As the 5,800 workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse vote this month on whether to unionize, celebrities and politicians from around the country have weighed in. Over its 25-year history, Amazon has successfully prevented unionization at its U.S. facilities, and many would like to see that change.
The ballots are due on March 29 and will be counted the next day. Prior to the official vote, over 3,000 workers signed cards preliminarily authorizing the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to represent them. That may predict the outcome of the final vote, although some workers who signed cards may have left the company and others may change their minds about unionizing.
On a side note, there is a local twist to this story. The President of RWDSU is Stuart Appelbaum who started his trade union career working for the Michigan AFL-CIO under the Presidency of Sam Fishman while Bruce Miller, of Miller Cohen, was its General Counsel.
Why is this union vote so important, nationally?
Many people in the industry see Amazon as the standard-setter for working conditions among warehouse and delivery workers. That may be simply because the company is so dominant in retail and delivery.
Just as important, however, is the potential power an Amazon union could wield. If the Bessemer warehouse unionizes, labor organizing could spread to other Amazon warehouses and fulfillment centers.
“With a few strategically positioned warehouses, if you had workers moving at the same time, you could shut down giants like Amazon,” commented one union organizer with Warehouse Workers for Justice. “Warehouse workers could actually be immensely powerful in the labor force.”
Amazon has taken steps to prevent unionization –both nationally and internationally–steps that have been unduly aggressive, if not illegal.
For example, VICE reported in November that Amazon had hired Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, a private company notoriously known for union-busting, to spy on workers and union organizers.
A 2018 Amazon training video, which the company says it no longer uses, gave advice to managers on spotting and reporting on unionization drives. It also proports to give tips on how to make indirect threats and how to spy on workers.
Amazon says that it was only acting as a responsible business by keeping tabs on unionizing employees by “having an internal investigations team who work with law enforcement agencies as appropriate.”
In its attempts at undermining the rights of employees to unionize, Amazon appears to be betting on the weak penalties that it could face in the United States if found in violation of U.S. labor law. For example, last year the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the company had illegally fired a worker who blew the whistle on unsafe working conditions. Amazon appealed, but even if it loses, the penalty is simply reinstatement of the worker with back pay. Miller Cohen, P.L.C. continues to call on legislators to pass comprehensive labor law reform to enhance those penalties and further protect the rights of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively.