Amazon’s Win Delivers a Stinging Defeat to the U.S. Labor Motion

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The union loss to Amazon.com Inc. in Bessemer, Ala., Marks a painful defeat for the US labor movement made all the more painful by its familiarity.

For the past few decades, American non-union corporations have been virtually impervious to the organization of efforts, especially those resulting from elections overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. This trend continued at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, where workers voted against joining the retail, wholesale and department stores union between 1,798 and 738. While 505 controversial ballots remain unopened, they won’t reverse the outcome announced on Friday.

“Today’s announcement,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told reporters after the ballots were counted, “may not be what we wanted, but unfortunately it is one that many have expected.”

The elections had signaled a massive shift in Amazon’s labor relations. A few years ago, collective action by Amazon employees was rare, but the security concerns brought to great relief by the Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with increased funds and unions’ focus, have made strikes and protests in the company’s camps more frequent made. The # BlackLivesMatter movement and organizing the efforts of Alabama poultry workers also helped RWDSU attract thousands of Bessemer employees. It wasn’t enough.

Amazon may spend years fighting the union over the legitimacy of the tactic it used to win in Bessemer, but whatever happens there, the election result has long been cited as a justification for the company’s employment policy. In a statement, the union accused Amazon of “corrupting” the elections and pressuring workers to post their postal ballots there by using tactics such as pressure on the US Postal Service to install a post office box on company premises. “Our system is broken, Amazon has taken full advantage of it, and we will ask the labor authority to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and outrageous behavior,” said Appelbaum. An Amazon spokesman said the mailbox was a “simple, secure, and completely optional” way to make voting easier.

The organizational burden may have suffered from some strategic decisions made by RWDSU, such as: B. with Amazon’s consent to accept votes from hundreds of additional employees, including temporary workers, during the seven-week election. The bigger challenges, however, have been the structural disadvantages faced by workers attempting to organize with a large unionized company in the United States

Companies can force workers to hold group meetings and one-on-one interviews that contain predictions of serious consequences in the event of union formation. (Employees say Amazon did this in Bessemer. The company said it held “briefing sessions” so employees can “get the facts”.) “To be under the employer’s watchful eye and control all day – and the messages of the employer that there is no equal time for the union – interferes with fair and free elections, ”said Wilma Liebman, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board.

Employers also have incentives to illegally punish or fire activists, which prosecutors at the Amazon Labor Authority have accused of working in other camps. (A spokesperson for Amazon says the company has “zero tolerance” for retaliation.) If a company is found to have broken the law in this way, it may have to pay workers back and post promising signs Not repeating retaliation for illegal behavior, but punitive damages are not paid and managers are not personally liable.

On the other hand, employers are not legally obliged to enter into a union contract within a specified period of time, so around half of the workers who receive union votes no longer have a union contract a year later. Some companies simply close unionized operations. Several Bessemer workers said the prospect weighed on them during the election.

Faced with this headwind, union organizers sometimes avoid standard work committee elections in favor of so-called full-scale campaigns, a mixture of workplace protests and pressure from consumers, politicians and the media. The idea is to force the company’s executives to agree to more favorable terms on union and contract processes. RWDSU’s parent company, United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, was successful at Smithfield Foods Inc. in 2008 with such an approach. After a campaign lobbying Oprah Winfrey to keep Smithfield Ham off their show, the UFCW secured a contract with the company that limited union destruction and won a vote to organize about 5,000 workers at the North Carolina slaughterhouse.

However, such victories were rare. Years of unionized campaigns against Walmart and McDonald’s, for example, have helped raise workers and better treat pregnant workers, but have not won union education. At Amazon, neither board elections nor lengthy print campaigns have secured formal union foothold in the United States

Amazon abandoned its plan to establish a second headquarters in New York after RWDSU pressured local politicians to condition the company’s development by agreeing to curb union destruction. The $ 15 minimum wage Amazon attributed to critics like Senator Bernie Sanders to encourage acceptance is now a topic of conversation the company’s PR team is using to refute the senator’s claim that its workers need a union . There are also legal limits to how comprehensive a comprehensive campaign can be. Federal law prevents unions from involving business partners in disputes with a particular company – for example, by asking Amazon suppliers to cut the company off – and prevents states from trying to create local, stronger versions of the National Labor Relations Board.

Unions have largely failed to reform federal labor laws over the past century, repeatedly hampered by passionate Republican opposition, democratic ambivalence and the Senate filibuster. Joe Biden campaigned for a comprehensive union-friendly reform bill, the PRO Act, and the US House passed it in March. Among other things, the legislation would prohibit employers from holding mandatory anti-union meetings, letting the National Labor Relations Board violate companies that violate the law, and employing arbitrators to ensure that unions can negotiate. But there are great opportunities in the Senate where not all Democrats are sold on the bill or if the filibuster is scrapped to get them passed.

Some advocates of work say the legal system needs to be overhauled if the organization of work is ever to recover, while others argue that only a huge surge in labor activism can drive such changes. A surprise victory in Bessemer could have turned out to be a rallying cry for reform efforts. Now the organizers have to hope that their defeat there can take on that role instead. “The history of the labor movement has been about failing forward,” said Janice Fine, professor of industrial science at Rutgers University. “Even if they lose,” she says, “they have created a moral dilemma for the community in which they organize – or for the country.”