Bob Sheak, April 8, 2021
This post focuses on the Amazon workers attempt to unionize in Bessemer, Alabama. It discusses the grievances that have led workers to want union representation and how Amazon has avoided unions so far. Unions generally have been in decline for some decades, so that the efforts by the Amazon worker to have a union would send a message to other workers in Amazon facilities around the country and the world that militant activism can happen. There are positive developments happening on the union front. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have passed pro-worker, pro-union legislation and President Biden has put out a comprehensive plan to “strengthen worker organizing, collective bargaining, and unions.” On the negative side, Republicans in the U.S. Senate may be able to stop such legislation and Amazon and most other corporations are opposed to unionization of their workforces. And corporations, most of which are anti-union, will likely re-double their efforts to support Republicans.
Amazon workers at an Alabama warehouse are fighting for union representation – and it has resonance
Josh Dzieza reports that 5,805 Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, had seven weeks to cast a mail-in ballot on whether to support unionization by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) or not (https://theverge.com/2021/03/28/22352987/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union-vote-rwdsu).
The ballots were mailed out on February 8, 2021, and were due on Monday, March 29. The counting of the votes commenced on March 30 and is expected to take several weeks. Dzieza writes: “If the union wins, with a majority of the ballots turned in, the warehouse employees would become the first members of Amazon’s US workforce to unionize, a momentous event at a company that has long aggressively resisted labor organizing.” The union effort “could be a first step toward improving conditions at the country’s second-largest employer” – and perhaps serve as a catalyst for Amazon workers elsewhere in the U.S. and in other countries to mount union drives or, if already unionized, to strike for better working conditions and better compensation. Jay Greene concurs, writing “The strike at the Bessemer facility represents, Dzieza maintains, the ‘biggest labor battle in its history on U.S. soil” and “a union victory could spark a wave of organizing campaigns among the 400,000 operations staff at the hundreds of other Amazon warehouses and delivery sites that dot the nation.”
“The vote is taking place,” according to Dzieza, “at an Amazon warehouse called BHM1 in Bessemer, Alabama, outside Birmingham.” The facility only opened operations last March, but already “by the summer workers had grown frustrated enough with conditions there that they reached out to the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which had a presence at nearby poultry plants and other businesses.” Union organizers then gathered signatures from workers at the facility and obtained a sufficient number to have the National Labor Relations Board authorize the union election. The vote was carried out by mail due to safety concerns about the pandemic, despite Amazon’s desire to have an in-person vote at the facility
Jay Greene points out that union efforts are unusual in Alabama because the state has a right-to-work law, “where employees in unionized workplaces aren’t required to pay union dues” https://washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/02/02/amazon-union-warehouse-workers). However, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum believes that this may turn out to be an advantage for the union. He said, as quoted by Greene, “That’s because employees who oppose the union, or are indifferent to it, wouldn’t need to pay dues even if the union won the election. So, there’s no financial risk for workers who don’t want to become union members.” Appelbaum believes this situation may negate Amazon’s attempt “to make dues the issue, even though people don’t have to pay dues.”
If the Amazon unionization efforts ultimately fail, either because a majority of workers oppose the union or because Amazon subverts the contract negotiation process after a successful union election, then the Amazon workers at the Bessemer plant will continue to face the same oppressive work environment, where management can enforce tyrannical work rules over workers, penalize them and even fire them at will, require they work long ten hour days with few breaks and little time for personal needs, where the corporation will decide what the wages will be, where the corporation will decide the level of protection against Covid-19 virus there will be in the workplace, where there will be little defense against supervisory racism.
It they succeed in voting for the union and then in getting a contract with Amazon, workers and the union will finally have a chance to improve their conditions at work and wages and become an example that encourages workers to fight for unions elsewhere. However, as I’ll discuss later, there are limitations in union contracts that are typically not addressed and that give employers what can be reasonably viewed as unfair advantages.
The concerns of the workers
Oppressive and exhausting work conditions
Shira Ovide reports on this and gets some answers from an interview with Karen Weise, both journalists at The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/technology/amazon-union-vote.html).
In response to the question “What do workers who support this union say that they want?” Weise, who has interviewed workers, says that workers at the Bessemer facility “say they don’t feel valued…. believe that they are constantly monitored to make sure they meet productivity goals, and the work can be exhausting.” While their pay is “higherthan the minimum wage, they say it’s not enough to compensate for what the work demands of them physically and the monitoring they’re under. There is a subset of workers who believe that a union would help them have power to change their pay or working conditions.”
Jay Greene’s investigation found that from the beginning, there were criticisms of “lack of adequate bathroom breaks, overheated facilities and overly aggressive performance targets for workers.” Bessemer workers interviewed by Greene “expressed a litany of concerns about issues from a lack of air conditioning during the hot Alabama summer to fears about the novel coronavirus spreading in the facility” (https://washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/02/02/amazon-union-warehouse-workers).
One of the workers interviewed by Greene is representative of the workers’ concerns. Darryl Richardson, a worker at the Bessemer warehouse who supports unionization, complained “about the scant time Amazon gives employees to use bathrooms, breaks that can sometimes require lengthy walks in the massive warehouse. Too much time away from picking items off shelves to ship to consumers — time that is tracked by computers — can lead to reprimands that can slow raises and promotions, and even lead to termination. He also bemoans last-minute directives from managers to work mandatory overtime shifts, sometimes coming just hours before the shift starts.” He also rejects the corporation’s suggestion that the goal of RWDSU “was to raise money to pay for union leaders’ cars and meals.”
The oppressive conditions about which workers complain are linked, Josh Dzieza reports, to how Amazon systematically tracks “the average rate at which workers perform a task, called takt time,’ and how much time they spend not scanning items, called ‘time off task.’” If workers fail to conform to the standards, they get reprimanded or fired (https://theverge.com/2021/03/28/22352987/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union-vote-rwdsu). Dzieza quotes Perry Connelly, a workers at BHM1 who supports unionization. Connelly said this: “It got to the point where people started complaining about going to the bathroom and coming back and something being said to them about their takt time going up.” This is, Dzieza says, a common complaint among workers at BHM1 and other Amazon facilities.
Amazon disputes such concerns. Dzieza received an emailed statement from Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox, who said that “like most companies, we have performance expectations for every Amazonian – be it a corporate employee or fulfillment center associate, and we measure actual performance against those expectations.” Knox said performance is “measured and evaluated over a long period of time” and that “we support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.” Knox also said that workers “are allowed to grab a snack, water, or use the toilet whenever needed” but did not directly address workers’ complaints that they are penalized for doing so.”
There is other evidence that Amazon does create an oppressive workplace for workers. “Following revelations in September that Amazon had engaged in widespread surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of workers in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere who had attempted to organize, Amnesty International released a report in December calling on Amazon to “let workers unionize.” The report also cited how French labor unions and regulations had served to protect Amazon workers during the pandemic. The corporate leviathan should have to reckon with such constraints on its power and its abuses in every country it operates” (https://theintercept.com/2020/12/03/amazon-workers-union-international-strike).
Other worker concerns
Dzieza also found in his research that workers hope a union can negotiate higher pay.” He continues: “Many of the workers are acutely aware that Amazon has done stupendously well during the pandemic, with profits up 84 percent in 2020 and Jeff Bezos’ personal wealth rising by about $70 billion. Meanwhile, many BHM1 workers like Connelly have seen their wages drop: BHM1 opened in March, when Amazon had implemented $2 per hour in additional hazard pay, a program the company ended in June, dropping their pay to $15.30 an hour. “A lot of people are talking about the fact that he received billions of dollars in the pandemic from all his facilities, but he didn’t kick none of that money back to his employees who were actually working and in the trenches for him,” said Connelly.”
The Covid-19 pandemic and a lack of safety measures
“And recently, workers’ fears about the health risks of the pandemic and the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement have made some employees feel emboldened to demand more from Amazon,” according to Weise (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/technology/amazon-union-vote.html).
“At the beginning of the pandemic,” Greene learned, “Amazon’s warehouse employeesraised concerns about their safety in its busy facilities, where, they said, managers initially didn’t take enough precautions. Amazon has since put in place more measures to address concerns… but not to the satisfaction of some workers.” Greene reports:
“Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox told Greene that “Amazon has invested $961 million in coronavirus safety measures, including providing more than 283 million masks at warehouses and deploying more than 351,000 thermometers and 16,500 thermal cameras at its facilities.” Nonetheless, in October, Amazon “said nearly 20,000 of its U.S. employees had tested positive or had been presumed positive for the virus since the pandemic took hold.” Unsurprisingly, “Fears about contracting the virus is one reason why some workers seek union representation.” Josh Dzieza reminds us that “recently, the NLRB found that Amazon threatened and fired workers who protested the company’s handling of COVID-19” (https://theverge.com/2021/03/28/22352987/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union-vote-rwdsu).
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- SHAREAll sharing optionsIf the union wins, the warehouse employees would become the first members of Amazon’s US workforce to unionize, a momentous event at a company that has long aggressively resisted labor organizing, and one that could be a first step toward improving conditions at the country’s second-largest employer. Here is what’s happened so far and what might happen nextWhat are the concerns of Amazon workers at the Bessemer Warehouse
- Shira Ovide gets some answers to this – and other – questions in an interview with Karen Weise, both journalists for The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/technology/amazon-union-vote.html). In response to the question “What do workers who support this union say that they want?,” Weise, who has interviewed workers, says that Amazon workers “say they don’t feel valued…. believe that they are constantly monitored to make sure they meet productivity goals, and the work can be exhausting.” While their pay is “higherthan the minimum wage, they say it’s not enough to compensate for what the work demands of them physically and the monitoring they’re under. There is a subset of workers who believe that a union would help them have power to change their pay or working conditions.
- “About 85 percent of the employees in the Bessemer warehouse are Black, and union organizers have focused on issues of racial empowerment and equality.
Jay Greene refers to the racial aspect, writing: “Many of the workers in the Bessemer warehouse are Black, and the union has framed the fight around issues of ‘respect and dignity’ as well as pay, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said. ‘We see this as much as a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle,’ he added.”
Some unknown number of workers oppose unionization
Greene gives this example. “Carla Johnson has already been won over by Amazon. The 44-year-old from Birmingham works as a ‘problem solver,’ fixing orders with damaged packages or ones where the wrong products were picked before being shipped to customers. Johnson supports Amazon because of “the way the company treated her when she suffered a seizure on the job in July, two months after starting at the site. She had brain cancer, and Amazon gave her three-and-a-half months’ leave to undergo surgery and subsequent treatments. The bills topped $100,000, but her company-provided health insurance picked up the tab, she said.” Greene continues the story. “Johnson, who is now cancer-free, acknowledged she might still have the same benefits even if the warehouse was unionized. But her experience makes her believe that Amazon cares for her and her co-workers and that a union isn’t necessary. And she worries that a union could disrupt the line of communication she has with her managers.”
Amazon’s anti-union efforts
Greene’s investigation found the following evidence. “Amazon is working hard to persuade other workers to join Johnson in opposing the union.Since mid-January, when the NLRB scheduled the vote, the company has ratcheted up efforts to sway workers, warehouse employees said. It set up an anti-union website — DoItWithoutDues.com — discouraging workers from joining the union drive. The company has also held ongoing mandatory meetings for workers on company time, so-called captive-audience sessions, to show videos and run through PowerPoint presentations that disparage unionization.” The corporation sends out multiple texts a day to workers. One text message read as follows: “We don’t believe that you need to pay someone to speak for you or that you need to pay dues for what you already get for free.” As the unionization vote was underway, “managers have come by workstations to hand employees water bottles and candy,” according to one worker.
In its opposition to the union drive, Amazon says workers don’t need a union coming between them and the company, and, through its messaging and mandatory meetings, urges workers not to abandon “the winning team.” Amazon also has pressed its case “with leaflets and [as mentioned] mandated anti-union meetings.” The corporation reminds workers that they are already handsomely compensated, referring to “the starting pay of $15.30 an hour, well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (Alabama has no state minimum-wage law.)” Amazon additionally reminds workers that they receive much better benefits than workers in comparable jobs outside of Amazon, including health-care, vision and dental benefits and a retirement plan.” In short, as Natasha Lennard puts it, The corporation believes that it is doing what is expected of it by “creating a lot of jobs and paying more than many of its retail competitors” (https://theintercept.com/2020/12/03/amazon-workers-union-international-strike).
Josh Dzieza provides further details on Amazon’s efforts to defeat the union. “Amazon has been waging an aggressive campaign against the union effort, running “Facebook ads directing to a website that warned workers they would have to pay union dues,” while also putting up banners on the walls and signs on the restroom stall doors with messages like “Where will your dues go?” and “Unions can’t, we can!” (https://theverge.com/2021/03/28/22352987/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union-vote-rwdsu). The company has brought in a high-priced union-busting firm and held mandatory meetings at the warehouse. “They call them training sessions, but all it was union bashing,” said Connelly.
“The company has also employed more unorthodox measures. After losing its fight to have the election held in-person, Amazon sent employees mailers with instructions on filling out their ballot with a ‘no’ vote and messaged them to deposit their ballots in a new mailbox installed at the warehouse entrance, Vice reported. (Knox said “the mailbox was installed by the USPS as an option for convenient mailing to and from work but never a mandate.”
To top it off, employers have extreme structural advantages over organizers under US labor law, like their ability to hold mandatory anti-union presentations on company time while restricting non-work conversations and barring non-employee organizers from the workplace. Consequently, organizers are often left to canvass employees on nearby streets and sidewalks — or, in the case of BHM1, the parking lot as departing employees waited for the light to change. Then, late last year, Amazon asked the county to change the timing on the traffic light. Knox said this was done to reduce congestion during shift changes, but organizers say it made their work harder.”
There is, moreover, recent evidence that Amazon has illegally fired pro-union, activist employees. Sharon Zhang reports on his story, writing that the “National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found that Amazon illegally fired two employees who spoke out about the company’s climate impact and labor practices during the pandemic” (https://truthout.org/articles/amazon-illegally-fired-activist-employees-labor-board-finds).
The employees, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, “were fired in April of last year after criticizing Amazon for forcing its warehouse employees to work in unsafe conditions due to the coronavirus. The two employees circulated a petition internally about the risks of working amid COVID-19, and both also offered to match donations up to $500 on Twitter for the workers.” The NLRB’s decision is that “if the company doesn’t settle the case, the agency would accuse the company of unfair labor practices.” This is not the first time Amazon has been found to have violated labor laws. Zhang writes: “The labor board has found the company to have violated labor laws so many times — at least 37 — that the agency is considering launching a formal, national investigation into Amazon, NBC reported last month.”
At the same time, while the NLRB can discipline the company for violating labor standards, “the agency has such little teeth [so] that any punishment it can give is basically a slap on the wrist for a company as huge as Amazon.” Zhang quotes Caroline O’Donovan at BuzzfeedNews: “Even when the NLRB sides with workers, the consequences, or so-called remedies, it’s able to mete out — typically small monetary settlements, back pay, or posting a flyer — are so minor that they do little to deter employers from violating the rules again.” This situation could be remedied if the House-passed Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or the PRO Act [discussed below], is eventually passed in the Senate and signed by President Biden.
Generally, unions in the U.S. have not been doing well
David J. Pryzbylski writes on the “Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual report, released in January of 2021, that the data on unions in the U.S. is mixed (https://www.natlawreview.com/article/union-numbers-2021-edition). On the one hand, union membership “increased on a percentage basis from 2019 to 2020.” On the plus side, the union membership rate in 2020 was 10.8 percent, “up by 0.5 percentage point from 2019. However, the total number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions was at 14.3 million in 2020, but this “was down by 321,000, or 2.2 percent, from 2019.” This anomaly is explained by the fact that the wage and salary employment fell during the year as a result of the pandemic, so a slightly higher percentage of workers in a smaller overall total employment situation. Pryzbylski puts it this way: “The disproportionately large decline in total wage and salary employment compared with the decline in the number of union members led to an increase in the union membership rate.”
The long-term trend is clear enough. The unionization rate in the U.S. has declined. As Pryzbylski points out: “In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.” Now it’s down to 10.8 percent and 14.3 million in 2020. He also notes that a higher percentage of workers in the public sector were unionized (34.8%) than in the private sector (6.3%).
Shaun Richman identifies one of the systemic consequences of this decline in unionization in his book Tell the Bosses We’re Coming (2020). He writes: “Today, there is growing recognition that the massive and nearly unprecedented inequality in our country and the economic recessions that occur more frequently and hit with greater severity is a direct result of the decline of union membership” (p. 215).
Trump made a bad situation worse
Steven Greenhouse documents how workers generally have been put at an intensified disadvantage in collective bargaining during the years of the Trump administration (https://prospect.org/power/worker-s-friend-trump-waged-war-workers). Trump’s appointees to the federal courts and federal agencies “moved aggressively to undercut workers and unions.” Greenhouse also refers to “how think tanks and worker advocates have compiled lengthy lists of Trump’s anti-worker and anti-union actions—some more than 50 items long.” For example, Trump “rolled back overtime protections for millions of workers and made it easier for Wall Street firms to rip off workers’ 401(k)s.”
Trump additionally “erased a rule that extended overtime pay to millions more workers, a move that will deprive many workers of thousands of dollars per year.” The former president “greatly relaxed requirements for employers to report workplace injuries, making it harder for workers to know how dangerous their workplace is and what hazards need correcting.” “In a bizarre, pro-corporate twist, Trump’s Labor Department is even allowing many employers who violate minimum wage, overtime, and other wage laws to avoid any penalty by volunteering to investigate themselves. In a blow to workers of color and women, the Trump administration scrapped a rule that let the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission collect pay data from large corporations so it could obtain insights into possible pay discrimination by gender and race.”
Unionization efforts at Amazon have failed in the past
Greene sums it up well. “Amazon is one of the nation’s largest employers, with more than 1.1 million workers worldwide, and it has long opposed the unionization of its domestic workforce (https://washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/02/02/amazon-union-warehouse-workers). For years, U.S. unions have been quietly working to crack the company, with no success. The closest was a bid by a small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at its Middletown, Del., warehouse in 2014. Those workers ultimately voted against forming a union, following a drive led by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.” And in 2019, “Amazon fired an employee who had been outspoken about working conditions inside his Staten Island warehouse and had called for unionization. The company said the worker was terminated for violating a safety regulation at the facility.”
Win or lose, the Amazon workers have energized the union movement
“If Amazon workers unionize,” Jay Greene writes, “it would mark a major milestone for worker representation, which has long been in decline.” Furthermore, Greene reports: “As U.S. manufacturing has waned, participation in unions has shrunk to about 11 percent last year, down from 30 percent of the nonagricultural workforce in 1964. Some older companies, like 113-year-old logistics giant UPS, are unionized, but major nonunion employers include more recent entrants like retailers Walmart and the Gap.” In this context, “Amazon is a ripe target, as a major player in logistics, transportation and retail. Adding to its appeal is the rapid growth of its warehouse operations — it added 400,000 workers primarily to its global warehouses and delivery operations in the first nine months of last year.”
The union needs a yes vote from the majority of the ballots case, not an absolute majority. Once this is accomplished, Dzieza tells us, the RWDSU can begin bargaining with Amazon for a contract. However, there are many precedents of corporations not bargaining in good faith, according to Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University ((https://theverge.com/2021/03/28/22352987/amazon-bessemer-alabama-union-vote-rwdsu). But the fact that the workers have had an election, Fine says, is already a victory, given the way US labor law and Amazon’s power puts organizers at a disadvantage. Getting to an election is a signal to unions that it can be worth the energy and expense of attempting to organize Amazon workers, and to workers that the risks they take might pay off. There are already signs that workers are taking that lesson from Bessemer. Since the campaign began, the RWDSU said it has already been contacted by over 1,000 Amazon workers interested in unionizing.”
Signs of pro-workers and pro-union progress
A global movement has emerged among Amazon workers
Make Amazon Pay
Natasha Lennard reports for The Intercept on “a new wave of organizing by a global coalition of warehouse workers, trade unions, and activists under the banner Make Amazon Pay — the first such coalition of broad international scope. Coordinated strikes, work stoppages, and protests of varying size have taken place in Bangladesh, India, Australia, Germany, Poland, Spain, France, the U.K., the U.S. and beyond” (https://theintercept.com/2020/12/03/amazon-workers-union-international-strike). Lennard continues: “Make Amazon Pay brings together worker collectives — from hawkers in India to warehouse workers in Poland — with large international union federations. The coalition also includes major nonprofits such as Greenpeace to address stunning facts like the scale of Amazon’s carbon footprint, which is larger than two-thirds of the world’s countries.” The Organization Progressive International is at the center of organizing the international coalition (https://progressiveinternational/wire/2020-11-26-make-amazon-pay).
On Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020, “the coalition published an open letter signed in solidarity by over 401 politicians from over 34 countries, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, and Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y, from the United States. (https://progressiveinternational-wire/2020-12-04-dear-mr-=bezos-the-days-of-amazons-impunity-are-over/en)
The letter, which pledges support for the Make Amazon Pay effort, is addressed to Bezos. Here is the letter
Dear Mr. Bezos, the Days of Amazon’s Impunity Are Over
Progressive International, Dec 4, 2020
We, elected representatives, legislators, and public officials from around the world, hereby put you on notice that Amazon’s days of impunity are over. Last Friday, 27 November, workers, activists, and citizens around the world joined forces to demand justice from Amazon. Today, we pledge to stand with this movement in every congress, parliament, and statehouse where we work.
In short, we write to you now with a single commitment: to Make Amazon Pay.
The world knows that Amazon can afford to pay its workers, its environmental cost and its taxes. And yet – time and again – you have dodged and dismissed your debts to workers, societies, and the planet.
Your great wealth is based on the skills of your workers and the care they receive from their friends, family and communities. These are the very people who risked their health and that of their loved ones to supply goods to consumers and make you enormous profits. But while your personal wealth has risen by around US $13 million per hour in 2020, these workers enter dangerous working conditions, enjoy little or no increase in their pay, and face retaliation for their efforts to defend themselves and organize their colleagues.
We pledge again, alongside your workers, to Make Amazon Pay.
Your company’s rise to dominance has come with extraordinary costs to our environment. While you have personally acknowledged the climate emergency among the defining challenges of our era, Amazon’s carbon footprint is greater than two-thirds of the world’s countries. Your plan for emissions reduction is both insufficient to stay within the environmental boundaries of our planet and difficult to trust given Amazon’s record of broken promises on sustainability and financial contributions to climate change denial.
We pledge again, on behalf of our planet, to Make Amazon Pay.
Finally, you have undermined our democracies and their capacity to respond to collective challenges. Your monopolistic practices have squeezed small businesses, your web services have disrespected data rights, and you have contributed a pittance in return. For example, in 2017 and 2018, Amazon paid zero US federal corporation tax. Through your global tax dodging, you damage the public provision of health, education, housing, social security and infrastructure.
We pledge again, for our constituents, to Make Amazon Pay.
We urge you to act decisively to change your policies and priorities to do right by your workers, their communities, and our planet. We stand ready to act in our respective legislatures to support the movement that is growing around the world to Make Amazon Pay.
Find the list of all 401 legislators from 34 countries here [at https://progressiveinternational-wire/2020-12-04-dear-mr-=bezos-the-days-of-amazons-impunity-are-over/en).
Examples of worker organizing in other countries
Lennard gives the following examples (https://theintercept.com/2020/12/03/amazon-workers-union-international-strike). “Garment workers in Bangladesh staged a protest outside an Amazon supplier in Dhaka, behind a bright red ‘Make Amazon Pay’ banner. The company has reportedly not paid its Bangladeshi suppliers for completed orders that were canceled in the pandemic. Workers in Germany went on a three-day strike, an escalation in a years long battle with Amazon for better pay and working conditions; approximately 2,500 people took part.’”
“In Poznań, in the west of Poland, workers brandished the same ‘Make Amazon Pay’ signs during a coordinated work stoppage. Polish workers have been organizing for weeks — including staging wildcat strikes — to have their minimal holiday bonuses raised to match the amounts workers in other countries will receive. Warehouse workers told [Lennard] by video conference that employees in Poland had been paid four times less than their counterparts in Germany; through union organizing, that discrepancy has shrunk to three times less, while the cost of living is by no means three times cheaper. In the U.S., workers are taking historic steps just to unionize.”
Amazon workers, already unionized, have had success in France, when workers engaged in mass protests, strikes, and union complaining about Covid-19 safety. As a result, a Parisian judge ordered that “Amazon develop improved health and safety measures with the unions” and “[n]oncompliance would come with a penalty of over $1 million per day and per violation.” The corporation announced in fury that it would suspend all of its French operations, but workers continue to receive full pay and the company says that it [now] plans to follow the judge’s decision.”
The PRO Act legislation passed by the House
On the pro-worker front, the U.S. House of Representatives, with no Republican votes, has passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act for a second time. It’s fate now lies in the Senate. Richard F. Vitarelli and Adam C. Doerr report on the bill for the National Law Review (https://www.natlawreview.com/article/protecting-right-to-organize-pro-act-passes-house-awaits-senate-fate).
They write: “The sponsors described the bill as comprehensive labor legislation aimed at bolstering workers’ collective bargaining rights. The bill is in the Senate and was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on March 11, 2021.” The same legislation was passed a year ago, “when the House of Representatives first passed the PRO Act, in February 2020, [when] then-President Donald Trump was a vocal opponent and promised to veto it if it ever reached his desk. The Republican-controlled Senate at the time made sure the bill never even made it to the floor for debate.
The circumstances in the U.S. Congress are different now. President Joe Biden has promised to sign the bill if he gets the chance. It has a chance for passing in the Senate, where Democrats have a 50+1 majority, but only if all Democratic senators support setting aside the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass legislation. The construction industry is opposed to the bill. Vitarelli and Doerr quote the CEO of the Associated General Contractors who “called the PRO Act “a significant threat to the viability of the commercial construction industry.” Most corporations will oppose the bill.
Vitarelli and Doerr also allude to some of the bill’s provisions. If the legislation is passed by the Senate and signed into law by President Biden, the Pro Act would significantly improve workers’ ability to get a contract after a positive union election, prohibit employers from locking out striking workers and replacing them, while also allow workers at other companies to support striking workers (e.g., secondary boycotts). And the act would permit individual employees “to bring civil lawsuits in federal court alleging their own ‘unfair labor practice’ claims and to recover back pay, front pay, consequential damages, liquidated damages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees. Corporate directors and officers also could be held personally liable for violations.
If ever passed into law, The PRO Act would significantly increase the ability of workers to protect and advance their workplace interests
In an article published in Labor Notes, Brandon Magner considers how, if the PRO Act was already law, it would have positively affected the Amazon Union Election (https://labornotes.org/blogs/2021/03/if-pro-act-were-law-amazon-union-election-would-have-looked-very-different). He refers to eight impacts that PRO Act would have, and implicitly identifies the disadvantages that presently burden, or have burdened, the Amazon workers in their efforts to unionize – and then to obtain a contract. Here I quote Magner.
- Amazon would be prohibited from conducting captive audience meetings. Research shows that employers deploy these meetings in almost 90 percent of NLRB elections, in no small part because they’re so effective in channeling the employer’s message and coercing the captive employees. Amazon was no exception to this phenomenon. Under the PRO Act, the very use of these meetings would constitute an Unfair Labor Practice as a violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.
- Amazon would not have had legal standing to participate in representation proceedings. This is important for pre-election conduct, as Amazon used its time at the December hearings to inflate the proposed bargaining unit to a wall-to-wall unit and attempt to stall for time to begin campaigning against the union. These sort of dual stalling-and-gerrymandering tactics would be impossible under the PRO Act, as the pre-election hearing would not have included Amazon at all.
- The Union’s proposed bargaining unit would have likely been accepted. Through the PRO Act’s codification of the Obama Board’s Specialty Healthcare decision, a union’s proposed bargaining unit is to be accepted by the Labor Board so long as the unit shares a sufficient “community of interest.” Combined with the removal of employer standing, these changes would have all but guaranteed the vote covered only the 1,500 or so employees the union originally petitioned for instead of the wall-to-wall compromise that was agreed upon by the Union as a means of speeding up the process.
- If the union won, it would be guaranteed to secure a first contract. The PRO Act installs a system of interest arbitration to take hold if the parties do not reach an initial collective bargaining agreement within 90 days of a union’s certification following an election victory. This would have taken away a key campaign talking point from Amazon, which was able to truthfully tell its employees that the Union was not assured to provide its members a contract even if it won the election.
- The election would have been over months ago. The PRO Act provides for faster pre-election proceedings (through codification of the Obama Board’s 2014 “quickie election” rules) and the option for electronic voting at the union’s preference. While the mail-ballot election in many ways has likely benefitted the union, the sheer size of the unit and USPS’s pandemic-era issues likely convinced the NLRB that voting needed to last almost two months to give everyone a chance to vote. Amazon has been allowed to continue campaigning against the Union during this time. Electronic voting could logically be done faster and circumvent any post-office problems, in addition to undercutting the employer’s built-in influences from in-person voting on company property.
- Amazon would face far greater consequences for unlawfully interfering with the election. As I’ve discussed, current NLRB case law makes bargaining orders a very rare occurrence. Combined with the agency’s lack of punitive remedies, employers are greatly incentivized to commit unfair labor practices or otherwise interfere with the “laboratory conditions” of the vote, as the worst that will usually happen is a re-run of the election. Under the PRO Act, a union that enjoyed majority support before filing its petition would be certified through card check in elections that have been set aside because the employer committed an unfair labor practice or otherwise interfered with a fair election, and where the employer did not demonstrate that the violation or other form of interference was unlikely to have affected the outcome of the election. A simple 8(a)(1) violation concerning supervisor threats or promises could conceivably be enough to certify a losing union under the PRO Act’s strict language, so Amazon would have been forced to strictly regulate both its and its agents’ conduct.
- The union would have far more economic weapons at its disposal in exacting leverage and building solidarity. The PRO Act expressly legalizes the use of intermittent strikes, partial strikes, and production slowdowns. While the Union has seemed content to rely on peaceful tactics and the NLRB’s election machinery for certification, unions would not be confined to such tactics in the face of employer hostility. These sorts of job actions could be immensely effective against Amazon given its just-in-time methods underlying its global supply chain. If nothing else, it’s more tools in the workers’ tool box that the employer has to account for.
- Alabama’s “Right-to-Work” law would be repealed. While RTW laws are often exaggerated in their legal effect, as they only affect the specific issue of union security clauses and unions’ right to collect dues, most people understand these laws to have powerful signaling effects on politicians, businesses, communities, and the workers themselves. With all RTW laws repealed under the PRO Act, Alabama employers like Amazon would not have the head start of overseeing a workforce that has been conditioned for years on the idea that unions don’t belong in the Deep South.
President Biden is pro-union (not, he says, anti-business)
Abigal Johnson refers to some evidence that verifies this (https://cnbc.com/2020/12/01/biden-promises-to-be-the-most-pro-union-president-and-rep.html). Biden appears to share the view that “labor unions are both good for businesses and workers.” He began his presidential campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has stated his support for the PRO Act. His website “includes numerous union-friendly policies including promises to enact financial penalties on companies that interfere with workers’ organizing efforts, provide a federal guarantee for public sector employees to organize and ban ‘right to work’ laws.” At a Nov. 16 meeting “with business leaders such as General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Target chief executive Brian Cornell as well as labor leaders such as AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry, and United Auto Workers president Rory Gamble, Biden said that ‘unions are going to have increased power’ in his administration.” He is quoted as saying: “I want you to know I’m a union guy, that’s not anti-business.”
As president, on Feb. 28, he expressed support for the Amazon Warehouse Workers union drive. NPR’s Jaclyn Dias quotes what Biden said on a video shared on Twitter. “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. This is vitally important — a vitally important choice, as America grapples with the deadly pandemic, the economic crisis and the reckoning on race — what it reveals is the deep disparities that still exist in our country” (https://npr/com/2021/03/01/974210944/biden-backs-amazon-warehouse-workers-union-drive).
David Cohen emphasizes that, on the video, Biden does not tell the Amazon workers to vote for the union, but praised them for attempting to organize in support of a union (https://politico.com/news/2021/02/28/biden-union-amazon-workers-471907). Cohen quotes Biden as follows: “Workers in Alabama — and all across America — are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. It’s a vitally important choice — one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers,” the president tweeted. “Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.” The main point is the Biden wants to see workers have an unencumbered option to unionize.
Writing for “legal news” at JDSUPRA, David P. Phippen’s finds generally that the “Biden campaign made it clear that his administration will support union organizing, collective bargaining, and unionization. In general, his plan is to seek to add to the power of unions by increasing union membership, as well as reducing the rights and leverage that employers have enjoyed recently and, somewhat, historically” (https://jusupra.com/legalnews/the-biden-era-of-labor-law-change-the-8486888). Phippen’s viewpoint is validated by a new plan by Biden to enhance the relative power of unions in their relations with employers.
Biden proposes a comprehensive pro-worker, pro-union plan
Biden has made his pro-worker and union views clear in proposing a comprehensive plan “for strengthening worker organizing, collective bargaining, and unions” (https://joebiden.com/empowerworkers). The plan identifies three goals. It proposes to: (1) “Check the abuse of corporate power over labor and hold corporate executives personally accountable for violations of labor laws”; (2) “Encourage and incentivize unionization and collective bargaining”; and (3) “Ensure that workers are treated with dignity and receive the pay, benefits, and workplace protections they deserve.”
On the first goal, Biden will hold “corporations and executives personally accountable for interfering with organizing efforts and violating other labor laws. The plan strong supports the PRO Act provisions that call for “financial penalties on companies that interfere with worker’ organizing efforts, including firing or otherwise retaliating against workers.” But the plan goes beyond the PRO Act “by enacting legislation to impose even stiffer penalties on corporations and to hold company executives personally liable when they interfere with organizing efforts, including criminally liable when their interference is intentional.” Employers who engaged in “wage theft, or cheat on their taxes by intentionally misclassifying their employees as independent contractors” will be stopped from pursuing such activities. The plan “will fund a dramatic increase in the number of investigators in labor and employment enforcement agencies to facilitate a large anti-misclassification effort,” “institute multi-year federal debarment for all employers who illegally oppose unions, building on debarment efforts pursued in the Obama-Biden Administration.”
On the second goal, Biden wants to “make it easier for workers who choose to unionize to do so.” Here the plan draws from the PRO Act, in, for example, banning “employers’ mandatory meetings with their employees, including captive audience meetings in which employees are forced to listen to anti-union rhetoric; “requiring employers to report not only information communicated to employees, but also the activities of third-party consultants who work behind the scenes to manage employers’ anti-union campaigns.” The plan will go beyond the PRO Act by “allowing workers to use this process, called ‘card check,’ as an initial option for forming a union, not merely an option granted when the employer has illegally interfered in the election process.” The Biden plan will also provide “a federal guarantee for public sector employees to bargain for better pay and benefits and the working conditions they deserve.” The plan will “repeal the Taft-Hartley provisions that allow states to impose “right to work” laws.” And, among other proposals, Biden’s plan calls for the creation of “a cabinet-level working group that will solely focus on promoting union organizing and collective bargaining in the public and private sectors.”
On the third goal, “Biden will ensure that workers receive the pay and dignity they deserve.” Here are a few examples from the plan. The president will “increase the federal minimum wage to $15.” The plan will ensure “that every federal investment in infrastructure and transportation projects or service jobs is covered by prevailing wage protections.” It will stop “employers from denying workers overtime play they’ve earned,” call for the reclassification of workers in the “gig economy” from independent contractors to workers entitled to legal benefits and protections, and eliminate “non-compete clauses and no-poaching agreements that hinder the ability of employees to seek higher wages, better benefits, and working conditions by changing employers.” Biden’s plan will also “increase workplace safety and health,” as OHSA will be directed “to substantially expand its enforcement efforts,” “increase the number of investigators in OSHA and the Mine Safety Health and Administration (MSHA),” and have “OSHA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, MSHA, and other relevant agencies to develop comprehensive strategies for addressing the most dangerous hazards workers encounter in the modern workplace.”
We won’t know whether the Amazon workers at the Bessemer facility will vote to have union representation. If they vote in favor of the union, it is just a first step in the collective bargaining process. Given the anti-union position of Amazon, it would not be surprising then, even if the union is voted in, that the corporation would do its best to subvert contract negotiations. In the meantime, the same oppressive work conditions remain in place, with the same long hours, authoritarian and sometimes racist supervision, unexpected demands for workers to work additional hours, low wages (especially after taxes), few breaks, difficulties in getting to the restroom and back to the job without being penalized, the threats to and dismissal of union activists, and so forth. At the same time, Amazon workers in other facilities across the country may well be encouraged to undertake the precarious task of a union drive.
Most Amazon workers are employed at the Bessemer or other warehouses because they lacked decent options. Alec MacGillis documents this point, among others, in his book Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America. MacGillis also makes another point. He writes: “More than worker activism alone would be necessary to provide a check on so vast and powerful a company,” that is, Amazon (p. 335). Worker activism is necessary but so is federal activism. Joe Biden has laid out a plan that would dramatically improve the bargaining position of workers. However, the plan, or parts of it, will have to win support in both the U.S. House (which it has) and in the U.S. Senate, where Republicans will use the filibuster to stop any legislative progress.
There is another consideration as well. Most corporations and their trade associations, not only Amazon, don’t want unions and certainly don’t want powerful unions. So, whether Biden’s plan overcomes the filibuster hurdle in the Senate or not, corporate America is likely to use their immense resources politically to oppose the forthcoming elections of Democrats and eventually of Biden.
Ideally, the workers at Amazon would get a beneficial contract, other workers at Amazon and in other industries would mount unionization efforts, public opinion would be favorable to unionization, Biden and the Democrats will win elections and succeed in reforming labor law, and the outcome would be some fair balance brought to labor-management relations. Even then, corporations will still control where to locate or relocate their facilities, what to produce, the size of the workforce, and how to arrange production and distribution. The general implication: the labor struggles will continue to face major challenges. Whether they are insurmountable remains to be seen.