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The High Stakes in the Amazon Union Fight in Alabama

It’s about workplace democracy—and could affect not just the tech giant’s employees but those of other firms.
March 24, 2021
The High Stakes in the Amazon Union Fight in Alabama
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22: Union workers rallied in downtown Los Angeles Monday morning in support of unionizing Alabama Amazon workers. Local labor union members, elected officials, clergy, and community members held the rally to call attention to the ever growing union busting industry and culture used to suppress workers rights across the nation. the group says. The group began at Grand Park and marched to 1 Cal Plaza at 300 South Grand Ave to the headquarters of Morgan Lewis, a law firm apparently used by Amazon and some of the largest corporations in the world. According to the protesters, Every year, corporations spend billions of dollars on union-busting consultants to suppress the voice of workers. The union election in Bessemer, Alabama has received national attention over the last few months as workers fight to join Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union/UFCW, potentially establishing the first unionized facility in the company's history. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times / Getty)

On its face, the organizing battle in Bessemer, Alabama between Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) seems a David and Goliath story—save that it is stacked in favor of Goliath.

Amazon is America’s second-largest private-sector employer; the RWDSU boasts roughly 9,000 members. But that very asymmetry of power suggests why David must call Goliath to account.

Amazon ships over one-third of all retail products bought online; hosts large portions of the Internet; uses its platform to undercut its competitors and exploit its vendors, and, thereby, strangle competition; pummels states and cities into granting generous tax breaks in exchange for Amazon facilities—and in some years pays no federal income taxes. Yet the pandemic made housebound Americans even happier to sell our societal soul to an avaricious mega-corporation in exchange for cheap and easy home delivery.

All that efficiency is built on treating workers like human widgets. As Charles Duhigg reported in the New Yorker, employees at Amazon fulfillment centers are visually tracked and evaluated, “meaning that if someone falls behind—even for just a few minutes—it can be grounds for reprimand.” Further, “many employees carry handheld scanners that deliver a constant stream of instructions,” including “how many seconds remain until the next item must be plucked from a shelf.” Even trips to the bathroom are closely monitored.

These workers labor between the fear of termination and the prospect of crippling injuries. Those occur at a rate, the Atlantic reports, “more than double the national average for the warehousing industry”—and likely go underreported for fear of reprisal.

Amazon has paired these conditions with 25 years of relentless opposition to unionization—which, a former executive told Vox, it deems “likely the single biggest threat to the business model”: pushing employees to meet the delivery expectations set by Amazon Prime. Accordingly, Amazon employs specialists in union-busting, tracks the potential for unionization at each of its warehouses, and once shut down a call center whose workers were trying to organize.

In 2014, Duhigg reports, an Amazon manager thwarted another such effort by giving “an emotional speech about his youth: after his father had died, steps from his front door, the union had offered no support.” In reality, the manager’s dad had helped run an insurance agency, and died while jogging on vacation in South Carolina.

That same year, the New York Times reports, Amazon quashed the unionization of a warehouse in Virginia by bringing in a team to spread fear and disinformation. Worker complaints resulted in a settlement between Amazon and the National Labor Relations Board in which the company promised not to do what it had already done—including that it would not “interrogate you”; “engage in surveillance of you”; “threaten you with unspecified reprisals”; or pledge to “get” union supporters.

The settlement had no teeth; Amazon soon fired the chief organizer. The effort died.

When the pandemic spurred more hiring while rendering existing employees less mobile, Amazon jammed them into shared workspaces. Protesting the company’s disregard for health precautions, workers in Chicago, Minnesota, and New York City staged walkouts.

In response Amazon fired protest organizers—one, they claimed, for “putting the health and safety of others at risk.” But meeting notes obtained by Vice News showed Amazon’s general counsel discussing with other company executives how the man could be portrayed as “not smart or articulate” to discredit the protest movement.

By October 2020, Amazon acknowledged, nearly 20,000 employees had contracted COVID-19. Last month, New York’s attorney general sued Amazon for inadequately protecting workers and retaliating against protesters.

Which brings us to Alabama, where Amazon workers are completing a seven-week voting period to decide whether to join the RWDSU. But the stakes are much larger.

In many ways, Amazon’s core tactics typify corporate America: compulsory anti-union meetings; threats to close facilities or cut wages and benefits; firing union supporters. Moreover, no union has ever cracked Amazon—should the RWDSU succeed, it could have profound implications for the labor movement writ large.

Put simply, Amazon epitomizes the future of blue-collar workers—for good or ill. Observes Noam Schreiber, “Amazon exerts a lot of influence over working conditions for tens of millions of other workers. When Amazon enters an industry, it often forces the competition to adopt similar labor practices—partly on pay, but also squeezing efficiency out of workers.”

Says RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum: “I feel we had no choice. . . . [Amazon is] going to determine the future of work. We cannot afford to have Amazon create a work environment that is dehumanizing and that prevents workers from asserting their right to have a safe workplace.”

The company is reacting with its customary disdainful lèse-majesté: setting up an antiunion website; reportedly employing surveillance software to detect organized activity in closed Facebook groups; lying about the generosity of its wages compared to those of other employers in the area; even—remarkably—persuading local officials to change a traffic light so that organizers would have less time to talk to workers while they waited at a crosswalk. All this raises the question: How did we become a country where Amazon can do such things with impunity?

Apparently, Joe Biden wonders too. Earlier this month, he released an unusually unvarnished video:

It’s not up to me to decide whether anyone should join a union. But let me be even more clear: It’s not up to an employer to decide that either. The choice to join a union is up to the workers—full stop. . . .

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. . . . And there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences. Every worker should have a free and fair chance to join a union. The law guarantees that choice.

But Biden did not content himself with this. Instead, he endorsed the importance of unions in American life:

Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially black and brown workers.

As labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein observes: “Biden’s attack on employer intimidation of workers seeking to join a union is something new for a president since [Franklin Roosevelt].” Clearly, Biden and his team have made a deliberate choice: that after decades of decline—and governmental hostility or neglect—it’s time to address the imbalance between unions and employers.

Some argue that the vigorous unions of the past eroded corporate competitiveness in an increasingly global economy. Perhaps then, but that is yesterday’s problem. As Robert Reich observes: “Fifty years ago, ‘big labor’ had enough political clout to ensure labor laws were enforced and that the government pushed giant firms like GM to sustain the middle class. Today, organized labor’s political clout is minuscule by comparison. The biggest political players are giant corporations like Amazon.”

Obviously so. The question echoing from Alabama is whether unions can reclaim their vital role in making workers partners in our economy—and revive the all-too-ephemeral American Dream.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.