Analysis-Amazon's win in union fight shows harsh realities facing labor
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[April 10, 2021] By
Jeffrey Dastin and Mike Spector
(Reuters) -Amazon.com Inc's fierce
resistance to unionization, skepticism among workers that organizing
could get them a better deal and decisions on election parameters all
contributed to the apparently lopsided defeat of a labor drive at the
company's warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, people close to the events
A vote by workers on whether to unionize failed on Friday by a more than
2-to-1 margin in a major win for the world's largest online retailer.
The union plans to challenge the results based on Amazon's conduct
during the election.
Union leaders had hoped the campaign just outside Birmingham would
create Amazon's first organized workplace in the country and spark a new
era of worker activism. Instead, it has illustrated the continued
challenges facing the labor movement.
Officials at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)
argued that Amazon's unfair tactics were to blame in an election where
only just over half of eligible workers cast ballots.
In a statement, the RWDSU said, "The results of the election should be
set aside because conduct by the employer created an atmosphere of
confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with
the employees' freedom of choice."
Amazon in a blog post denied the outcome resulted from intimidation of
"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," it said.
The e-commerce company campaigned for weeks, plastering the warehouse
and even a bathroom stall with anti-union notices, stopping work for
mandatory employee meetings on the election, and bombarding staff with
text messages criticizing the RWDSU.
In one of the messages seen by Reuters, warehouse leadership warned that
collective bargaining could result in workers losing benefits -
something the union has disputed. "Everything is on the table," the text
And in one of the mandatory meetings, presentations asserted union
leaders used membership dues for improper purposes such as expensive
cars and vacations, a former employee at the company's warehouse told
Reuters. The union did not immediately comment on the claim.
But some warehouse workers pointed to shortcomings in the union drive.
Many younger workers, lacking experience with unions and knowledge of
labor history, were never persuaded of the benefits of organizing, these
people said. Some cited Amazon's above-average wages, and better working
conditions overall than other local employers.
'GOOD PAYING JOB'
Denean Plott, 56, who picked customer orders at the warehouse until
March and voted for the union, said, "It is a good paying job. They do
have wonderful benefits." And young employees "don't feel they need a
union because they’re not putting health and safety at risk as much."
Some cited fear that voting for a union would mean a constant battle
with management they would rather avoid.
A group of warehouse dock employees who do heavy lifting were against
the unionization effort and appreciated Amazon's current benefits, which
include receiving health insurance upon hiring, according to one of the
former fulfillment center employees. These dock workers also held
skeptical views of unions generally, associating them with corruption,
the former employee said.
Union leaders had hoped the election would fuel a revival of worker
activism, at a time when only 6.3% of private sector workers belonged to
unions in 2020, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. Private
sector union membership declined by 428,000 in 2020 from the year
High-profile union organizing drives have failed at factories in the
South run by Nissan Motor Co and Volkswagen AG, and aircraft maker
Boeing Co. In each of those cases, as at Amazon, union leaders bet that
workers unhappy with wages and working conditions would jump at the
chance to have a union go toe-to-toe with management. In each case, the
unions were wrong.
The retail workers' union also struggled in Bessemer with some of the
challenges that carmakers previously hurled at the auto workers' union,
known as the UAW. Car company officials made much of the conviction of
several UAW leaders on charges of embezzling union funds, for instance.
William Stokes, a process assistant at the Amazon warehouse who voted
no, told journalists he had concerns about union conduct.
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Aerial view of the Amazon facility where workers will vote on
whether to unionize, in Bessemer, Alabama, U.S., March 5, 2021.
Other union decisions may have backfired. In December, Amazon lawyers filed
lengthy exhibits with regulators delineating thousands of additional individual
employees at the Bessemer warehouse they said should be allowed to vote, beyond
the 1,500 the union originally proposed. The union later accepted sending
ballots to more than 5,800 workers.
Companies often try to pack such proposed bargaining units with additional
workers to dilute union support, making it harder to achieve a majority,
according to labor experts including former U.S. National Labor Relations Board
Harry Johnson, a Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP partner representing Amazon, said
Amazon simply wanted "to make sure that everybody essentially doing the same job
at the fulfillment center would have a chance to vote." He added that,
generally, additional voters can include temporary workers not necessarily more
inclined to side with the company.
Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU's president, said in an interview, "The bargaining
unit size was larger than we thought appropriate, but the alternative was to go
through several years of litigation if we didn't accept it, prior to the vote."
He said that despite Friday's result, the Bessemer campaign had created
momentum. "We have breathed life into the labor movement" and "opened the door
to Amazon organizing."
DEFEATING THE UNION
The union’s push for a mail-in vote, rather than the socially distanced
in-person election that Amazon proposed, was successful. But the NLRB had set a
March 29 deadline for submitting ballots, several weeks after they were mailed.
That gave Amazon nearly two additional months to bombard workers with text
messages and other communications urging them to vote against unionization.
"Time is the weapon employers use to defeat the union," said Mark Pearce, a
Democratic NLRB chair during the Obama administration.
Concerns about U.S. Postal Service operations, prominent leading up to the
November 2020 U.S. presidential election, likely contributed to allowing weeks
between the mailing of ballots and the deadline for returning them, Pearce said.
Regardless, the additional time likely conferred some benefit to Amazon, he
The union did garner support from U.S. lawmakers and President Joe Biden as the
vote drew closer. Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and rapper Killer
Mike held rallies in Bessemer supporting the union drive.
But some labor advocates including U.S. Representative Andy Levin of Michigan
said the power imbalance between the workers and the company was just too much
"The pressure a company like Amazon builds up against you can feel like a 1,000
lb weight on your chest," Levin wrote on Twitter. "The company’s goal is to
create so much pressure, anxiety and fear — and to make workers feel that
pressure will never go away as long as the union is around."
The setup of Amazon's warehouse itself may have tipped the vote in the
retailer's favor. The size of many football fields, it was not a space for
social gathering, let alone union organizing discussion.
The buzz of machines obscured people's voices, desks were spread out,
social-distancing became the norm due to COVID-19, and cell phone use while on
the clock was not allowed, current and former workers told Reuters.
Plott, one of the former Amazon employees, said, "You might be in that area for
hours and not see a soul."
(Reporting by Jeffrey Dastin and Mike Spector; Additional reporting by Richa
Naidu; Writing by Jonathan Weber; Editing by Vanessa O'Connell, Nick Zieminski
and Daniel Wallis)
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