Why Amazon’s Union Vote Matters

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There’s a lot riding on the outcome of a vote on whether to form a union at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

My colleague Karen Weise has described it as the most significant unionization effort in Amazon’s history. Ballots are being counted now with results expected within days. Karen spoke with me about how the outcome may reverberate beyond this one workplace.

Shira: Why is this union campaign getting so much attention?

Karen: This is a temperature check on beliefs about Amazon and labor unions at an important juncture for both. Amazon is ascendant and it created a mind-boggling number of jobs in the last year, bringing its global work force now to about 1.3 million. And one question that people have is: Are these jobs as good as they could be? The union vote, in a way, is a referendum on that question.

It’s high stakes for labor unions, too. Their membership has generally been declining in the United States for decades. And the question unions are facing is: What role, if any, will they have in the work force of the future? There’s a lot of meaning tied up in the votes of those nearly 6,000 Amazon employees near Birmingham.

What do workers who support this union say that they want?

My colleague Michael Corkery and I have heard from Amazon workers who say that they don’t feel valued. They believe that they are constantly monitored to make sure they meet productivity goals, and the work can be exhausting.

While Amazon’s pay is higher than the minimum wage, they say it’s not enough to compensate for what the work demands of them physically and the monitoring they’re under. There is a subset of workers who believe that a union would help them have power to change their pay or working conditions.

And what does Amazon say?

Amazon’s position is that it pays workers well — starting pay is at least $15 an hour, compared with the $7.25 hourly federal minimum wage in the United States, which is also the minimum wage in Alabama. And Amazon says that workers are better off engaging directly with the company rather than through a union.

What’s the expected outcome of this union vote?

The conventional wisdom is the union won’t succeed, so most experts are looking to see how close the vote will be. A slim vote against the union could still encourage labor organizers to try again at other Amazon workplaces. But if the union loses by a huge margin, Amazon will feel validated in its workplace practices and its stance about unions.

I’m wondering how to best interpret what it means if the union vote in Bessemer fails. It may be hard to separate how much workers are satisfied with their jobs versus how many don’t think a union is the solution, particularly given Amazon’s messaging on the topic.

Why did this particular warehouse become the focus of a unionization campaign? And why now?

The Birmingham region has been described as more like the industrial areas of the Midwest than the South. It has a long history of strong steel and mining unions, and unions were particularly involved in the civil rights movement. About 85 percent of the employees in the Bessemer warehouse are Black, and union organizers have focused on issues of racial empowerment and equality.

And recently, workers’ fears about the health risks of the pandemic and the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement have made some employees feel emboldened to demand more from Amazon.

Part of Amazon’s position is that it’s doing what people and politicians want companies to do: It’s creating a lot of jobs and paying more than many of its retail competitors. Is Amazon held to an unreasonable standard to do far more?

Amazon certainly believes that, and it points to Walmart as a competitor with lower pay and benefits. But at the peak of Walmart’s growth, it was also scrutinized for changing how we shop and for its pay and treatment of workers. Companies that are growing fast are naturally going to feel a lot of attention and pressure.

What do Amazon’s critics want it to do?

Amazon’s retail business is more profitable than many people realize, but it reinvests a lot of its profits in new technologies like drones, Alexa or other innovations that we don’t know about yet. Some workers are asking whether Amazon workers, the economy and maybe the company itself would be better off if Amazon spent more on them.

They point to examples of companies with different priorities. Costco, which employs almost 200,000 people in the United States, said recently that its average wage was $24 an hour and it planned to increase starting pay to $16 an hour.

(Amazon has said that a typical full-time employee in the United States had total compensation that equated to about $18 an hour in 2019. That’s not a direct comparison to Costco’s figure because it includes well-paid tech and corporate employees, which Costco’s disclosure does not.)

Costco’s chief executive said those wages were good for business.

(For more on this topic: Noam Scheiber discussed why this vote is a big deal for labor unions. Astead Herndon wrote about why Biden got involved. And a Wall Street Journal podcast featured two Bessemer employees with opposing positions on the union.)

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Kimberly Wilson

Kimberly Wilson is the author of the Top Stories and International News section of Newzinto.