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Union defeat at Amazon warehouse turns spotlight to the Hill

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The battle over organized labor’s clout will be focused more squarely on Capitol Hill now that workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama have soundly defeated an effort to form a union there.

Supporters and opponents of legislation that would significantly bolster unions were refining their arguments on Friday in light of the outcome in the Birmingham suburb of Bessemer, which was a bitter defeat for the nationally watched drive to establish the first union at the e-commerce giant.

Leaders of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, along with their supporters, accused Amazon of unfairly interfering with the vote and touted the legislation as a way to level the playing field between business and labor.

“Without knowing it, [Amazon is] igniting a movement to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and return workers in Alabama, Michigan and all corners of this land to their rightful place as drivers of broadly shared prosperity that represents America at its best,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) said.

Opponents of the legislation, also called the PRO Act, were just as quick to find justification for their position in the Bessemer outcome.

“Labor bosses should understand that when workers vote against forming a union, it signifies that the arguments made by organizers were not compelling or persuasive,” said Kristen Swearingen, chair of the business-backed Coalition for a Democratic Workplace said. 

“The PRO Act, which is also supported by the same union bosses seeking to organize businesses across the country, would hurt small businesses as they struggle to survive during the pandemic and strip employees of their privacy and vital rights to make a choice on their own if they want to join a union,” Swearingen said.

The fact that President Joe Biden included the PRO Act in the $2 trillion infrastructure plan he proposed last week will keep a spotlight on the issue. 

Labor leaders had hoped the time was ripe for a major victory in Alabama, amid an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic, concerns about the growing economic clout of Amazon and with pro-union Democrats in charge of the White House and Congress, who lent their support.

But workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer voted 1,798-738 against joining the union. Nearly 6,000 workers were eligible and roughly more than half cast ballots.

The union says it plans to challenge the results and ask the National Labor Relations Board to consider setting the vote aside, alleging Amazon “created an atmosphere” that interfered “with the employees’ freedom of choice.”

“We demand a comprehensive investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting this election,” the union said in a statement.

Amazon battled the organizing effort but denied any interference or wrongdoing in the election.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company wrote in a blog post following the vote tally. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us.”

Despite what looked like propitious timing for organizing the Amazon facility, the union faced an uphill battle in a traditionally union-averse state like Alabama. And the broader headwinds that labor has fought for decades, with a sharp drop in private-sector membership, apparently didn’t dissipate.

Among other things, the company touted its health care benefits and $15 hourly minimum wage to argue a union wasn’t needed.

The vote spanned seven weeks, beginning in February, and the NLRB spent nearly two weeks tallying the ballots, after disputes over ineligible voters slowed the process. Around 500 of the 3,215 ballots cast in the election were challenged and nearly 400 of the objections were raised by Amazon, according to a union spokesperson.

The union drive caught the attention of Washington, D.C., and put significant pressure on Biden to voice his support for workers exercising their collective bargaining rights. 

Biden eventually released a 2 1/2-minute video in early March backing the workers’ right to organize — which was billed by union leaders as “the most pro-union statement from a president” in history — although he omitted Amazon’s name from his remarks.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that Biden would wait “for the NLRB to finish its process and declare a result to make a further comment.”

“But I will say broadly … we know it’s very difficult for workers to make the choice to form a union,” Psaki said, plugging the PRO Act.

The legislation “would give more workers the ability to organize and bargain collectively with their employees,” Psaki said. “That’s a fundamental priority for him, something he’s fought for throughout his career.”

As the vote in Bessemer was under way, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union brought workers to Capitol Hill to testify at a Senate Budget Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who later went to the town to rally support for the union.

Jennifer Bates, a worker at the Bessemer fulfillment center, told lawmakers during the hearing in March that she was required to go to “union education meetings” hosted by the company, sometimes “several times a week,” that pushed anti-union messages. She said management put “anti-union signs and messages” all around the facility and even sent messages to workers’ phones.

Some of that activity would be prohibited under the PRO Act. 

Republicans and employers staunchly oppose the legislation, saying it would make businesses less competitive, and it’s unlikely to ever garner the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster. The fact that the bill would preempt state right-to-work laws like the one in Alabama, rendering them invalid, is particularly controversial.

This blog originally appeared at Politico on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rebecca Rainey is an employment and immigration reporter with POLITICO Pro and the author of the Morning Shift newsletter.


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