Alabama Amazon workers vote on unionization
What goes on inside a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, could have major implications not only for one of the world’s largest companies, but for the labor movement as a whole.
Organizers are pushing for some 6,000 Amazon workers to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union on the promise it will lead to better working conditions, better wages and more. more respect. Amazon is pushing back, arguing that it already offers more than twice the minimum wage in Alabama and that workers get benefits like health care, vision care and dental care without paying union dues.
Both parties are fully aware that it’s not just the Bessemer warehouse on the line. Organizers hope what happens there will inspire thousands of workers across the country – and not just at Amazon – to consider organizing and reviving a labor movement that has been in decline for decades.
“It ignites a fuse that I believe will spark an explosion in organizing across the country regardless of the outcome,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said.
The union push could spread to other parts of Amazon and threaten the company’s profits, which soared 84% last year to US $ 21 billion. At a time when many companies were cutting jobs, Amazon was one of the few still to hire, attracting 500,000 people last year just to cope with a surge of online orders.
Bessemer workers finished voting on Monday. The recount begins on Tuesday, which could take days or more depending on the number of votes received and the time it takes for each party to review. The process is overseen by the National Labor Relations Board and a majority of the votes will decide the final outcome.
What this outcome will be is anyone’s guess. Appelbaum believes workers who voted early likely rejected the union because Amazon’s message was addressed to them first. He says the dynamic changed in March as organizers spoke with more workers and heard from high-profile basketball players and elected officials, including President Joe Biden.
For Amazon, which employs more than 950,000 full and part-time workers in the United States and nearly 1.3 million worldwide, a union could lead to higher wages that eat away at its profits. Higher wages would also mean higher costs to get packages to buyers’ doors, which could prompt Amazon to raise prices, says Erik Gordon, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
Any attempt to unionize is seen as a long road, as labor laws tend to favor employers. Alabama itself is a “right to work” state, which allows union shop workers to opt out of paying union dues while retaining the benefits and job protection negotiated by the union.
Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, says companies have in the past closed stores, warehouses or factories after workers voted to organize.
“There is a history of companies going to great lengths to avoid recognizing the union,” he said.
Walmart, the country’s largest retailer and largest private employer, has successfully tackled organizing efforts over the years. In 2000, he got rid of butchers in 180 of his stores after voting to form a union. Walmart said it cut jobs because people preferred prepackaged meat. Five years later, she closed a store in Canada where some 200 workers were about to land a union contract. At the time, Walmart said demands from union negotiators were preventing the store from sustaining itself.
The only other time Amazon encountered a union vote was in 2014, when the majority of 30 workers at a Delaware warehouse turned it down.
This time around, Amazon hung anti-union signs throughout the Bessemer warehouse, including inside the washrooms, and held mandatory meetings to convince workers why the union is a bad idea, according to a worker who recently testified at a Senate hearing. He also created a website for employees that tells them they will have to pay $ 500 in union dues per month, which takes away money that could be used for lunches and school supplies.
Amazon’s hardball tactics go beyond union efforts. Last year, he fired a worker who staged a strike at a New York warehouse to demand greater protection against the coronavirus, claiming the employee himself had violated distancing rules. When Seattle, headquarters, passed a new large business tax in 2018, Amazon protested by stopping construction of a new skyscraper in the city; the tax was repealed four weeks later. And in 2019, Amazon scrapped plans to build a US $ 2.5 billion head office for 25,000 workers in New York after cracking down on politicians and progressive unions.
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Beyond Amazon is an anti-union culture that dominates the South. And unions have lost ground nationally for decades since their heyday in the decades following World War II. In 1970, nearly a third of the American workforce belonged to a union. In 2020, that figure was 10.8%, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Private sector workers now represent less than half of the 14.3 million union members across the country.
Supporters say a victory would mean a shift in the discourse on unions, helping to refute typical arguments from companies, including Amazon, that workers can earn adequate pay and terms by dealing directly with management.
“It is thanks to the unions that we have a five-day work week. It is thanks to unions that we have safer conditions in our workplaces. It’s through unions that we have advantages, ”said Rep. Terri Sewell, whose congressional district understands the Amazon facility. “Workers should have the right to choose whether or not to organize.”
Union leaders are wary of specific organizing plans after the Bessemer vote, and Appelbaum says he does not want to inform Amazon of his future efforts. But there is a broad consensus that a victory would prompt workers at some of Amazon’s other 230 warehouses to mount a similar union campaign.
It is less clear whether ripple effects would hit other primary targets like Walmart and the expansion of the auto industry that has exploded in the South in recent decades. Both have been largely successful in keeping the unions at bay.
The Auto Workers Union has seen some of the biggest union pressures of the past decade, but its most intense and high-profile efforts have ended in failure. In 2017, a multi-year campaign to unionize a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, ended in a decisive rejection of the union between 2244 and 1307 – the kind of margin that would be devastating in Bessemer. Two years later, however, Volkswagen workers in Tennessee had a much more split vote, with 776 workers in favor of unionization and 833 voting against.
Aside from the number of Amazon workers involved, the Alabama campaign stood out because many advocates explicitly linked the effort to the civil rights movement of the 20th century. The RWDSU estimates that more than 80 percent of Bessemer warehouse workers are black.
Robert Korstad, Duke Emeritus Professor and expert in labor history, says this dynamic could help Bessemer.
“The story of the struggle of blacks in Alabama runs pretty deeply into the social, political, and religious institutions there,” he says. “We are starting to see people stand up again. So this Amazonian struggle is part of a larger struggle that has been going on for a long time.”
The question, says Korstad, is whether a victory at Bessemer really becomes a “ripple effect” that inspires workers across racial and ethnic lines elsewhere.