, New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit alleging Amazon had fired and disciplined two warehouse workers in Staten Island after they voiced safety concerns during the pandemic, violating state whistleblower protections and anti-retaliation laws. Amazon disputed the findings of James’s investigation and called its safety response to the outbreak “industry-leading.”
So far the labor activism is limited for a company of Amazon’s size. A Nevada warehouse worker has been following news about the union drive but says there hasn’t been any breakroom chatter about the vote.
A worker in Pennsylvania says colleagues have discussed the extent to which race could be playing a role in Alabama, where most Amazon workers are Black. But she says her fellow employees haven’t considered a similar effort.
“People are just trying to work and go home,” she says. “Amazon makes you very tired, drained both physically and mentally, but benefits are good.”The unions, which have targeted Amazon for years, are stepping up the pressure by trying to persuade employees they can in fact do better.
The Teamsters are recruiting Amazon delivery drivers around the country but acknowledge the company’s health benefits and a $15-an-hour starting wage make their pitch difficult. It doesn’t help that Amazon contrasts its employment package with part-time retail jobs rather than union warehouse and trucking jobs that pay much more.
The Teamsters are trying to change the conversation by talking about how Amazon is eroding wages and benefits for what have long been middle-class careers.
“The message we’re hoping will resonate is, ‘You can’t treat people like this in this industry,’” says Randy Korgan, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 1932 in San Bernardino where the union has been busy doing outreach with Amazon workers.
“If Amazon was paying such a good wage, people wouldn’t be moving on and going to the next job. They’re just burning through the workforce and they’re going to continue to burn through the workforce.”
The Teamsters are also trying to drive a wedge between Amazon and the construction unions, which have joined political forces with the company in the past—supporting the aborted plan to build a second headquarters in New York and helping defeat a proposed payroll tax designed to combat Seattle’s homelessness problem.
Now construction unions are getting noisier when Amazon’s developers use non-union contractors on construction projects, which union members say creates safety concerns. A group of iron workers in Southern California walked off an Amazon construction site in February to protest the use of non-union crews.
The Merrimack Valley Building Trades Council, which represents 20,000 union workers north of Boston, has raised similar concerns about a proposed Amazon warehouse in Andover. (The Amazon spokeswoman said the company uses an open-bid process and works with union and non-union contractors.)
The Teamsters have been pushing the Merrimack Valley labor council to think beyond its own members and show solidarity with warehouse workers and delivery drivers to demand good wages and a safe workplace, says Chris Brennan, president of the council. Unions in different industries recognize they have to unite on common issues such as safety and wages to have a stronger voice against a powerful foe, he says.
“Taking on a behemoth like Amazon is going to take an army,” Brennan says.
The unions have one thing in common. They’re all losing members even as Amazon’s workforce balloons. The company employed 1.3 million people globally at the end of 2020, up 63% from a year earlier, and is now the second biggest private employer in the U.S. behind Walmart Inc.
Labor activists are hoping that the country’s increasing focus on wealth inequality will help revive a movement that has had few victories at top non-union employers in recent decades.
“People understand this is about something much bigger than Alabama and even much bigger than Amazon,” says Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU. “It’s really about the future of work and how workers are going to be treated.” He says that even if his union loses the vote in Bessemer, “this campaign will result in an explosion in organizing around the country.”
Amazon Faces Growing Worker Pressure In Shadow of Alabama Union Vote
Employees organize in U.S. and Europe, signaling e-commerce giant’s labor battles will continue.
Amazon.com Inc. warehouse workers in Alabama are voting on whether to unionize this month. Whatever the result, the e-commerce giant faces pressure from staff world-wide to make changes to its working conditions.
So far those actions stop short of a formal unionization push, but each one involves hundreds of employees and shows how work conditions at Amazon warehouses are increasingly in the spotlight. President Biden and other high-profile figures have weighed in on the Bessemer, Ala., vote among warehouse employees.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a frequent Amazon critic, is scheduled to travel to Alabama Friday to meet with Amazon workers, a spokesman said. Thousands of votes have already been submitted in the mail-in election, which concludes March 29.
None of Amazon’s 800,000 U.S. employees are unionized. A vote to form a union in Alabama would give workers more power to negotiate with the company on matters such as pay and benefits.
Elsewhere, hourly Amazon employees are gathering petition signatures, discussing potential strikes and consulting with unions about possible demands.
The groups are seeking to alter company policies on the rate at which they must prepare packages as well as break time and shift schedules—all factors that can make Amazon a physically demanding place to work, workers say. Such issues have risen to the fore for many employees amid Amazon’s expansion and push to speed up delivery times.
“It would be a victory for us, and it would bring momentum for others,” Jennifer Bates, a worker-organizer in Bessemer, said in an interview. “It would be a fire starter.”
An Amazon spokeswoman said the company “already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry-leading pay, comprehensive benefits and opportunities for career growth.”
Employee activism appears to be on the rise at several large tech companies. Organized actions among technology employees in the U.S. almost tripled from 2018 to 2019 to more than 100, according to public policy consultant Access Partnership Ltd. The activity continued into 2020 and, in Amazon’s case, grew as the pandemic drew attention to the working conditions of essential employees.
A group of Google employees formed a union in January to speak out about the company without facing career repercussions, members said. Some employees at Twitter Inc. the same month collectively pushed for the social media platform to suspend the account of then-President Donald Trump, while at Uber Technologies Inc., many drivers throughout the country have long sought employee status and benefits.
Amazon, unlike many other big tech firms, employs hundreds of thousands of hourly workers whose day-to-day jobs differ significantly from those of its white-collar engineers, finance and logistics professionals. The company, which made $386.1 billion in sales last year and saw its share price rise about 76%, hired more than 500,000 workers throughout the year to meet growing demand due to the pandemic.
Amid that growth, Amazon employees have pushed for improved working conditions during the pandemic, and some held walkouts in cities such as New York and Detroit. Amazon moved quickly to improve conditions and reduce worker absences that made on-time deliveries of essential goods more difficult.
The company beefed up supplies of protective equipment and cleaning at facilities and tested employees for Covid-19. It also temporarily raised pay and implemented social-distancing measures in warehouses. Amazon disclosed late last year that more than 19,000 of its workers had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The company also granted vacation pay to all part-time workers—something warehouse employees across the country, including in Chicago, had been asking for since 2019.
Previously, outside pressure has also led Amazon to change its policies. The company in 2018 raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour after criticism from political figures over its hourly pay.
“Workers will continue to make demands of Amazon,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor professor at Rutgers University. “Some will be union organizing drives, and some will take other forms.”
Alongside the Alabama vote, formal efforts to organize are gathering steam. In Europe, where union representation is more common, Amazon warehouse and delivery employees held a strike in Italy Monday to protest working conditions.
In Iowa, roughly 400 to 500 current and former Amazon workers connected to two of the company’s warehouses there have been in contact with representatives from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, according to Randy Korgan, director for Amazon at the Teamsters.
Since the start of the pandemic, workers have communicated with the union more frequently and sought guidance about ways to organize, including with strikes, according to union officials. Workers are evaluating a number of possible campaigns, seeking changes related to the pace of work and productivity expectations, union officials said. Amazon warehouse employees typically have to fulfill hundreds of items per working hour while the company monitors them closely.
“Workers organizing in a general sense can take many forms,” Iain Gold, the Teamsters director of strategic research and campaigns, said.
Outside Chicago, a group of warehouse employees at a delivery center southwest of the city, began a petition after Amazon told employees in January that it was closing the site. Workers were told they could choose jobs at other facilities in the area, but the only roles available were 10-hour overnight shifts known as a “megacycle,” according to Ted Miin, a worker-organizer with the group, which calls itself Amazonians United Chicagoland.
The petition seeks accommodations for workers who can work only part of the shift, such as caretakers, and it has garnered hundreds of worker signatures, Mr. Miin said. The group hasn’t sought union representation because it has previously changed conditions at its workplace without third-party intervention, he added.
“Everything about us is 100% worker-led,” Mr. Miin said.
The Amazon spokeswoman said the company is giving the Chicago employees more than one shift option, “and we are working with each associate directly on the option that best supports them.”
Bessemer workers began organizing last summer, seeking to change policies at the facility related to breaks and Amazon’s monitoring of workers, among other measures.
Some workers have said they don’t believe union representation would substantially improve their conditions. Others see a victory as something that could reach far beyond Alabama by motivating workers throughout the country to take action and more broadly alter Amazon’s workplace policies.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which would represent Amazon workers in Bessemer if they elect to unionize, has heard from more than 1,000 Amazon workers nationwide on organizing efforts and has begun conversations with them, according to union spokeswoman Chelsea Connor.
The Alabama union vote has drawn interest almost akin to a high-profile political race, with politicians and celebrities weighing in. Last month, Mr. Biden called the election a “vitally important choice” in a video posted to the White House’s YouTube account. And Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has also publicly expressed support for the workers.
The vote has attracted support from Democratic leaders such as Stacey Abrams, National Football League players and actors Tina Fey and Danny Glover, who visited Bessemer in February. A Democratic congressional delegation met this month with workers and organizers associated with the union election.
Amazon declined to respond to Mr. Biden’s comments. A spokeswoman responded to Mr. Rubio’s comments by pointing out the company’s $15 starting wage and other benefits.
Amazon Apologizes For Tweet, Vows To Improve Driver Conditions
Amazon.com Inc. apologized for a tweet denying workers urinate in bottles, a rare instance of contrition from the world’s largest e-commerce company.
Amazon had earlier responded to a tweet from Representative Mark Pocan accusing the company of working its people so hard that they couldn’t access bathrooms. Addressing Pocan directly, consumer chief Dave Clark tweeted: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?”
After enduring several days of criticism, the company issued a blog post Friday apologizing and saying Amazon had been referring specifically to its warehouse workers, not contract drivers who often struggle to find washrooms while delivering packages.
“This was an own-goal, we’re unhappy about it, and we owe an apology to Representative Pocan,” Amazon said in the blog. “First, the tweet was incorrect. It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers.”
The company said delivery drivers at many companies struggle to find restrooms and that the problem had worsened during the pandemic.
“Regardless of the fact that this is industry-wide, we would like to solve it,” Amazon said in the blog. “We don’t yet know how, but will look for solutions.”
Tesla Appeals Labor Agency Ruling It Bullied Union Activists
Tesla Inc. is appealing a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that it repeatedly violated U.S. labor law, including by firing a union activist, and an order by the agency that Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk delete a threatening tweet from his account.
The electric-car maker filed a request Friday with the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn a decision issued by the regulator on March 25.
“Because the board’s decision and order is contrary to law, petitioner respectfully requests that the court grant the petition, review the board’s decision and order, set it aside, and grant petitioner any further relief which the court deems just and equitable,” Tesla said in its petition.
The ruling, issued by two Republican and one Democratic member of the agency, stated that the company must offer to reinstate the fired employee. The board members also ruled that Tesla broke the law by retaliating against another union activist, “coercively interrogating” union supporters and restricting employees from talking to reporters.
Tesla has denied wrongdoing and has argued that Musk’s tweet was protected by the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
What Amazon’s Alabama Union Vote Means For The Company And Workers
Bessemer employees would be the only unionized Amazon workers in a nation where memberships have dwindled.
If workers at an Amazon.com facility in Bessemer, Ala., vote to unionize, it would boost the number of workers who have opted to join a union in a state that has membership rates below the U.S. average.
But the vote, the counting of which began March 30, is also being closely watched for other reasons—among them Amazon’s position as the second-largest U.S. employer, and the prospect that a “yes” vote would buck a general trend toward dwindling private-sector union membership rates seen since the ’60s.
Amazon, which has operations in all 50 states, has roughly 950,000 employees in the U.S., none currently unionized. The company is the second-biggest U.S. employer after Walmart Inc., which it is expected to overtake in the next few years.
Amazon says it has created more than 9,000 jobs in Alabama, where it has two delivery stations and five Whole Foods Market supermarkets in addition to its fulfillment and sorting center in Bessemer.
Alabama’s unionization rate, currently below 10%, is lower than in the U.S. broadly. But the state’s trend has followed a similar general downward line in recent decades.
There are 5,805 Amazon workers in Bessemer. If they were all to unionize, they would be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which had 18,000 members in the state as of 2020; the new workers would represent an increase of about 32%. Alabama is a right-to-work state, so workers wouldn’t be required to join the union.
The union’s estimates indicate that most of the workers at the Bessemer site are Black; nationally, about 27% of Amazon’s employees are Black. While unionization rates have fallen across racial groups in the U.S. since 2000, Black workers are most likely to be represented by a union, and organizers at the Amazon warehouse have raised themes of racial empowerment during their campaign.
Meanwhile, public support for labor unions in the U.S. has risen in recent years. Last year, it reached its highest point since 2003, according to Gallup data, rising from a low point seen during the 2008-09 financial crisis.
Amazon Vote Deals Blow To Expanding Labor Union Membership
Unionization rates are trending down in the private sector, despite increased focus in Washington.
Workers’ rejection of a union at Amazon.com Inc.’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., is a setback to organized labor’s efforts to reverse a decadeslong decline in private-sector membership nationally.
The Alabama result underscores unions’ challenges in increasing membership in the U.S. private sector, where they represent just 6.3% of workers, down from 24.2% in 1973, according to data from Georgia State University.
Hiring at Amazon—the second-largest private employer in the U.S.—and other e-commerce warehouses increased last year even as the country shed millions of jobs, including more than 300,000 union positions, during the pandemic. For unions, the time appeared ripe to organize workers in an expanding sector and an environment where labor unions traditionally have operated: a large blue-collar site where many employees do similar jobs.
The effort failed despite President Biden’s endorsement, his stated goal of creating more union jobs and a renewed embrace of labor by many congressional Democrats.
Last year, more union members worked for the government than for private-sector employers, according to the Labor Department, showing the public sector is now the stronghold of organized labor. Teacher strikes and protests in 2018 and 2019 won pay increases and other concessions in Arizona, West Virginia, Los Angeles and other states and cities, and more recently, educator unions influenced plans to reopen schools during the pandemic in Chicago and elsewhere.
The Amazon vote bodes poorly for organized labor trying to increase the share of workers who are union members and revive organized labor as a formidable voice in American workplaces, said Jonathan Spitz, co-leader of the labor relations practice at Jackson Lewis, a management-side law firm. Union members accounted for 10.8% of the total U.S. workforce last year, down from 24% in 1973, according to Georgia State’s data.
Organizing workers at major employers such as Amazon or Walmart Inc. has long been a “holy grail” for unions, he said, but many big companies have the power and the capital to pay competitively, survey employees about their experiences and respond to dissatisfaction before it grows.
“Employers control the economic issues, they decide what pay and benefits look like and if they want to pre-empt organizing based on economic issues, they can do it,” he said.
Amazon told its workers in Alabama that unionizing wasn’t necessary, highlighting that it starts workers at $15 an hour—more than double the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum—and the healthcare benefits it offers employees. The median pay in the U.S. for warehouse and storage workers was $17.77 an hour last year, according to the Labor Department.
The organizing union—the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union—sought to bargain over work rules and better pay, frequently citing the wealth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Workers at the Bessemer warehouse overwhelmingly rejected unionization, with 71% casting ballots not to join the union, according to the National Labor Relations Board.
The failure at Amazon comes after other unsuccessful attempts to organize large companies. United Food and Commercial Workers had sought to unionize Walmart stores and labor unions backed the Fight for $15 protests against McDonald’s Corp. and other chains. While those protests influenced state and local minimum-wage changes, it failed to secure new union members.
“One of the concerns here for people who’d like to see something change is they spent a lot of money and energy on it and it didn’t work, so there’s some reluctance to try it again with other retail giants,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist and chair of the labor studies department at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.
The Amazon effort also took place as employee activism is growing at technology and media firms. A few months ago, around 200 employees of Google parent company Alphabet Inc. formed a union affiliated with the Communications Workers of America.
The group, called the Alphabet Workers Union, hasn’t sought collective-bargaining rights, and it didn’t go through an election process like the one at Amazon’s Bessemer facility. Instead, its leaders have said it aims to speak out about problems its members see at Google, including pay discrepancies and retaliatory firings.
The organizing difficulties faced by private-sector unions stand in contrast to those in the public sector. More than 40% of local-government workers, including teachers, firefighters and police, are union members.
In some cases, those unions receive widespread public support and are often more aligned with their management.
“We saw the teacher strikes…management was often on the side of the workers because they also wanted more funding,” Ms. Milkman said.
Broadly, labor groups have been enjoying a moment in the spotlight, boosted by a presidential administration that is attentive to their concerns. Mr. Biden had expressed support for the Amazon workers’ unionization drive. He also has proposed a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package that would rely on union labor and seeks to increase union jobs in both the private and public sectors, including by weakening right-to-work laws.
A growing federal government could create more union jobs. However, state and local governments cut jobs last year during the pandemic, more than offsetting federal gains. Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan aims to funnel work to industries in which unions are prevalent, especially construction, and the proposal would likely include incentives to hiring unionized labor for the work.
Public-sector workers, such as teachers, are often already covered by collective bargaining agreements that offer job protections, which may make them more willing to engage in organizing efforts, said Anastasia Christman, director of the Worker Power Program at the National Law Employment Project, a worker advocacy group.
Amazon’s Win Delivers A Stinging Defeat To The U.S. Labor Movement
Unionizing the company’s Bessemer, Ala. warehouse became a rallying cry for worker advocates, but that wasn’t enough.
The union loss against Amazon.com Inc. in Bessemer, Ala. marks a stinging defeat for the U.S. labor movement, one made all the more painful by its familiarity.
In recent decades, top nonunion American companies have been virtually impervious to organizing efforts, particularly those that come down to elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. That trend continued at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, where workers voted 1,798 to 738 against joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union. While 505 disputed ballots remain unopened, they won’t reverse the outcome, announced Friday.
“Today’s announcement,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told reporters after the ballots were tallied, “may not be what we wanted, but sadly it is one that many have come to expect.”
The election had signaled a massive shift in Amazon’s labor relations. A few years ago, collective action by Amazon employees was rare, but the safety issues thrown into high relief by the Covid-19 pandemic, in tandem with increased funds and focus from unions, have made strikes and protests at the company’s warehouses more common. The #BlackLivesMatter movement and organizing efforts by Alabama poultry workers also helped RWDSU sign up thousands of Bessemer employees. It wasn’t enough.
Amazon may well spend years battling the union over the legality of the tactics it used to win in Bessemer, but whatever happens there, the election outcome will be cited as vindication for the company’s employment policies for a long time to come.
In a statement, the union accused Amazon of “corrupting” the election through tactics such as pressuring the U.S. Postal Service to install a mailbox on the company’s property and pushing workers to cast their mail-in ballots there.
“Our system is broken, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior,” Appelbaum said. An Amazon spokesperson said the mailbox was a “simple, secure, and completely optional” way to make voting easier.
The organizing effort may have suffered from some of RWDSU’s strategic choices, such as agreeing to Amazon’s push that they accept votes during the seven-week election from hundreds of additional employees, including temps. But the bigger challenges were the structural disadvantages that face workers trying to organize at any major nonunion company in the U.S.
Companies are allowed to force workers into group meetings and one-on-one discussions that include predictions of dire consequences in the event of unionization. (Employees say Amazon did so in Bessemer; the company says it hosted “information sessions” so employees could “understand the facts.”)
“Being under the watchful eye and control of the employer all day long—and subject to the messages of the employer, for which there’s no equal time for the union—detracts from it really being a fair and free election,” says Wilma Liebman, a former chair of the National Labor Relations Board.
Employers also have incentives to illegally punish or fire activist workers, which labor board prosecutors have accused Amazon of doing at other warehouses. (An Amazon spokesperson says the company has “zero tolerance” for retaliation.) If a company is found to have broken the law in such a manner, it may eventually have to provide workers with back pay and to post signs promising not to repeat the illegal behavior, but it will pay no punitive damages and managers face no personal liability.
On the flip side, employers aren’t legally compelled to complete a union contract in a specified period of time, so about half of workers who win union votes won’t have a union contract a year later. Some companies simply shut down operations that unionize. Several Bessemer workers said this prospect weighed on them during the election.
Given these headwinds, union organizers sometimes eschew standard labor board elections in favor of what they call comprehensive campaigns, a mix of workplace protests and pressure from consumers, politicians, and the media. The idea is to force company executives to agree to more favorable terms for unionization and contract processes.
RWDSU’s parent, the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, succeeded with such an approach at Smithfield Foods Inc. in 2008. After a campaign that included lobbying Oprah Winfrey to keep Smithfield ham off her show, the UFCW reached a deal with the company that restricted union busting and won a vote to organize about 5,000 North Carolina slaughterhouse employees.
Such victories, however, have been rare. Yearslong union-backed campaigns targeting Walmart and McDonald’s, for example, have helped get workers raises and win better treatment for pregnant employees, but haven’t won unionization. At Amazon, neither labor board elections nor multipronged pressure campaigns have secured any formal union foothold in the U.S.
Amazon abandoned its plan to put a second headquarters in New York after RWDSU started pressuring local politicians to condition development on the company agreeing to curb union busting. The $15 minimum wage, which Amazon credited critics like Senator Bernie Sanders with helping persuade it to embrace, is now a talking point the company’s public relations team uses to rebut the senator’s claim that its workers need a union.
There are also legal limits on just how comprehensive a comprehensive campaign can get. Federal law restricts unions from involving business partners in a dispute with a particular company—such as by picketing Amazon suppliers to demand they cut off the company—and bars states from trying to create local, stronger versions of the National Labor Relations Board.
Unions have failed to reform federal labor laws for most of the past century, stymied repeatedly by fervent Republican opposition, Democratic ambivalence, and the Senate filibuster. Joe Biden campaigned on a sweeping pro-union reform bill, the PRO Act, and the U.S. House passed it in March.
Among other things, the legislation would ban employers from holding mandatory anti-union meetings, let the National Labor Relations Board fine companies that break the law, and employ arbitrators to ensure that unions can secure contracts. But it faces long odds in the Senate, where not all Democrats are sold on the bill or on abolishing the filibuster to pass it.
Some labor advocates say the legal system needs to be overhauled if labor organizing is ever going to rebound, while others argue that only a huge upsurge in labor activism can drive such changes. A surprise win in Bessemer might have proven a rallying cry for reform efforts. Now organizers have to hope their defeat there can serve that role instead.
“The history of the labor movement has been about failing forward,” says Janice Fine, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. “Even when they lose,” she says, “they’ve framed a moral dilemma for the community that they’re organizing in—or for the country.”
Amazon Vote Won’t Deter Union Goals, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh Says
Outcome doesn’t change Biden administration’s desire to increase union jobs in the U.S., cabinet official says.
Amazon. com Inc. and other large companies should expect to see future labor-organizing efforts despite the rejection of a union at the e-commerce firm’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said.
Mr. Walsh, who took office last month, said the vote doesn’t change President Biden’s goal of increasing union jobs in the U.S.
“I don’t think you can judge the fate of labor on one vote,” Mr. Walsh said Tuesday in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. “I think there will be other conversations as we move forward in the country, in other companies as well as Amazon.”
Mr. Walsh noted that the vote in Alabama was the first of its kind. The election marked the first time Amazon warehouse workers who fill customer orders held an election, and the group was the largest number of Amazon employees to vote on unionizing.
The vote in Alabama failed by a wide margin despite support from Mr. Biden and other prominent Democrats and efforts by organizers to link the election to civil-rights causes, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
Speaking of the results, Mr. Walsh said that he respected the right of workers to come to their own conclusions about whether to join a union but that workers “deserve a seat at the table, to be able to discuss workplace conditions and policies.”
“Every worker in every company should have the proper workplace protections,” Mr. Walsh added.
Referring to some workers’ criticisms of Amazon’s workplace conditions, Mr. Walsh said: “The stories coming from the workers right now in the Amazon conversations are disturbing. We’ll see at the end of the day what the way forward is there.”
Asked for comment, an Amazon spokeswoman referred to a company post issued last week to address the vote.
“Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace,” the post said. “We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.”
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the organizing union for the Amazon site, said it plans to appeal the vote’s outcome.
Mr. Walsh said union organizing could be made easier with passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. The legislation, which passed the House but faces a difficult path in the Senate, seeks to weaken state laws that allow workers to opt out of paying union dues, among other measures.
“I think having an opportunity to have a fair shot at it is really what I want to see happen and the president wants to see happen in pushing the PRO Act,” Mr. Walsh said of workers’ attempts to unionize. Mr. Walsh, a former Boston mayor, was president of Laborers Local 223 and was head of the Boston region’s Building and Construction Trades Council.
Some business advocates say the vote in Alabama is a sign many workers aren’t interested in joining unions. “Rather than continue to harass an employer after losing or pushing for lopsided legislation, union officials might do well to consider the thoughts of the Amazon employees,” Sean Redmond, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive director of labor policy, said on the group’s website.
‘I think we have to stick with the $15 an hour minimum wage…where we have to be flexible is how do we achieve that and what’s the timeline.’
— Labor Secretary Marty Walsh
Initially introduced as a separate bill, the PRO Act was also included in Mr. Biden’s $2.3 trillion proposed package of spending on infrastructure and other investments, known by the administration as the American Jobs Plan.
Mr. Walsh, mirroring the president’s flexible posture on certain portions of the infrastructure package, said it was too early to say whether the labor legislation should be removed from it to garner more Republican support. GOP lawmakers have criticized the infrastructure proposal as being too broad.
“If it can’t be done in the Jobs Plan…we will look at other vehicles to get it through,” Mr. Walsh said.
He signaled less flexibility on the Biden administration’s push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25.
Some Senate Republicans have introduced a bill that would lift the minimum wage to $10 an hour. And business groups, including the Chamber and the Business Roundtable, support raising the minimum wage, but have expressed concern that $15 an hour would be too high for some regions and smaller businesses.
Amazon, in pushing back against the organizing drive in Alabama, highlighted that it already starts workers at $15 an hour, more than double the federal minimum wage, to which the state adheres.
Mr. Walsh, citing factors including the economic challenges many families are facing during the Covid-19 pandemic, said it wasn’t time to consider a smaller boost to the pay floor.
“I think we have to stick with the $15 an hour minimum wage,” he said. “And I think where we have to be flexible is how do we achieve that and what’s the timeline.”
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