Brief # 12 Social Justice

Brief Title: Amazon Workers Vote Against Union in Alabama

Author: Lily Lady Cook

April 12, 2021

Summary: In the United States, Amazon operates 110 fulfillment centers, and has increased its employees in the past year to around 1.2 million workers worldwide. Those employed in Amazon’s fulfillment centers have become highly visible during the pandemic, as the nation becomes more aware of our essential workers and the mechanisms of the global supply chain.

Since Amazon’s inception in 1994, there have been multiple attempts at collective organizing; workers in Staten Island, Chicago, Virginia, and now Alabama have attempted but ultimately failed to unionize. In this latest instance, warehouse workers began a union voting process in Bessemer, Alabama, in coordination with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The results were announced earlier this month, and indicated a resounding victory for Amazon. Of the 5,800 workers, 3,215 cast ballots. 1,798 of those voted against a union and 738 in favor. In order for the union to proceed, at least 30 percent of voters would have had to indicate support; in this case, a mere 13 percent of workers were in favor.

Representatives from the RWDSU said it would ask federal officials to investigate the election on the grounds of coercion, alleging that Amazon instilled a fear of reprisals and an environment hostile to unionization. If the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) deems these claims valid, another vote can be held, but the chances of this are widely considered to be marginal.

Analysis: Amazon’s main rebuttal against unionization has been that its starting wage of $15 an hour is well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and the company offers health care to all employees. In a statement on the election in Bessemer, the company said “[we] welcome the opportunity to sit down and share ideas with any policymaker” who wants to pass laws to federalize these same conditions. These and other reasons make it easy to understand why a warehouse worker at Amazon—with a steady job during a period of high unemployment—would vote against a union. Amazon does in fact offer a higher wage and job security than other employers, especially in economically disadvantaged areas.

Further, the RWDSU’s approach left a lot to be desired. A worker at an Amazon facility in Baltimore told the World Socialist Web Site that he felt the RWDSU’s campaign was a “publicity stunt” that “was not being motivated from the ground up.” Whether or not the RWDSU was primarily motivated by publicity, their failure to call for concrete demands during the voting period indicates that its concern with material change for workers was inexcusably absent in this campaign.

In its appeal, the biggest piece of evidence the RWDSU has against Amazon is the installation of a mailbox on warehouse property that violated NLRB orders. Workers could have incorrectly believed that Amazon would be involved in the counting of votes, thereby skewing their decision-making. In addition, it has been reported that Amazon told people false information about the voting deadlines, and held mandatory ‘union education meetings’ that pushed anti-union messaging.

One of the main unresolved questions with regards to the voting outcome is: what percent of those who voted against the union did so out of genuine fear of reprisals, and what percent simply considered the union as against their best interests?

With Biden in the White House, this is arguably the most pro-labor administration in generations (or at least, presents itself as such—Biden’s actual voting record is far less beneficial for the working class). The Biden administration released a video in March that backed workers’ right to organize without interference from their employers. This was a definitive statement in favor of labor, yet Biden stopped short of calling out Amazon by name; he stated that workers in “Alabama and all across America” were voting about union organization. Why not boldly name the company in Alabama he was so clearly referring to?

Perhaps in the absence of incendiary, direct speeches, Americans can look with hope towards pro-labor bills on the legislative docket. For one, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act is getting more attention in the wake of the Bessemer results. This proposal is included in Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan, but must be passed in the Senate to proceed. The purpose of the act is to increase labor protections by a number of measures. Some of these include allowing secondary strikes, preventing the type of mandatory meetings Amazon held to dissuade union organizing, and giving more enforcement mechanisms to the NLRB to fine employers in the case of labor violations. Moreover, it would allow individual workers to sue for back pay and damages, even allowing for direct penalization of corporate directors.

The passage of this act would require complete Democratic support and support from at least ten Republicans to pass. With the populist appeal of labor unions on the rise, enough pressure on politicians could have a decisive influence to implement the kind of ground-up results that the RWDSU failed to achieve.

Engagement Resources:

  • Call your senator to support passage of the PRO Act: This form will connect you to your senator. Ask them to vote “yes” on the PRO Act.
  • Donate the the Jobs with Justice Education Fund: This is a grassroots advocacy group that champions the rights of workers through national campaigns that include funding economic justice programs for Black workers, and alleviating the impact of coronavirus on agricultural workers.
  • Join your workplace union! Since the 1970s, union membership has declined and inequality has risen. Increased union activity can help reverse the tide.
  • Email Jeff Bezos: his email address is public. It’s unlikely he’ll respond to you directly or even read the email, but it’s worth a shot.
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