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Dispersed but Undaunted, Chicago Amazon Workers Help Win Megacycle Pay Nationwide

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BREAKING: Draft Legislation in New York Would Put Gig Workers into  Toothless 'Unions' | Today's Workplace

Chicago Amazon warehouse workers were put in a tough spot, and made the best of it.

In January, the company hit workers in Chicago’s DCH1 delivery station with a devastating one-two punch. First, Amazon was shutting down their workplace, so they would have to transfer to other facilities across the city. Second, workers at delivery stations nationwide were going to be forced onto a new shift called the “Megacycle,” where they would work four times a week from 1:20 to 11:50 a.m.

Delivery stations facilitate the “last mile” of delivery, sorting and handing off packages to delivery drivers. The Megacycle is designed to speed up the delivery process, allowing customers to order even later and still get their packages within one to two days.

HOME BASE OF SHOP FLOOR ACTION

DCH1 had been the base of the Chicago chapter of Amazonians United—the first chapter in the country. This network of worker committees at Amazon warehouses now reaches across the U.S., with ties with similar groups in other countries.

The Chicago chapter held its first public action in 2019 to demand access to drinking water on the job. Members quickly made connections with workers in other facilities to organize around issues ranging from health and safety to the lack of paid time off.

Over the next two years, workers at DCH1 organized petition campaigns, built community through social events, marched on the boss, and struck.

Amazonians United groups are not immediately oriented toward forming officially-recognized unions through the National Labor Relations Board process, instead focusing on building lasting worker committees that can operate like unions on the job.

WALKOUT AT TRANSFER FACILITY

Faced with the closure of their facility and the forced switch to the Megacycle, Chicago’s Amazonians United group moved quickly to gather petition signatures from their co-workers backing several demands:

  • Accommodations for workers who couldn’t make the change to the new shift
  • An added $2-per-hour differential for the less-desirable shifts
  • Lyft rides to and from work—since most of Chicago’s subway service and many bus lines don’t run overnight, or run on reduced schedules
  • Full 20-minute breaks, which is the policy but managers were enforcing 15-minute breaks

AU’s core organizers hit the ground running on these demands in other facilities in the Chicago area, too. At DIL3, one of the Chicago-area delivery stations to which DCH1 workers were transferred, workers held a one-day walkout in April. Most of the 50 workers on schedule that day walked out, left early, or stayed home. Most who took part hadn’t already been involved in the organizing at DCH1.

Managers, HR, and security guards were left to fill the gaps alongside the 10 workers who remained.

“Some managers had to do real work for the first time, as evidenced by their slowness and clumsiness in moving carts, picking bags and packages, [and] staging for delivery,” wrote AU Chicagoland organizers in a collective response to Labor Notes about the walkout.

Some deliveries to the areas served by DIL3 were delayed by one to two days—confirmed by notifications Amazon sent out to customers telling them their orders would be late.

VICTORY ON MEGACYCLE PAY

Last month, AU claimed victory. On their May 19 paycheck, workers on the Megacycle shift across the country received a shift-differential pay increase of $1.50-$2 per hour, depending on the day of the week. The workers in Chicago are confident they had something to do with it.

This isn’t the first time workers in a relatively small number of facilities were able to push Amazon to make changes nationwide. In the months before the pandemic, workers organizing under the banner of Amazonians United pushed for paid time off with petitions and walkouts in Chicago, New York City, and Sacramento. Workers in the latter city walked off mid-shift on December 23, 2019, after delivering a petition with 4,015 signatures. Amazon relented, and workers started receiving paid time off.

Even though they’ve been dispersed from their original facility, AU activists in Chicago plan to keep doing what they’ve been doing: “uniting with our co-workers, identifying the issues that are most popular, and taking action to address them.”

Do you work at Amazon? “If you know like we do that we all deserve better, talk with your co-workers, figure out what issues y’all care about, discuss and make a plan, and join the fight,” say organizers with Amazonians United Chicago. “We all have a part to play and it’s never too late to stand up for respect and dignity.” Reach them at AUChicagoland@gmail.comfacebook.com/AUChicacoland, or on Twitter/Instagram @AUChicagoland.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Joe-DeManuelle Hall is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.


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Amazon is intentionally burning through warehouse workers, but it may not be sustainable forever

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

Amazon defeated a union organizing drive in Alabama recently, but two major new articles on the company’s warehouses powerfully show why workers wanted to unionize—and why it’s going to be nearly impossible for such efforts to succeed.

The New York Times led off with a damning look at JFK8, an Amazon fulfillment center in New York City. The JFK8 story was a window into Amazon’s broader employment practices, though, starting with high turnover by design, because Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wants people gone quickly, calling long-term employment a “a march to mediocrity.” In the warehouses, that translates to Amazon not caring that it is churning through workers at a staggering rate, seeing turnover of 150% a year even before the coronavirus pandemic. Other analyses of Amazon’s turnover rate have put it somewhat lower, but still at least 100%.

Hourly warehouse employees also have few chances for advancement—again by design, a former human resources vice president for the company told the Times. The internal promotion rate for these workers is less than half that of Walmart, with Amazon preferring to hire “wicked smart” college graduates in management roles. And—surprise!—at JFK8 that and other policies translated to an hourly workforce that was 60% Black or Latino, while management was more than 70% white or Asian. Black workers were also almost 50% more likely to be fired than white workers.

Amazon really is treating people as disposable, bringing them in and burning them out. Partly that seems to come from Bezos’ contempt for workers. But HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson also highlights how this helps insulate Amazon from worker organizing efforts

High turnover is “definitely one way to avoid a union,” former JFK8 worker Chris Smalls, now launching an independent organizing effort at the facility, told Jamieson. That plays out in the development of solidarity between workers, the trust workers feel in each other that enable them to talk freely about things management wouldn’t want them talking about, the long-term investment workers feel in improving the workplace … and, very concretely, in the mechanics of getting a union representation election.

To get the National Labor Relations Board to set up an election, organizers have to have signed union cards for 30% of workers, but in reality, organizers need far more than that because some initial support may disappear in the face of an anti-union campaign by management.

“At an Amazon warehouse, high turnover means a union would be losing cards every day as workers leave and new employees unfamiliar with the campaign replace them,” Jamieson writes. “Even if the union manages to win an election, high turnover could hurt its position at the bargaining table if some of the most active organizers have quit or been fired. And churn could even help the employer purge the union from the facility by convincing newer workers to decertify it.”

Bezos is stepping down as Amazon’s chief executive soon, and on his way out he has made sounds about improving Amazon’s employment practices, vowing the company would become “Earth’s best employer.” That is … unlikely. But, the Times pointed out, Amazon’s turnover is so extreme that “multiple current and former Amazon executives fear there simply will not be enough workers. In the more remote towns where Amazon based its early U.S. operations, it burned through local labor pools and needed to bus people in.” Reforming its employment practices enough that the company can keep a workforce in place for the long run may be a necessity at some point. And that, in the most optimistic scenario, could also be an opening for organizers.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on June 4, 2021 Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor


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Amazon is crushing Walmart in one metric: The rate of serious injuries in its warehouses

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

Immediately following a report that Amazon’s workplace injury rates were significantly higher than those of its top rivals, the online retail giant announced a tweak to its notorious “time off task” metric, which workers and advocates say is responsible for the punishing pace that leads to many injuries. The Washington Post looked at Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data and found that Amazon warehouses have a rate of 5.9 serious injury incidents per 100 workers, which is nearly double the rate of other retail warehouses and more than double the rate for Walmart warehouses. This despite a decrease in serious injury rates at Amazon warehouses after the company paused performance tracking to allow workers time to wash their hands and sanitize work areas during the pandemic.

In response to the Post’s questions, Amazon detailed an array of efforts to improve injury rates at its warehouses, including “ergonomics programs, guided exercises at employees’ workstations, mechanical assistance equipment, workstation setup and design, and forklift telematics and guardrails—to name a few,” a company spokeswoman told the newspaper. What those efforts notably did not include was relaxing the speed requirements placed on workers that lead to so many of those injuries, at least outside of pandemic safety measures.

But on Tuesday, via a blog post by Dave Clark, CEO of its worldwide consumer division, the company made two announcements clearly designed to garner good publicity: It will stop testing employees for marijuana except for those in positions regulated by the Department of Transportation and will support federal marijuana legalization, and it’s changing how “time off task” is calculated. The time off task metric “can easily be misunderstood,” Clark claimed, insisting that its primary goal “is to understand whether there are issues with the tools that people use to be productive, and only secondarily to identify under-performing employees.”

This is not how Amazon employees experience that, and in any case, constantly finding ways to make the “tools that people use to be productive” go faster is another way to make the workers go faster. “Starting today,” Clark announced, “we’re now averaging Time off Task over a longer period to ensure that there’s more signal and less noise—reinforcing the original intent of the program, and focusing Time off Task conversations on how we can help.”

That’s not a big enough change, said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, in a statement: “After months of intense worker activity at Amazon workplaces everywhere, the giant tech is acknowledging that it must at least tweak its management system to soften the blow on workers who have the occasional ‘bad day’. But the basic system remains the same. This small step is welcomed but insufficient. What workers need is a real seat at the table and their voices heard.”

Let’s circle back to the top of this post and remember, we’re talking about a business with a serious injury rate nearly twice that of the industry as a whole and more than twice that of Walmart (which is not exactly known as a great employer). A small tweak is not going to do it. 

Amazon’s injury data also points to the need for stronger government enforcement. A DuPont, Washington, Amazon warehouse sported a serious injury rate of 23.9 per 100 workers in 2020, up from an already high 7.2 serious incidents per 100 workers in 2017. For those conditions, Amazon was cited by Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries, which specifically identified the following: “There is a direct connection between Amazon’s employee monitoring and discipline systems and workplace MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders].” But the fine was just $7,000. Why would Amazon take the need for change seriously if that’s how much it costs? Instead, the company is trying to deal with its high injury rates as a public relations problem by announcing the smallest possible change to its policy. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on June 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Amazon makes tiny tweak to ‘time off task’ policy following report on high injury rates

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

Immediately following a report that Amazon’s workplace injury rates were significantly higher than those of its top rivals, the online retail giant announced a tweak to its notorious “time off task” metric, which workers and advocates say is responsible for the punishing pace that leads to many injuries. The Washington Post looked at Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data and found that Amazon warehouses have a rate of 5.9 serious injury incidents per 100 workers, which is nearly double the rate of other retail warehouses and more than double the rate for Walmart warehouses. This despite a decrease in serious injury rates at Amazon warehouses after the company paused performance tracking to allow workers time to wash their hands and sanitize work areas during the pandemic.

In response to the Post’s questions, Amazon detailed an array of efforts to improve injury rates at its warehouses, including “ergonomics programs, guided exercises at employees’ workstations, mechanical assistance equipment, workstation setup and design, and forklift telematics and guardrails—to name a few,” a company spokeswoman told the newspaper. What those efforts notably did not include was relaxing the speed requirements placed on workers that lead to so many of those injuries, at least outside of pandemic safety measures.

But on Tuesday, via a blog post by Dave Clark, CEO of its worldwide consumer division, the company made two announcements clearly designed to garner good publicity: It will stop testing employees for marijuana except for those in positions regulated by the Department of Transportation and will support federal marijuana legalization, and it’s changing how “time off task” is calculated. The time off task metric “can easily be misunderstood,” Clark claimed, insisting that its primary goal “is to understand whether there are issues with the tools that people use to be productive, and only secondarily to identify under-performing employees.”

This is not how Amazon employees experience that, and in any case, constantly finding ways to make the “tools that people use to be productive” go faster is another way to make the workers go faster. “Starting today,” Clark announced, “we’re now averaging Time off Task over a longer period to ensure that there’s more signal and less noise—reinforcing the original intent of the program, and focusing Time off Task conversations on how we can help.”

That’s not a big enough change, said Christy Hoffman, general secretary of UNI Global Union, in a statement: “After months of intense worker activity at Amazon workplaces everywhere, the giant tech is acknowledging that it must at least tweak its management system to soften the blow on workers who have the occasional ‘bad day’. But the basic system remains the same. This small step is welcomed but insufficient. What workers need is a real seat at the table and their voices heard.”

Let’s circle back to the top of this post and remember, we’re talking about a business with a serious injury rate nearly twice that of the industry as a whole and more than twice that of Walmart (which is not exactly known as a great employer). A small tweak is not going to do it. 

Amazon’s injury data also points to the need for stronger government enforcement. A DuPont, Washington, Amazon warehouse sported a serious injury rate of 23.9 per 100 workers in 2020, up from an already high 7.2 serious incidents per 100 workers in 2017. For those conditions, Amazon was cited by Washington State’s Department of Labor and Industries, which specifically identified the following: “There is a direct connection between Amazon’s employee monitoring and discipline systems and workplace MSDs [musculoskeletal disorders].” But the fine was just $7,000. Why would Amazon take the need for change seriously if that’s how much it costs? Instead, the company is trying to deal with its high injury rates as a public relations problem by announcing the smallest possible change to its policy. 

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on June 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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The Long Struggle Against Giving Up

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Watching on Zoom late last week as an NLRB official spent hour after hour pulling paper ballots out of a cardboard box and hollering ?“NO” at high volume was excruciating. But it was not the most excruciating part of losing a big campaign like the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama. That would be right now, when the pundits descend to offer instant critiques of everything that went wrong, like fashion critics insulting what people are wearing to a funeral. Even as a pundit myself, the process is hard to watch. 

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the union organizing the Amazon warehouse, lost the vote by more than a 2?–?1 margin. After the extreme publicity of the campaign over the past couple of months, such a definitive loss was crushing. More importantly, the workers in Bessemer still do not have a union, and Amazon and the rest of the anti-union world gains the talking point that those workers do not want or need a union. The reality on the ground after the loss is bad, and the narrative it produces going forward is also bad. When any union undertakes an organizing drive, it is good to win, and bad not to. Of these things there can be no doubt. 

But the Amazon campaign was extraordinary in so many ways that it needs to be seen in context, to avoid drawing all the wrong conclusions. The RWDSU’s attempt to organize more than 5,000 warehouse workers in the South?—?going up against the most deep-pocketed company imaginable?—?gained attention in the first place because it seemed so crazy. Everyone in the union world knew that every aspect of the situation?—?the size of the unit, the high turnover of the work, the fact that the job was considered a good one by local standards, the fact that it took place in a ?“right to work” state, the resources that Amazon could deploy against it, the fact that it was an attempt to crack an extremely tough union-free company?—?made success harder. From the beginning, every union veteran I spoke to about the campaign was hopeful, but skeptical it could succeed. 

That conventional wisdom turned out to be true. Reality bites. Looking back on the organizing drive and saying the union should have used different tactics obscures the fact that this campaign, with a unit of that size, in Alabama, under the awful labor law régime that we have in America, probably was not winnable, at least not in the short time frame in which it happened. But that, in turn, obscures a more important fact: It’s good that this campaign happened. 

Why would the RWDSU take up such a difficult effort in the first place? Because workers at the Amazon warehouse asked them to. There are many unions in this country that would have politely told those workers to fuck off. The RWDSU, though, tried. They spent many months and many millions of dollars and got the world to turn its attention to Bessemer. If they learned lessons about organizing tactics that could have been done differently, those lessons should be applied to the next campaign. Their effort should still be applauded. There are plenty of lazy people in the union establishment who would prefer to say that they should not be expected to do hard, audacious organizing, because it is a waste of time. They are wrong. 

Some have said that this campaign, which received more press than any other union drive in many decades, was too media-focused. Though I fully endorse the idea that the media is annoying, this critique fails to understand the press did not cover this campaign because the union asked it to?—?we covered it because it had all of the ingredients of a great story. Readers, I can tell you from experience, want to read about labor battles at identifiable companies like Amazon much more than they want to read about labor battles anywhere else. An enormous union drive in an unlikely place full of scrappy, charismatic characters fighting the richest man in the country was going to get news coverage whether the union wanted it or not. It is more accurate to think of the press as an uncontrollable outside force to be managed rather than as an element of an organizing drive that a union can summon or shut down at will. The truth is that in almost every other case, the problem is that tough union drives get too little, not too much, coverage. 

Amazon warehouse workers are the single most important segment of the American work force for unions to organize, because they are what the future of work looks like. The effort to unionize Amazon will take decades. We are at the beginning. The attention created by the drive in Bessemer caused hundreds of other Amazon workers across the country to reach out to the union. With luck, it will spawn ten or fifty or a hundred more organizing committees inside other Amazon warehouses. Some of those will die out, and some will build towards a real union campaign. That’s how the work goes. One of the warehouses that continues to organize should be the warehouse in Bessemer. They are probably closer to winning than any other warehouse in America. The loss that just happened was the first round of what will be a long fight. 

Leaders of the civil rights movement would often show up in a Southern town, and spend months organizing. The press would show up too. The activists and the people would march, and get beaten up, and get arrested, and the local political establishment would denounce them, and after all that, no laws would change. Did that indicate that their movement had failed? No. They were engaged in individual battles in a war for justice that lasted many years. They, the activists of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, succeeded in their part of that war. Today we have our part. The labor movement, ground down for decades, must be at the center of this part of the war, which is a class war taking place after 40 years of widening inequality. The struggle of the labor movement today is not just against the bosses on the other side?—?it is also against the deadening forces of inertia inside unions, which makes many prefer to not even try. 

I’m sorry that the Amazon workers did not win their union. I’m glad they tried. I’m glad for every single news story that came out of it. I’m glad for every single working person at every other shitty job who saw it and wondered if they might do something similar at their own workplace. I’m glad that millions of people watched all this happen. The only thing left to do now is to keep on going. 

This blog originally appeared atIn These Times on April 12, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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The Message from the Amazon Union Defeat in Alabama Is Clear: Keep Organizing

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On April 9, the National Labor Relations Board announced the results of a mail ballot certification election that concluded on March 29 for workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. With 3,215 votes cast, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) was defeated with at least 1,608 votes against the union, enough to crush the drive. The result was not shocking given the millions of dollars that Amazon spent and its power inside the facility to pressure workers to vote against forming a union. 

No matter how you spin it, the defeat is a significant blow to the multitude of organizing efforts occurring at Amazon. The election showed the clear limitations of pursuing union certification through a broken NLRB election process. However, due to the national attention and support that the campaign received, now more Amazon workers than ever are thinking about the possibility and potential of organizing. Hopefully, the campaign in Bessemer will encourage unions and workers throughout the company to consider alternative organizing strategies. 

Despite the valiant efforts of the workers, Amazon?—?which has more resources than nearly any company in the world?—?was able to blunt their momentum through its anti-union campaign. As expected, management engaged in the usual one-on-one and captive audience meetings to persuade workers to vote ?“no.” But management went further, using a barrage of email, texting and social media posts and even luring unhappy workers to quit with cash buyouts, messages posted in bathroom stalls, and changing the timing of traffic signals to gain advantage. The loss confirms what many of us in the labor movement already know?—?the balance of power is completely out of whack in this country, with big corporations twisting the rules to stay in charge and keep workers’ voices silent.

But this is hardly the last word on organizing Amazon. Management’s aggressive campaign illustrated to the whole country the need to fundamentally change the rules of the game so that workers everywhere can more easily form unions. The pressure on elected officials to enact long overdue labor law reform should increase.

The ?“BAmazon union” drive received more press and attention from the public than any other union election in recent memory. The focus on the campaign helped bring increased scrutiny to the reality of working conditions at Amazon?—?in Bessemer, across the country and around the world. Critical, in-depth reporting on the inner workings of Amazon increased as the drive gained national interest. For example, in February, The New York Times Magazine covered the community and labor organizing taking place in the Inland Empire region of Southern California, an important area to Amazon because of its proximity to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Washington Post (owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos), has run several excellent exposes of Amazon’s anti-union conduct, including a March 9 storythat reported: ?“Many of the 5,805 employees in Bessemer …receive four or five emails a day from the company to discourage unionization. …The company has pressed its anti-union case with banners at the warehouse and even fliers posted inside bathroom stalls.” Labor Notes has already published more than 20 articles about working conditions and labor organizing at Amazon, and there were dozens of reports in all major news outlets leading up to the vote count.

Public support from other labor unions, community groups and elected officials has also been impressive. On February 20, and again on March 20, dozens of actions took place nationwide in support of the Bessemer workers. The call for those actions went out from the Southern Workers Assembly, an organization founded in 2012 by veteran labor and Black Workers for Justice organizers. On March 2, the organization issued a statement summarizing its view of the importance of the organizing in Bessemer:

“The Bessemer workers launched their campaign at a time of increasing repressive government and the rise of a racist and divisive social movement that threatened to turn back the clock on basic democratic rights. Like the 1955, Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott during a similar repressive and divisive period, the Bessemer Amazon workers led by the 80-percent Black and women majority and the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), stepped forward.”

Why is it so hard to form a union? 

The attention to Bessemer, and the extent that Amazon has interfered in the workers’ decision, has illustrated our broken labor relations system. Free choice by workers to form a union has turned into a corporate obstacle course where workers are subjected to both one-on-one and captive audience meetings, along with constant pressure via email, texts, social media, and physical postings?—?even in company bathrooms. 

A far simpler way for workers to gain union certification and their collective bargaining rights is through a procedure called ?“card check.” If a simple majority of workers sign cards authorizing a union to be their representative, then their employer would be compelled to recognize and negotiate with the union that workers chose. This provision was part of the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that, despite Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, died during President Obama’s first term. Unfortunately, card check isn’t part of the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) now pending in Congress. Although the PRO Act passed the House with bipartisan support, unless the Senate changes the rules around the filibuster, the bill faces an uphill battle.

On February 28, President Biden gave a powerful endorsement of the union effort in Bessemer. While not mentioning Amazon by name, his support for the union drive couldn’t have been clearer. This was an unprecedented move. Labor activists have long dreamed of a contemporary president mimicking what President Franklin D. Roosevelt was reputed to have said in the 1930s: ?“The President wants you to join a union.” But it turns out that this history is actually a myth. Roosevelt never said such words in a fireside chat or in writing. John L. Lewis, the Mineworker leader and other CIO organizers just repeated it over and over until it became part of labor folklore. Biden’s speech was a reflection of the debt he owes to the labor movement for his narrow win in November 2020, and of the growing favorability towards unions?—?48% of workers now say they would join a union if given the opportunity. 

RWDSU’s effort at Bessemer was unexpected. It appears that not even its parent union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, was aware of the drive until the NLRB made the election filing public on November 20, 2020. However, successfully organizing workers at a company like Amazon with 1.3million employees and hundreds of fulfillment centers, sortation centers and delivery stations in the United States will require the massive resources of far more than one union. It also will necessitate the internal organizing efforts of tens of thousands of workers in networks like Amazonians United, which describes itself as: ?“A movement of workers fighting to end management’s domination in our workplaces. We organize with our coworkers to fight together for the dignified lives we all deserve.”

Internal organizing alone will still be insufficient. Community support is essential to create a supportive context for workers to take on their employer. Amazon workers received strong support from worker and community coalitions like the Southern Workers Assembly, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the political support of elected officials like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and many more. While the national support from celebrities and political leaders is welcome, it’s even more important to have the community’s civic and religious leaders and local elected officials in your corner.

Amazon’s business model is particularly challenging for organizers. With its inventory system and use of state of the art robots, a job that took 60 to 75 minutes can now be done in 15 minutes, and its warehouses can now hold 40 percent more inventory. The ?“random chaos” that Amazon uses to fulfill consumer orders creates built-in redundancy in its distribution network. Worker organization and actions at one isolated facility can be countered by shifting logistics to run work around that facility or simply closing it altogether. There’s nothing new about companies avoiding a problem union or an upstart workforce?—?UPS and other shippers have been doing it for decades. It will take many more drives like that in Bessemer?—?at points all along the Amazon delivery chain?—?to give workers the confidence and means to fight for their rights and win good wages and working conditions. 

None of these caveats should detract from the significance of this drive. Bessemer takes its name from the steel production process pioneered in Birmingham, England?—?the home of the modern steel industry and the name of the Alabama city next door which has historically been a mining and steel production center with considerable union density. While RWDSU was guarded about the degree of internal organization, there is a considerable organic connection between its sizable poultry processing membership in Alabama (about 6,000 members) and the largely African-American Amazon Bessemer workforce. To RWDSU’s credit, the organizing drive ranks among the largest single organizing efforts in the history of the American South.

Going forward, we are likely to see more unions joining in the effort to organize Amazon. The Teamsters have already begun building rank and file awareness with its UPS membership about the threat that Amazon poses to its contract standards with the hope that members will assist a broad campaign. It’s already resulted in local unions hearing from Amazon workers interested in joining. For many years now, the Service Employee International Union has supported the Awood Center which assists immigrants organizing at Amazon in the Twin Cities region. Now, RWDSU has entered the field in Alabama and gained many organizing leads at other facilities to follow up on. Aside from unions, Athena?—?a network of over 50 non-profits, worker centers and labor unions?—?is playing a high-profile role in the policy and legislative arenas advocating for Amazon workers and the communities impacted by its business. And Amazonians United has emerged as a burgeoning network of in-plant organizers dedicated to building strong workplace committees. A confluence of all of these forces, and much more, will be required to seriously take on Amazon.

The workplace focus is key. And the newfound focus on organizing in the South will remain crucial. Saladin Muhammad, a retired UE organizer and leader of the Southern Workers Assembly, commented on this dynamic on March 11: 

“There is a recognition that the South needs to be organized as a part of building a stronger labor movement throughout the US. For a long time, the confidence of the working class in the South and the effort to organize has been very weak. Attempts to unionize the Volkswagen and Nissan plants in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi, are indications of organized labor’s recognition of the importance of organizing core industries in the South. This is a recognition that has not really existed probably since Operation Dixie in the late 1940s. …I think it is drawing even more attention than the Volkswagen and the Nissan campaigns. It has the opportunity to deepen the struggle around race as a part of the working-class struggle. I think there are some real possibilities with this campaign.” 

Despite losing the election, there needs to be continued focus on building solidarity with the workers in Bessemer. Management should be held accountable to the promises it made to deter support for collective bargaining and the key union leaders need to be protected from any retaliation for their efforts to support the union. RWDSU will hopefully stick with the workers in Bessemer and create a durable organization inside the facility. Then, building on its first effort, it could seek a second certification election which history shows have a much better success rate. 

Solidarity on a national level was impressive. Organizations like the Working Families Party and Our Revolution that stepped up during the campaign will be needed to help connect the Amazon workers’ struggles to other movements for justice. 

And groups like DSA will be crucial to supporting young cadres who take jobs at Amazon and want to help organize from within, either through Amazonians United or a specific union. The setback in Bessemer shows that without deep internal organizing and base-building, no amount of external agitation and support can overcome the power of a corporate behemoth like Amazon. Workers need to be steeled in the experience of confronting their supervisors on the warehouse floor, marching on the boss in the front office?—?and walking out when necessary?—?in order to prepare themselves to win a battle for union recognition. It is poetic that on the day before votes began to be counted in Bessemer, workers at an Amazon Chicago-area delivery station, ?“DIL 3” in Gage Park, staged a one day walk-out against the new ?“megacycle” schedules being imposed on delivery station employees.

If we are serious about organizing at Amazon, we have to redefine what ?“winning” means. If it’s about one election or even one contract, we are in for some serious disappointment. Instead, it must be about the uprising of tens of thousands of workers supported by unions and community groups and backed up by elected officials willing to use the levers of government to the workers’ advantage. 

One concrete step towards building that movement would be better coordination and unity among the logistics and transportation unions, especially the Teamsters, the longshore unions, and the railroad craft unions. Better results can also be achieved by strengthening the cooperation between in-plant worker organizing by groups like Amazonians United, formations like the Southern Workers Assembly, and the multiple labor unions that are prepared to assist. As the political and regulatory context for Amazon evolves, the workers’ movement should also anticipate?—?and where possible lead?—?major structural reforms to Amazon’s business model. 

The lopsided defeat of the Bessemer workers’ organizing effort is not the first setback for labor at Amazon, and it won’t be the last. The lessons from Amazon organizing initiatives?—?including the Bessemer drive and workplace actions?—?should be carefully analyzed and catalogued in a searchable format for future reference. As Amazon workers’ level of militancy and organization grows, our challenge is to make sure that each action strengthens the movement and builds workers’ confidence in the power of collective action. That’s what inspires workers to ?“ditch the fear” and expand their on-the-job support for unions.

Despite the outcome at Bessemer, the organizing campaign has already made a major contribution to public perceptions about Amazon and the urgent need for labor law reform. Amazon workers’ struggle for dignity and justice is only getting started. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 9, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rand Wilson is chief of staff at SEIU Local 888. He was communications coordinator for the Teamsters’ 1997 UPS strike. 

About the Author: Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director at the ILWU, currently working with a national network of Amazon employees and organizers. 


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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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Amazon defeats Alabama union effort after dirty, but predictable, campaign

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The union organizing effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, appears headed for defeat after the first day of counting ballots. There were 3,215 votes, with the count standing at 1,100 against unionizing to 463 in favor. Voting ended March 29, but before the counting began, hundreds of ballots were challenged, most by the company. If those could be decisive, they will be revisited.

But on the day counting began, we learned more about how far Amazon went to stack the deck in its favor. The National Labor Relations Board had refused Amazon’s request to have a ballot drop box in the facility, citing coronavirus social distancing precautions. But documents obtained by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union through Freedom of Information Act requests show that Amazon defied that by going to the U.S. Postal Service and asking for a mailbox to be installed on Amazon property—which it was, unmarked, the day before voting started.

One critique of the campaign and the decision to press forward to an election after Amazon successfully expanded the bargaining unit involved in the vote from around 1500 workers to all 5800 in the warehouse: 

“We have not heard anything back on the install of this collection box,” a Postal Service account manager emailed Postal Service workers in Alabama on Jan. 14. “Amazon is reaching out again to me today about the status as they wanted to move quickly on this.” 

Those emails directly contradict a Postal Service spokesman’s claim that the mailbox was “suggested by the Postal Service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point.”

”Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.” 

When the mailbox was installed, journalist Kim Kelly and More Perfect Union showed exactly why it functioned to intimidate workers:

Assuming the vote counting continues as it has begun, this will become the basis for a challenge by the union. It was, of course, only one of a string of intimidation strategies and efforts to rig the vote in Amazon’s favor—most of which were allowed under current U.S. labor law. So much of what’s happened in Bessemer is a case study in why we need the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, but also in why big business is so determined to keep U.S. labor law weak and tilted in favor of management.

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

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Alabama Amazon organizing drive is a case study in why it’s so important to pass the PRO Act

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The recent organizing drive by workers at an Alabama Amazon warehouse has drawn an unusual amount of attention to a union representation election, and for good reason—Amazon is a massive employer that has successfully beaten back multiple organizing efforts in the United States. Even the possibility of a union win, in Alabama of all places, is worthy of the headlines. But it also draws attention to just how much the deck is stacked against workers and unions in this country. Amazon management has carried out an aggressive anti-union campaign, texting workers multiple times a day, posting anti-union messages in bathroom stalls, and more.

What could make it easier for workers to build power in the United States? In March, the House passed the PRO Act—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—which would provide a much-needed update to labor law after decades of erosion of collective bargaining and rising economic inequality.

Much of the discussion of the PRO Act, both on social media and here at Daily Kos, has centered on one provision of the bill applying to freelancers and independent contractors. I’ll get to that. But it’s one provision, so let’s refocus for a bit on parts of the bill that would affect far, far more workers.

The PRO Act protects worker-activists from being fired during organizing campaigns—something that’s technically illegal now, but employers do it all the time anyway, facing few penalties. The PRO Act creates penalties with real teeth. 

Under the current system, workers regularly face captive audience meetings in which they’re barraged with anti-union messaging and speaking out can put a target on them. The PRO Act would ban such meetings and allow union organizers to contact workers at their work email accounts (unless there was a strong business reason against it). The bill would also force companies to disclose what anti-union consultants they’ve hired. Delay is a common tactic to intimidate workers (often by firing outspokenly pro-union workers); the PRO Act would streamline the process and give workers more of a say in what their bargaining unit would look like.

These provisions would have made a significant difference in the Amazon organizing drive, as Brandon Magner writes at Jacobin. Amazon wouldn’t have been able to hold the many captive audience meetings it did hold. It wouldn’t have been able to force a vote by virtually all the workers in the building in one bargaining unit rather than accepting the significantly smaller bargaining unit the workers wanted. The election would have been held with much less delay and with the option of electronic voting. 

Once workers do vote to join a union, employers frequently continue using delay as a tactic. They drag their feet on bargaining a contract, they refuse to negotiate in good faith, they lock out workers or unilaterally impose their own proposals. The PRO Act would prevent those things, including with a mediation and arbitration process for first contract negotiations and a ban on “offensive lockouts” in which an employer declares that bargaining is at an impasse and locks out workers to put pressure on them.

And the PRO Act repeals state “right to work” laws, which weaken unions by allowing workers to freeload on their union coworkers, refusing to pay even a fee to cover the costs of their representation, which the union must nonetheless provide even for nonmembers.

But about that provision that’s drawing controversy from unexpected places:

Markos recently wrote about—and invited a guest writer to expand on—concerns that the inclusion of the so-called ABC test in the PRO Act would hurt freelancers. ABC is a test used to determine whether someone is an employee or a legitimate independent contractor. In the PRO Act, it would be used for assessing whether people had the right to organize as workers at a company; Markos, however, points to concerns that if the ABC test is made federal law for one purpose involving freelancers, it will be a slippery slope to its use for other purposes.

Opposition to this provision of the PRO Act is very sincerely coming from some freelancers concerned for their ability to make a living, following the failure of California’s AB5 to carve out an adequate exemption for their work when that law—since repealed by Proposition 22—used the ABC test to determine employment status much more broadly. But the opposition is also coming, Alex Press reports, from organizations like the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others who are less concerned for the rights and livelihood of freelance writers than they are with opposing any bill that might give unions or worker organizing efforts any additional leverage.

The Authors Guild, which supports collective bargaining rights for freelancers, earlier echoed the concerns expressed by Markos and Kim Kavin, writing that it “does not agree that it is the right test to determine whether creative freelancers have the right to collectively bargain” and was drafting alternative language for amendments to the act. However, the Authors Guild is now supporting the PRO Act, planning a webinar on the bill that will “address misinformation fanned online about how the PRO Act would ‘nationalize’ California’s AB5 law and make freelance writers employees—which in reality is not the case.”

The AFL-CIO and Economic Policy Institute (EPI) argue those concerns are misplaced. The EPI spells out what the PRO Act does and doesn’t do with regard to freelancers and independent contractors: “The PRO Act would provide workers with the right to join unions and band together no matter where they live if they are deemed employees because the legislation would be federally regulated and enforced.” However, “The Act would not impact rules or laws in states that determine whether workers are employees or independent contractors for the purposes of determining a workers’ state income tax status or whether they’re entitled to workers’ compensation benefits or unemployment benefits.” That’s what’s in this act, and while some opponents of the ABC test have argued that putting it into federal law in this context would create a slippery slope to laws replicating AB5, the reality is that there are few slippery slopes to new labor laws in the U.S.

The National Writers Union and its Freelance Solidarity Project agree, supporting the PRO Act in part because “Under current labor law, freelancers can form unions like ours, but our attempts to organize are not protected—and employers are even able to file legal charges against us for some of the very same activity protected for our W-2 colleagues. This means we are forced to walk a very narrow line, and in some cases avoid certain types of organizing and advocacy entirely. The PRO Act would change this, and make it easier for us to exercise our civil rights to come together for our common good.”

Again, though, wherever you come down on this specific provision in the bill, it’s a small part of a larger law to strengthen workers’ right to organize, a right that exists in law already but in practice is constantly compromised and under attack. It would benefit workers in Amazon warehouses, and in hospitals and nursing homes and meatpacking plants. 

The political reality, of course, is that while the PRO Act has passed the House, it is not going to get through a Senate in which the filibuster is intact. Filibuster reform or abolition is the prerequisite to getting almost anything done for workers, from raising the minimum wage to passing this bill. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on April 2, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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For union battling Amazon, victory could bring a stalemate

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For the union trying to organize nearly 6,000 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, a successful election in the coming weeks could only be the beginning of the struggle to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the company.

Workers at the fulfillment center in Bessemer, a Birmingham suburb, have been voting since late February on whether to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — an election that has drawn nationwide attention because it could result in Amazon’s first unionized facility in the U.S. The National Labor Relations Board will begin tallying the votes on Tuesday.

But initial collective bargaining agreements usually take years to hammer out at the negotiating table. More than half of workplaces that form unions are unable to reach an initial contract within a year, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, and 37 percent of newly formed private-sector unions still have no contract after two years.

“It’s so difficult to hold an employer accountable,” said Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel at EPI. And even if the union engages in “this protracted legal battle, you know the penalty that the employer is facing is quite frankly minimal.”

The outcome of the election is being so closely watched because the stakes go far beyond this warehouse. If the campaign in Republican stronghold Alabama is successful, it could spark more organizing efforts at Amazon and other large retailers across the U.S. If it fails, it could galvanize Democrats’ fight to push through one of the broadest expansions of collective bargaining rights in nearly a century. At the same time, it could embolden many companies to take an even harder line against organized labor.

That’s why the Amazon organizing effort has taken on such broad significance politically. Even before the votes in Bessemer are counted, President Joe Biden, other Democrats and their labor allies are using the election to push for their union-friendly overhaul of federal labor law.

If Amazon were to drag its feet on an initial contract, the union could call on the NLRB to order management to bargain with the workers. However, that legal process can span months, even years, especially if the company were to appeal any enforcement moves from the labor board.

Amazon can legally refuse to bargain with the union if it challenges an issue related to the election. The company already sought to delay the union vote and require that ballots be cast in person rather than by mail. The NLRB approved a seven-week mail-in ballot election, instead of an in-person election that typically takes place over a few days, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Heather Knox, a spokesperson for Amazon, said in response: “RWDSU membership has been declining for the last two decades, but that is not justification for its president, Stuart Appelbaum, to misrepresent the facts. Our employees know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace. We encouraged all of our employees to vote and hope they did so.”

The company declined to say how it would respond if the workers voted to unionize.

Union leaders said they are prepared for Amazon to dig in for a fight and are already using their effort in Alabama to promote the legislation in Congress, known as the PRO Act, that would make it easier for unions to organize.

“I wouldn’t put it past Amazon to try to come up with any excuse that it could find to overturn an election where workers win,” said Appelbaum, the union president. “There has never been a greater argument for labor law reform and the PRO Act than this election.”

Whether the e-commerce giant could go as far as to shutter the facility in response to a successful union election is murky.

“The law is clear about one thing, and that is that a business can completely, completely, 100 percent go out of business, even just to avoid a union,” said Andrew MacDonald, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia. “But there’s a less clear line, more of a gray area, where the company, partially, says shut down a plant or shut down one facility while others remain open.”

Amazon could also face trouble if it were to transfer some operations from Alabama to a non-unionized fulfillment center elsewhere.

MacDonald pointed to a 2011 labor dispute with Boeing Co., which decided to transfer a second production line for its 787 Dreamliner from a unionized facility in Washington to a non-union shop in South Carolina. The acting general counsel of the NLRB issued a complaint against the company, alleging the move violated federal labor law.

In that case, “the union in Washington and the labor board saw that as being motivated to avoid the union, not just making a business decision of where to make the plane,” MacDonald said.

The union later withdrew its complaint against Boeing after striking a new deal with the company governing other production in Washington.

If a company and a union are unable to reach an initial collective bargaining agreement after a successful organizing effort, provisions in the PRO Act would require them to go to mediation and arbitration.

“The law permits an employer to bargain essentially in bad faith,” said McNicholas. “The remedies are so weak that you can essentially drag your feet through the bargaining and frustrate the workforce such that they’re not getting any contract in the first year.”

Opponents of the PRO Act, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, argue that the legislation tilts too far in favor of unions and would harm the economy by costing jobs.

The unusual public attention on the Bessemer union drive has put both political and consumer pressure on Amazon that could keep the company in line, union and worker advocates say.

“Unlike most collective bargaining, this attempt to achieve a first contract is going to be the focus of a lot of public attention,” said Appelbaum. “I think that Amazon is going to be held accountable under the glare of the public spotlight. And that’s going to restrict what it is going to be able to do to prevent workers from getting a contract.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on March 29, 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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