What the union defeat at Amazon means for the labor movement

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·7-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., voted against forming a union on Friday in an election that had garnered national attention for what it might signal about the future of the labor movement in America.

The vote came after months of aggressive campaigning by union organizers and a focused anti-union effort from the online retail giant. Had the vote passed, the Bessemer facility would have become home to the first union of Amazon workers in the U.S. The organizing drive drew support from pro-union activists and politicians who believed a successful vote could inspire more workers to unionize and signal a resurgence for organized labor after decades of declining influence in the private sector.

Amazon, the nation’s second-largest private employer, has been the target of intense criticism by workers’ groups who say employees in the company’s massive fulfillment centers that support its shipping business endure grinding efficiency demands, constant surveillance and heightened injury risk. Labor organizers argued that a union would fight to improve these conditions and raise wages. Amazon countered by saying a union was unnecessary because it already provides good employee benefits and has a companywide $15 minimum wage — more than double the federal rate.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said it would file an objection charging Amazon with interfering with the vote. In the run-up to the vote, the company held mandatory meetings at which the downsides of unions were stressed, sent employees frequent anti-union text messages and even put anti-union flyers in employee bathrooms. All of these tactics are legal, but the RWDSU has accused Amazon of breaking the law by having a U.S. Postal Service mailbox placed on the grounds of the facility — a move organizers say made some workers wary that their mail-in ballots for the vote would be monitored by the company. An Amazon spokesperson told Yahoo News that the mailbox was intended to provide a “simple, secure and optional way to make it easy for employees to vote.”

Why there’s debate

In the mid-1950s, roughly one-third of American workers belonged to a union. Today, just 6 percent of private sector workers do. Union supporters say the degradation of union power has led to worse working conditions and lower wages. Critics of organized labor argue that workers will ultimately benefit if companies aren’t burdened by the demands of employee unions.

The vote was seen by many as a major setback for organized labor and a sign of just how far unions have to go before they can regain significant influence in the private sector. In their eyes, Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest man, with an estimated net worth approaching $200 billion — provided the perfect foil for the workers’ rights movement. The failure of the vote in Bessemer, in the midst of a pandemic that has seen Amazon’s profits surge, could be seen as a sign of the incredibly steep challenge that organizing efforts face nationwide, labor movement experts said. Many progressives fear that, without a resurgence in unions, American workers will see their wages continue to drop and working conditions become increasingly intolerable as robotic automation makes human workers increasingly unnecessary.

Union backers, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, said the Bessemer organizing drive still marks a step forward for the labor movement despite the failed vote. “Workers in Alabama will inspire significant growth in union organizing efforts around the country,” Sanders said. The election also brought national attention to working conditions at Amazon facilities and the company’s anti-union tactics that could sway public opinion in favor of organizers in the future. “People all over this country are hearing that unions are the solution,” Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, told the New York Times. A number of Democratic lawmakers expressed hope that the vote will invigorate efforts to reform laws they say give corporations like Amazon an unfair amount of leeway to squash organizing campaigns.

What’s next

As part of his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, President Biden has called on Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a measure that would ban many of the tactics Amazon used to campaign against the Bessemer union drive. It’s unclear at the moment, however, whether the PRO Act will be part of the final proposal if and when it reaches Congress for a vote.

Perspectives

The election was a blow to the campaign for workers’ rights

“It’s a depressing outcome. I’m not a steadfast, solidarity-forever kind of union guy. … But American workers around the country need and deserve a strong union movement protecting them at a moment of historic income inequality and economic fragility. And at the moment, they don’t have one.” — Nicholas Goldberg, Los Angeles Times

Workers will be better off if union drives fail

“Amazon needs people. It has been hiring as fast as it can. … But Amazon isn’t hiring all those people out of charity: Labor is valuable, and good labor is very valuable. When it comes to raising the price of labor, supply and demand work a lot better than carping and regulation.” — Kevin D. Williamson, National Review

Despite coming up short, the vote still represents a step forward for unions

“The most important story is not the fact that the union didn't win. Rather, it's that they got as close to winning as they did.” — Labor movement researcher Erin Hatton to Business Insider

The election could create pressure to reform federal labor laws

“In an age when even many Republican voters are warming to the idea of unions, Biden could have a once-in-a-generation chance to breathe life into the dying embers of American labor power. If that happens, we might one day look back and see the Amazon fight as a turning point.” — Noah Smith, Bloomberg

The vote highlighted how misguided labor organizing efforts are

“The vote again shows the practical divide between today’s unions and workers. Big Labor portrays itself as the vanguard of social justice, but workers care about their opportunities and income. When they think a company is doing well by them, they see no need for a union that will take some of its income away in dues.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

The media hurt the pro-union cause by putting far too much weight on one election

“The coverage heaped a mountain of unwarranted attention that might serve the media narrative behind the PRO Act, but overhyped campaigns also leave people feeling defeated. Sometimes, in fact, they feel so defeated that they withdraw and give up forever.” — Jane McAlevey, The Nation

Public pressure will have more of an impact than union drives

“The best way to push changes to labor standards at Amazon is for its most loyal customers to demand it. We should demand it from our elected officials and our regulators, but it might be more effective to go to the source of the problem.” — Farhad Manjoo, New York Times

The election showed how much of an advantage big companies have

“The big takeaway from the Amazon loss should be that the playing field is tilted heavily against unions when facing anti-union employers. Amazon had access to its workers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, while U.S. law let Amazon bar union organizers from entering the warehouse.” — Labor historian Steven Greenhouse

Automation will mean workers will have even less power in the near future

“This battle has wide-ranging implications. It could be a harbinger of the future of employment more generally, as the harsh realities of algorithmic management move deeper into the everyday experience of work and more power is concentrated into the hands of corporate leaders.” — Kate Crawford, Washington Post

It’s too early to know what impact the election will have

“Obviously, had the vote gone a different way, we'd be drawing different conclusions. So I think we should be careful about declaratively saying this is where it’s going to go next. But this is a big deal.” — Labor movement historian Margaret O’Mara to PBS NewsHour

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