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Importance and Effect of Rejection of Union by Amazon Workers

In the most closely watched union representation election in at least a decade, Amazon workers at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, defeated the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, with 1,798 no votes to only 738 yes votes, along with approximately 500 challenged ballots that will not be counted because it would not affect the results. Statistically, counting all eligible voters, the results mean that fewer than 16% voted to join the union. This was a crushing defeat for the union, particularly since it was endorsed by President Biden and many other political officials, including a well-known Republican (Sen. Rubio). The largest two private employers in the country, Amazon and Walmart, have no union representation, and thus that situation will not change. 

The union, following its crushing defeat, tried to make the most of a very bad situation. It claims that Amazon "interfered with the right of its . . . employees to vote in a free and fair election," and is using the defeat to encourage support for the PRO Act, a massive pro-union bill that passed the House of Representatives narrowly along party lines.  Among other things, the union claimed that the installation of a mail box on the warehouse property would lead voters to believe that Amazon would play a role in collecting and counting votes, and that the holding of mandatory anti union meetings by Amazon were coercive. The union also accuses Amazon of spreading false information about mandatory union dues, since employees can opt out of dues payment in a "right-to-work' state. 

Such "captive audience meetings" are totally legal under current law, although would be prohibited by the PRO Act.  Similarly, the PRO Act would void state "right-to-work" laws.  

It was hard for the union to campaign on the idea of negotiating for more money or benefits for the workers, since Amazon starts its workers at $15.00 per hour, twice the state minimum wage, and has good benefits. In contrast, Amazon was likely able to point to various union contracts in the state with much lower pay and benefit levels. On the other hand, Amazon runs a highly efficient and technology-enhanced warehouse, and undoubtedly some workers felt they had to work too hard or had too much mandatory overtime without significant notice or had long walks to the break room that cut into their breaks over 10-hour shifts. But, as one worker said, "A lot of us are in agreement that we don't need anybody there to speak for us and take our money." As stated by Amazon in a biog. post, "It's easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that's not true.  Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policy-makers and media outlets than they heard from us." 

Currently, unions represent just 6.3% of U.S. private-sector workers, down from 24.2% in 1973. On the other hand, about 40% of public-sector workers are represented. To show the different reaction by persons in Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders said that the Amazon vote showed that legislation is needed "that finally gives workers a fair chance to win organizing elections." On the other hand, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R. Ala.) said the vote showed workers "value their right-to-work protections." 

Editor's Note: Employers should not be too giddy about the Amazon election results, in part because the current administration is living up to President Biden's promise to be the most "pro-union President" in history. The changes at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have been rapid and remarkable, basically unprecedented. The PRO Act, were it to pass in the Senate, would make things much worse for employers. Moreover, public opinion polls such as Gallup show the public feels more favorably towards unions today than in many years. The pandemic has resulted in many non-union walkouts and the like, such as protesting working hours and pay, situations in which unions can find support. Union organizers have basically not been as active during the pandemic, because of fear of contagion, but that situation is rapidly coming to an end. One interesting observation of the Amazon election, however, is that the voting employees were overwhelmingly minorities, and unions sometimes assume that they can gain more support among minorities. This assumption proved wrong at Amazon.

This is part of our May 2021 Newsletter.

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