What’s the Significance of the Amazon Workers’ Unionization Drive?

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. March 23, 2021
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an Amazon facility

​Unionization has declined in recent years, but if the drive at an Amazon warehouse facility in Bessemer, Ala., succeeds, labor will be able to claim a major victory. Voting in the union election concludes March 29.

The Amazon unionization drive, which has captured national attention, may be symbolic of a new, pro-labor mentality, according to an e-mail from Thomas Gibney and Anne Schmidlin, attorneys with Eastman & Smith in Toledo, Ohio.

Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union campaigners "have publicly stated that they view the Bessemer campaign as a prelude to efforts directed at other companies," said Marty Martenson and James Taylor, attorneys with Martenson, Hasbrouck & Simon in Atlanta, in an e-mail.

Union leaders have characterized Amazon as engaging in union-busting tactics in opposing the unionization drive. But legal experts say Amazon has acted the same as any other company resisting unionization.

Potential 'Sea Change'

The high-profile nature of the campaign is due partly to the fact that "the southeastern United States has long been an area of the country that has been resistant to unionization," Martenson and Taylor said. "Thus, if a union can succeed against a powerful employer in this area, such a victory could be viewed as a sea change in this area's labor dynamics."

The tech sector of the U.S. economy also has thus far resisted unionization. "A union win against Amazon may give unions additional confidence in union campaigns involving companies in the tech sector," according to Martenson and Taylor.

Many see racial justice and economic equality as interconnected goals, said Patricia Wise, an attorney with Spengler Nathanson in Toledo, Ohio. "The pandemic has highlighted poverty and the unique vulnerability among communities of color regarding health care. These issues will persist, making unionization efforts likely to continue," she said.

She added that while Amazon's starting wage in Bessemer is $15 an hour plus benefits, the movement more generally addresses issues like economic inequality.

President Joe Biden implied his support for the unionization efforts in Bessemer, stating that "workers in Alabama—and all across America—are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. It's a vitally important choice—one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers. Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union."

The president's implied endorsement "is unusual," Wise said.

Support for the union primarily comes from employees who want to change some of Amazon's work rules, such as productivity requirements (so-called production quotas), monitoring of employees' work and break times, according to Peter Spanos, an attorney with Taylor English in Atlanta.
Amazon emphasizes that it has provided thousands of new jobs in the area at wages and benefits that are attractive compared to other companies, he added. Approximately 6,000 workers are attempting to unionize at the Bessemer facility.

"Although union representation elections have been held at two much smaller Amazon locations in the past, in neither case was the union successful," he said. "Both locations have since been closed for other reasons."

Given the economic revitalization in Bessemer, "many of the town's residents are concerned that a successful unionization effort could scare Amazon away, eliminating thousands of jobs," Gibney and Schmidlin said.

Amazon's Opposition to Unionization

Union leaders have accused Amazon of union-busting tactics, according to The New York Times. It reported that "the company has posted signs across the warehouse, next to hand-sanitizing stations and even in bathroom stalls. It sends regular texts and e-mails, pointing out the problems with unions. It posts photos of workers in Bessemer on the internal company app saying how much they love Amazon. At certain training sessions, company representatives have pointed out the cost of union dues."

Martin Malin, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace in Chicago, said, "Amazon is telling workers that unionization will cost them money because they will be compelled to pay union dues. That is simply false because Alabama is a right-to-work state where it is illegal to compel an employee to join a union or pay any fees to the union as a condition of employment."

But Jim Gray of Jim Gray Consultants in Charleston, S.C., said, " 'Union busting' is a disingenuous—and somewhat outdated—term used to label any attempt to oppose union organizing as nefarious 'dirty tricks.' " All must be reminded that employees have a right to support or oppose unionization, he said. "Hopefully for any representation election, voters will be making an informed decision based on facts presented by both sides."

"Amazon's efforts to win over the votes of its employees are in no way different from those routinely engaged in by other companies facing union organization drives," Spanos said. "None of these activities can fairly be called union-busting tactics, whether engaged in by Amazon or any other company."

Management always can share facts, opinions and examples with employees, Gibney and Schmidlin said. Amazon could use signs to share facts about the union, inform employees about the independence they may lose with a union, and correct or clarify misleading statements the union may have made in its own campaign, they added.

Amazon may also inform employees of their rights to not speak with a union organizer or sign a union authorization card and tell employees that signing a union authorization card does not mean they are obligated to then vote for a union in the election. Approximately half of the employees at Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer signed authorization cards, Spanos noted.

"Amazon management can also share their own personal opinions about unions," Gibney and Schmidlin said. "This can often be a fine line, however, as those opinions cannot be intermingled with the threat of a shutdown of the facility or promises of better wages or benefits if an employee votes 'no.' "

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

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