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Amazon warehouse workers’ fight to unionize far from over

Daniel Howley and Max Zahn
·4-min read
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Amazon’s (AMZN) decisive victory on Friday against a union campaign in an Alabama warehouse marks a major defeat for labor advocates, but it’s far from the end of workers’ efforts to organize at other Amazon facilities across the country.

Former Amazon vice president and engineer Tim Bray, who resigned in protest last May over the company’s firing of workers who’ve spoken out about coronavirus fears, said the sheer effort Amazon put into defeating the union vote indicates the strength of the workers’ drive to organize.

“The fact that the election even happened, and that Amazon had to spend millions hiring the help of America's anti-labor apparatus of law firms and propagandists, should be seen as an inflection point,” Bray told Yahoo Finance. “This struggle isn't ending any time soon.”

The organizing efforts captured national attention, including from President Joe Biden, in part because of Alabama’s reputation as an anti-union state. Advocates had hoped the tide was turning in favor of unions, especially since Biden picked former union leader Marty Walsh to be his Labor Secretary.

Union supporters distribute information before sunrise outside of the Amazon.com, Inc. BHM1 fulfillment center on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama. - Votes are set to be counted on March 29, 2021 on whether to create the first Amazon union in the United States, at a warehouse in Alabama, after a historic, five months-long David vs Goliath campaign.
Union supporters distribute information before sunrise outside of the Amazon.com, Inc. BHM1 fulfillment center on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

“I think this result comes as a surprise to the union, and they're going to have to sit back and take stock and figure out where they want to go from here,” Paul Clark, professor and director of Penn State University’s School of Labor and Employment Relations, told Yahoo Finance.

“They’re going to have to carefully analyze what happened in Alabama before they move on to other warehouses,” Clark added.

The vote against the Amazon union was decisive Friday. Of the 5,876 Amazon workers eligible to vote at the Bessemer facility, just 3,041 cast ballots with 1,798 voting against joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, and 738 voting in favor of it.

“I think the vote in Bessemer, Al. shows us how difficult it will be to organize these facilities,” Will Brucher, a labor expert at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, told Yahoo Finance.

In a statement following the vote, the RWDSU said it will file an official objection with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) saying Amazon interfered with workers’ rights to vote. If successful, the challenge could decertify the results and prompt a second election.

Amazon, meanwhile, praised the outcome of the vote by saying it wasn’t a win for the company, but rather a victory for employees who had their voices heard.

Labor laws are not an ‘even playing field’

The Bessemer, Al. vote follows worker protests at a host of Amazon facilities across the country during the pandemic, including walkouts by workers who feared that Amazon wasn’t being open about infection rates at its warehouses.

At least one expert says Amazon workers have more power than they may realize over the company.

“The assembly line nature of [Amazon warehouses] means workers actually have a lot of power if they choose to stop the line,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of “State of the Union: A Century of American Labor.”

“The problem is management has gotten sophisticated about it and has a whole toolbox of ideas. And then legally, administratively there are few protections for workers who choose to unionize.”

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum pose for a picture at the entrance to Amazon facility as they arrive as members of a congressional delegation to show their support for workers who will vote on whether to unionize, in Bessemer, Alabama, U.S. March 5, 2021.  REUTERS/Dustin Chambers REFILE - CORRECTING CITY

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum pose for a picture at the entrance to Amazon facility to show their support for workers who will vote on whether to unionize, in Bessemer, Alabama, U.S. March 5, 2021. REUTERS/Dustin Chambers REFILE - CORRECTING CITY

U.S. labor laws create an uneven playing field between employers and employees seeking to organize, according to Clark. He cites the concept of captive audiences as one example of the power employers have over their employees.

“Union organizers aren't allowed on Amazon's property to talk to workers, and workers can only talk to fellow employees during breaks and before and after work,” Clark explained. “Amazon can have workers stop what they're doing at any point in the day, bring them into a room, and talk to them for as long as they want about why they shouldn't organize the union.”

While the organizing effort at Amazon may be dampened for now, it doesn’t necessarily mean workers should cease their efforts, Brucher said.

“It's going to be a very difficult thing for unions to organize at Amazon, but it's not impossible,” Brucher explained, adding that companies like Ford, General Motors, and U.S. Steel all fought union efforts before workers prevailed.

“I think the significance of Amazon as an employer is really on that scale, so it may take a long time, but if workers are active; and they are, and they fight, they can win.”

Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.
Dan Howley is the tech editor at Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @DanielHowley.

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