A union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama will be tallied next week, part of increased labor activity across the US.
Why it matters
The labor organization comes as companies face a difficult recruiting environment because of the Great Resignation, the wave of workers leaving jobs as a result of the pandemic.
A vote on unionizing starts at a New York Amazon warehouse on Friday, and another vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama will be tallied next week, adding to a trend of increased labor organizing across the country.
The count in Bessemer, Alabama, comes a year after workers at the facility voted not to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. After the defeat, the union successfully alleged that Amazon had interfered with that vote. Federal officials ordered a new election, finding that a mailbox installed by Amazon looked like a voting booth and could’ve given workers the false impression that Amazon itself was running the election.
The earlier Bessemer election kicked off a year of increased labor organization across the country. Two other Amazon facilities, both in Staten Island, New York, are seeking to unionize. Workers at more than 150 US Starbucks stores have requested union elections, and eight of the coffee chain’s stores have voted to unionize under Workers United. On Friday, workers at a Mesa, Arizona, facility voted to join the union, according to a HuffPost reporter. Separately, Google Fiber contractors in Missouri signed on Friday with the Alphabet Workers Union, the umbrella union representing employees of Google’s parent company. A New York City REI store also organized earlier this month, voting to join the RWDSU as the company’s first unionized retail outlet.
The burst in labor activity comes as corporate employees and hourly workers find themselves with renewed leverage because of the Great Resignation, the wave of workers leaving jobs as a result of the pandemic. To combat the loss of workers to other jobs or early retirement, employers have rolled out higher wages and better benefits. These improvements, however, haven’t satisfied Amazon organizers, who’re demanding better break policies and a reduction in physically demanding quotas that critics blame for the e-commerce giant’s high injury rates.
In its public statements, Amazon emphasizes its employees’ right to choose whether to join a union. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said in a statement. “Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”
Many of the labor efforts were brewing before the original Bessemer election. But it was the first public manifestation of growing worker discontent and helped accelerate the activity, says Andrew MacDonald, a labor lawyer at Fox Rothschild who advises employers.
“The fact that it failed almost didn’t seem to matter,” MacDonald said. “People were still talking about it.”
Here’s what you need to know about union activity at Amazon and other companies.
How many Amazon warehouses are considering unionizing?
Workers at three Amazon locations have formally petitioned for union elections with the federal government. Vote-by-mail ballots for a redo election were sent to Amazon workers in Alabama in February. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees union elections, will start counting the votes on Monday. A result is expected within a week.
Workers at one Staten Island warehouse will vote in person at their workplace from Friday through Wednesday. Workers at a second Staten Island warehouse have petitioned for an election, which the NLRB has approved but has yet to schedule. Both warehouses are seeking representation by the Amazon Labor Union, a new organization formed by current and former workers.
A victory for a union at Amazon would be historic. The company has never had a unionized workforce in the US, though there are Amazon unions in Europe. The company has fought organizing efforts with mandatory meetings run by paid persuaders who detail potential downsides of joining a union. Amazon also sends messages to workers’ phones and places signs throughout warehouses, urging workers to vote no.
Amazon says the meetings are for the benefit of employees. “If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site which is why we host regular informational sessions and provide employees the opportunity to ask questions and learn about what this could mean for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon,” said spokesperson Nantel in a statement.
Workers from Staten Island say they’ve been removed from meetings for pushing back on claims Amazon’s representatives make in the meetings. A prosecutor at the National Labor Relations Board has alleged that a consultant described union organizers as “thugs” to employees.
What complaints do pro-union Amazon workers have?
The Alabama and New York workers have overlapping concerns, but the union pushes have different origins.
In Bessemer, workers started talking about unionizing in 2020 after sharing complaints over the grueling pace of work and lack of adequate rest time. Amazon has been the subject of multiple lawsuits over locating break rooms and restrooms too far apart, requiring workers to use a chunk of their downtime walking to them. Regulators in Washington State recently said Amazon’s quota practices are directly responsible for causing musculoskeletal injuries.
In Staten Island, workers demanded better COVID-19 protections in early 2020, when the pandemic threw Amazon’s staffing levels and supply chain into chaos. After the company fired or disciplined employees who planned walkouts, workers created the Amazon Labor Union.
Was Amazon a harbinger of the boom in labor organizing?
The unionizing efforts at Amazon signaled a sea change, labor experts say.
That Amazon’s union election came first is no surprise, given long-standing criticisms of its warehouse working conditions. Over the past year, the company has publicly dedicated itself to becoming the world’s best employer, but it hadn’t tried to cultivate that image until recently.
Starbucks and REI are different, says Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University. Both companies have made being a great workplace a part of their brands. Taken altogether, the union efforts show that workers everywhere want more, Kalyanam says.
“There’s something that’s gone out of tilt in the past two years in terms of employee expectations,” he said. “People really reevaluated what work means to them.”
Are the unions likely to win the Amazon elections?
The odds are against the unions.
In Bessemer, the RWDSU lost by a wide margin during the 2021 election. High turnover means the union has to win over new workers unfamiliar with the issues, which makes extra work for the union, says MacDonald, the employer-side labor lawyer.
In Staten Island, union organizers didn’t demonstrate they had support from more than half of workers, a threshold unions typically try to reach before filing a petition for an election. Organizers expect to lose some support before an election, so they usually shoot for a margin above 50% at the start, says Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. Labor law requires a show of support from 30% of workers to qualify for a vote.
What other labor activism is taking place at Amazon locations?
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters said in 2021 that organizing Amazon workers is its top priority. The union hasn’t filed any petitions for elections so far.
Separately, two groups of Amazon workers are making demands to Amazon management without going through a formal union election. Amazonians United is a labor group operating in locations including Chicago, Sacramento and New York. The group has demanded raises and paid sick time. It’s also asked the company not to reinstate its pre-pandemic ban on bringing personal phones to work, so employees’ families can reach them during emergencies.
In Seattle, workers at an Amazon Fresh grocery store have declared themselves a union, calling themselves Amazon Workers United. The group hasn’t sought a formal NLRB union election, but it has demanded better pay and benefits, a new uniform policy and more training around diversity and sexual harassment.
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