Is It Time For Amazon To Unionize?
Unions are pretty common in the public sector (government) agencies and in manufacturing, but unions are rare in the tech sector. Indeed, union membership among jobs in the private sector, of which Amazon is a part, has declined from 35% in the 1950s to 6% currently.
Until recently, 2014 was the last time Amazon workers held a vote about unionizing, and that was when it was a small group of around thirty employees in a Delaware warehouse. The ultimate decision was to not unionize. Now Amazon employs around 1.3 million worldwide and has become the second largest employer in the United States of America.
Earlier this year, in Alabama, Amazon faced another attempt at unionization, one which gained national attention largely for its unusual nature. First, Alabama is a Republican-controlled state with laws that discourage unionization. For example, Alabama is a state where they have a “right-to-work” law under which workers do not have to pay fees to the unions that represent them and under which a state can determine whether a union can require members to “get or keep” a job. In effect, Right-to-Work laws make it so the workers do not always see why they should unionize.
Indeed, Alabama is also the only place worldwide to have a Mercedes-Benz plant which is not unionized. The Amazon workers that have pushed for unionization are in Bessemer, Alabama, where over 70% of the people are black, and in the Amazon warehouse, more than 85% of the workers are black. If one Amazon warehouse succeeds in setting up a union, then a domino effect could occur nationwide to all of Amazon’s offices.
Amazon contends that it already provides benefits including health care from day 1, $15 per hour wages for a starting salary, and space for career growth. Inside the Bessemer warehouse, some workers have reported that Amazon has been holding classes on why workers should vote against the union. An Amazon spokesperson countered, claiming these sessions are a way for employees to get information and ask questions.
Some employees are stating that everything the unions are offering, they can negotiate themselves. However, few likely have experience with such negotiations. Other employees have also stated that they are against the union because in previous workplaces, unions focused on seniority rather than employee performance and “overpaying” workers. Most of those who are against unions and unionizing at the Bessemer Amazon warehouse are adhering to their position because of their past experience. To them, the tradeoff is that the union management will debate with labor officials on certain issues that could “threaten flexible job opportunities, generous wages and benefits, and promotion incentives, all for hundreds of dollars in annual dues.”
"threaten flexible job opportunities, generous wages and benefits, and promotion incentives, all for hundreds of dollars in annual dues.”
On the other hand, of those who are pro-union in the warehouse of 6,000 workers, many complain about working conditions. They are on their feet for most of their ten hour shifts; trips to the bathroom, getting hydrated, or even retrieving fresh gloves are all monitored activities that have time limits. Amazon replied that the company offers all of its employees a total of one hour in breaks during each shift in addition to time to use the bathroom or to drink water. What these workers hope to get out of the union includes more job security, more breaks, and higher pay. They argue that the Amazon workplace conditions can be improved.
On April 9, 2021, a vast majority of the Bessemer warehouse workers voted against forming a union; only one-sixth of the employees voted to unionize, amounting to 1,000 workers. The result of these protests are a setback for those who would like to see more workers unionize and take a stance against large companies. Many news outlets report the result as a loss for the progressive Democrats and a somewhat win for the Republicans.
In January 2021, 225 Google engineers formed a union. The company fired those whistleblowers, supposedly for unrelated reasons. In 2020, Amazon fired a warehouse worker who led a walkout at a New York warehouse, hoping to get the leadership to put in place policies and equipment to better protect their workers against the COVID-19 pandemic. Office workers who also joined and spoke about working conditions during the pandemic were fired as well, though Amazon claims it was for unrelated reasons. An Amazon executive quit in protest following the firings, stating that he could not stand by the company’s actions. .