It's been more than 20 years since Amazon warehouses first tried to unionize, and this year employees at two other Amazon facilities are trying again.
But times have changed.
For the second time in less than a year, Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting on whether to organize. Last April a union effort there was soundly defeated, but the National Labor Relations Board ruled in January that the company's anti-union activities were unlawful and ordered a new vote.
Experts say these workers could prevail this time, reflecting growing dissatisfaction with work conditions — especially at lower-paying jobs like retail, fast food and e-commerce facilities — and higher expectations of businesses on the part of both workers and consumers that may be boosting public opinion of unions.
"There has been a significant increase in pro-union sentiment, and we've also seen a spike in worker resistance and worker protests," said Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Many people are dismayed by the way some store, warehouse and factory workers have been left unprotected against COVID-19 and given inadequate sick time, he said.
"We've seen corporations making massive profits — Amazon has done very, very well during the pandemic," Wong said by phone. "And yet you see essential workers, who have been given that label, have been treated as anything but essential. And so, there is the phenomenon of the great resignation, where many workers have decided that it is not worth risking their lives for a minimum wage job."
A healthier economy and worker shortages could also provide a more favorable environment for the pro-labor activity occurring at several retailers, including in Bessemer, according to several experts.
The "BAmazon Union" organizers, who are working with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, believe their prospects have improved, even if Amazon's tactics have not. They want the right to collectively bargain over working conditions, including safety standards, training, breaks, pay, benefits and other issues, and get a written contract so that Amazon follows through.
"We're advocating more, we've got more employees involved, more than we had the first time," Darryl Richardson, a worker at the Bessemer facility, said during a Jan. 26 video press conference. "We've just got more participating and more coming around ... speaking out. So I think we got a better opportunity, a better chance this time. More employees understand now what we're fighting for."
Retailers say unions aren't right for their employees
Amazon declined to comment on specific questions regarding Bessemer or labor efforts at other Amazon facilities. But Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said in an emailed statement that the e-commerce giant's "employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union."
"They always have," Agrait said. "As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our employees and making Amazon a great place to work."
"We don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees."
Similarly, REI is fighting a unionization effort at its SoHo store in New York City. During a podcast, REI CEO Eric Artz said the company does "not oppose unions."
"It's that we don't believe, I do not believe, that introducing a union is the right thing for REI," he said. "And more specifically, I believe the presence of union representation will impact our ability to communicate and work directly with our employees and resolve concerns at the speed the world is moving. And that is the core of why we don't think that introducing a union is the right thing for our employees."
The SoHo store employees want more cooperation between staff and management, and improved working conditions, according to their Twitter feed, where they also express their affection for the company.
"We don't think that introducing a union is the right thing for our employees."
Chief Executive Office, REI
The BAmazon organizers are in a more adversarial relationship with their employer. On their website they call the working conditions at Amazon's warehouse "deadly and dehumanizing," citing work quotas that they say cause illness and "lifetime injuries," and noting that 19 workers have died at Amazon facilities in the past nine years. An Amazon spokesperson was unable to comment on the claims, saying by phone that more details would be needed.
"There's a lot of resentment and a lot of dissatisfaction among Amazon workers," Wong said. "This notion that Amazon is a great place to work and that everybody loves working at Amazon — it's not true. If you ask Amazon workers, they'll say that it's a killer job, and they're treated like robots there. There's relentless pressure to speed up, to perform more, to do more. Amazon pays more than fast food, but that doesn't mean it's enough — $15 an hour is not enough to live on in most places in this country."
Is a union good for business?
Working with rather than against unions is rare, but not unheard of.
"There are enlightened companies that have negotiated with their workers and have signed union agreements," Wong said. "And there are absolute benefits to having unionization in terms of worker satisfaction, in terms of maintaining a more stable workforce. But the trend within the private sector has been to see unions as the enemy."
Arguably, Amazon could use a more stable workforce. Even pre-pandemic, the e-commerce giant each week lost around 3% of its hourly workers, according to an investigative report from The New York Times last year. That is an annual attrition rate of about 150%, nearly twice that of the retail and logistics industries overall. Amazon declined to comment to Retail Dive on those numbers or any steps the company may be taking to improve them.
"There are absolute benefits to having unionization in terms of worker satisfaction, in terms of maintaining a more stable workforce. But the trend within the private sector has been to see unions as the enemy."
Director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles
As a company that touts its own progressive bone fides, REI may risk more reputational harm by coming out so strongly against unionization, while Amazon has maintained high marks among consumers despite many unflattering reports over the years on its workplace culture. But Amazon has also often sought to reshape that reputation. In his final letter to shareholders, founder and now former CEO Jeff Bezos last year pushed back against bad press about working conditions in Amazon warehouses.
"If you read some of the news reports, you might think we have no care for employees," he said. "In those reports, our employees are sometimes accused of being desperate souls and treated as robots. That’s not accurate. They’re sophisticated and thoughtful people who have options for where to work. When we survey fulfillment center employees, 94% say they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work."
Writing before the NLRB ruling on Amazon's misconduct, Bezos cited the "lopsided" voting results in Bessemer as evidence that the company is a great place to work. But he also said, "it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success."
Farther down, Bezos boasts of the company's "distinctiveness," and asks shareholders to brace themselves against pressure to be "more normal."
"Being yourself is worth it, but don’t expect it to be easy or free. You’ll have to put energy into it continuously," he wrote. "The world will always try to make Amazon more typical – to bring us into equilibrium with our environment. It will take continuous effort, but we can and must be better than that."
When it comes to labor relations, however, Amazon is typical. As many companies do, the e-retailer lists union organization as a potential risk to its business in its annual reports.
More U.S consumers, especially younger ones, are pro-union
As of August 2021, 68% of Americans approve of labor unions, close to the previous year's 65% and the highest level in more than 50 years, according to Gallup's latest poll. "[A]pproval is relatively high among young adults aged 18-34 (77%) and those with annual household incomes under $40,000 (72%)," Gallup Research Consultant Megan Brenan wrote in a blog post accompanying the findings.
"Approval is relatively high among young adults aged 18-34 (77%) and those with annual household incomes under $40,000 (72%)."
Gallup Research Consultant
There's more pro-worker activity as well, experts say. As of Friday, 78 Starbucks locations in 23 states have filed petitions to join a union, according to Starbucks Workers United, the group behind the effort. And local stories of individuals walking off the job out of sheer frustration contribute to a sense that there's a need for collective action, according to UCLA's Wong.
Macro conditions have also shifted. When the Bessemer vote took place last year, the economy, though better than in 2020, was still shaky. That has improved and now businesses in many places are scrambling to find people to hire.
"The last election for Amazon occurred during that pandemic recessionary period, so that may be one reason why the outcome came out the way it did," Daniel Cornfield, a professor of sociology, political science and American studies at Vanderbilt University and an expert on unions, said by phone. "Another is the employer being more intimidating when workers feel even less empowered because of the recession — they don't have an exit strategy, and so they don't vote for the union. Now you have a growth period, which tends to shift the bargaining power towards workers, generally."
Even the NLRB's ruling that Amazon behaved unfairly during the first election in Bessemer validates organizers' claims that the company needs to be checked, Cornfield said.
"The NLRB in a sense reaffirmed the workers' critique of this particular employer as being overly controlling, and so they can campaign on that during this period," he said.
What's new about today's labor activism
Both the great resignation and the new labor activism as seen at Starbucks, REI, Amazon and elsewhere are being fueled not just by traditional bread-and-butter issues like pay and benefits, but also three others that are particularly important to younger people, according to Vanderbilt's Cornfield.
Those are work-life balance ("reacting against the long arm of the job dominating workers' personal life and wanting the ability to spend quality time in their households or with friends"); social justice issues (spurred by the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements); and transparency and authenticity, Cornfield said.
"The third issue driving both the new labor activism and the great resignation is transparency and even collaboration with management," he said. "So many workers with this mindset are concerned about inauthenticity, masking of motives and insincerity among a management that they perceive is also very controlling and kind of unilateral. They want to have management that's more open and collaborative."
People, as consumers and employees, increasingly want companies to match their actions to their rhetoric. Union efforts at Starbucks, generally seen as worker-friendly, failed in the past. But since two stores unionized recently, many more have decided to try.
REI is the best place to buy exercise clothing, like for bending over backwards to justify your anti-union talking points.— Jonathan 'Boo and Vote' Cohn (@JonathanCohn) February 9, 2022
"I think some of this is cultural, some of it is fear, and so when there's a breakthrough, it may inspire other people," James Brudney, a professor of labor and employment law at Fordham University School of Law, said by phone. "I don't mean to suggest that Amazon workers and Starbucks workers are precisely parallel, but I think there's going to be more of an effort to try to unionize Amazon and I think it's going to come not only from the retail workers who are the ones in Bessemer but also from the Teamsters."
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest private-sector union in the U.S. representing, among others, truck drivers and other workers in the logistics industries, last year approved what it calls "the Amazon Project," a resolution on "building worker power at Amazon and helping those workers achieve a union contract."
“At Amazon and other nonunion jobs there is no one looking out for you," Jason Arias, who used to work for Amazon and now works for UPS, said in a statement on the resolution. "I was sick and tired of being treated that way. At Amazon no one had my back. I’m active so I can help other workers. If I can help other workers build power, I will. I’m doing this from my heart."
A grassroots effort has also made progress. In late January, the NLRB found that the Amazon Labor Union, an independent group seeking to represent workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, succeeded in demonstrating "sufficient showing of interest" in forming a union, according to an email from the agency. The group, backed by GoFundMe fundraising and unaffiliated with an established union, could fare well in light of the strong tradition of labor organizing in New York, according to Hayley Brown, research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
What happens this time?
If there's momentum toward unionization, however, it's not yet showing up in the workforce. In 2021, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to a union declined by 241,000 to 14 million, and the union membership rate was 10.3%, down from 10.8% percent in 2020 and equal to 2019, according to a Jan. 20 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1% and there were 17.7 million union workers, per that report.
Still, given that 2020 was an outlier year, the Gallup poll plus those numbers "are suggestive of a nascent organizing uptick," according to Brown.
"They need to be much higher to get us to anything like the union membership levels of the 80s," she said by phone. "But, according to the Gallup poll, those approval ratings are especially high among people under the age of 35. Those are the people who are going to be workers for years to come. So looking at the attitudes of the younger generation of workers is striking."
Even with the strides the union organizers say they've made, the election in Bessemer is hardly guaranteed — although Amazon may be risking another do-over.
In late January, the RWDSU filed a complaint with the NLRB over a mailbox that Amazon has installed in the warehouse parking lot. (Due to the pandemic, these elections are using mail-in ballots.) Earlier in the month, in calling for a new election, the agency ruled that Amazon's installation of a mailbox at the employee entrance "essentially hijacked the process and gave a strong impression that it controlled the process," and ordered it moved to a neutral location for the second vote.
But there may be no such thing as a neutral location at an Amazon facility, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Amazon's decision to again maintain a mailbox is puzzling, she said.
"It doesn't make sense to me, it's not consistent with the rest of the decision," she said by phone. "The regional director's original decision said very clearly that the problem with the mailbox was because of the surveillance cameras. Keeping them on the premises makes it still a violation of the act. So [if the union loses] they're just going to ... have the election overturned again."
That is more likely with the NLRB that is set to be strengthened by the Biden administration. On Feb. 7, the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment released its report to the president, "a set of recommendations that, when implemented, will promote worker organizing and collective bargaining for federal employees and for workers employed by public and private-sector employers" that includes recommendations on "ways to increase interested private sector workers’ access to information about their existing right to join and/or organize a union, and the legally-defined process of how to do so."
Even the experts most optimistic about the current election stopped short of saying that unionization at Amazon is inevitable. But the possibility of workers successfully organizing there someday won't disappear, no matter what happens in Bessemer, many also said.
"If the union fails with the second vote it will be a setback," Wong said. "But it is not the end of the battle. You have more Amazon workers standing up and expressing their dissatisfaction with the way the company is run. Amazon workers across the country are tracking this. Amazon knows that, and that's why they're so committed to try to defeat any attempt at unionization. But it's not going away. Even if the Bessemer vote comes out against the union a second time, it's not going to stop other Amazon workers from trying to unionize."