On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board rejected Amazon’s attempt to delay a union vote set to begin on Monday, February 8. For many, the online giant’s bid was seen as a stalling tactic, including a motion to demand votes take place in-person — a clear health risk, as the COVID-19 virus still poses a major threat in the United States and globally.
“Once again Amazon workers have won another fight in their effort to win a union voice,” Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement regarding the NLRB’s decision. “Amazon’s blatant disregard for the health and safety of its own workforce was demonstrated yet again by its insistence for an in-person election in the middle of the pandemic. Today’s decision proves that it’s long past time that Amazon start respecting its own employees; and allow them to cast their votes without intimidation and interference.”
Amazon, however, said it was disappointed in the decision because it goes against the company’s goal of getting as many people as possible to vote in the election, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said in a statement to TechCrunch.
“Even the National Labor Relations Board recognizes that the employee participation rate for its own elections conducted with mail ballots is 20-30% lower than the participation rate for in-person voting,” Knox said. “Amazon proposed a safe on-site election process validated by COVID-19 experts that would have empowered our associates to vote on their way to, during and from their already-scheduled shifts. We will continue to insist on measures for a fair election that allow for a majority of our employee voices to be heard.”
Now, the mail-in voting process will continue as planned and ultimately determine whether Amazon’s Alabama warehouse — which employs around 6,000 — will join the RWDSU, an AFL-CIO affiliate in operation since 1937. The move would be a major watershed moment for Amazon’s blue-collar workforce — and could spur similar unionizing among the 110 or so fulfillment centers the company operates across the U.S.
The vote comes amid a sea change for both blue and white-collar workers in a tech sector that has traditionally rejected such movements. Notable recent examples include a group of Google contracts in Pittsburgh, followed by this year’s launch of an Alphabet Workers Union that includes more than 800 employees. Last February, Kickstarter voted to unionize its workforce, followed by developer platform Glitch the following month.
TECH WORKERS UNIONIZE
Unions, which act as an intermediary between workers and their employers, advocate on behalf of employees for better wages, working conditions and other benefits through collective bargaining. While it does cost money to join a union, unionized workers tend to make higher salaries than their non-unionized counterparts. Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median weekly earnings of $1,144, compared to $958 for non-union members in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Often times these unions are the product of months or years of planning behind the scenes — likely not a surprise for anyone possessing a basic knowledge of the history of labor in the United States. The formation of an Amazon union would present a historic move for labor and tech in the U.S. — a potential outcome the company has been looking to stop dead in its tracks.
Besides seeking to delay the vote, Amazon has also gone all-in on trying to persuade its workers in Bessemer not to vote to unionize. Amazon’s Do It Without Dues website encourages workers to keep things the way they are, instead of having to pay union dues.
“If you’re paying dues…it will be restrictive meaning it won’t be easy to be as helpful and social with each other,” the site states. “So be a doer, stay friendly and get things done versus paying dues.”
Meanwhile, workers have complained that Amazon’s anti-union tactics are too much. One worker told The Washington Post they were bombarded with anti-union messaging in the bathroom stall.
Amazon opened the Bessemer warehouse in March 2020 and says it has created more than 5,000 full-time jobs starting with a pay of $15.30 per hour, including healthcare, vision and dental insurance, and 50% 401(K) match, Knox said. She described the work environment as “safe” and “innovative,” and added, “We work hard to support our teams and more than 90% of associates at our Bessemer site say they would recommend Amazon as a good place to work to their friends.”
But Amazon’s labor history has been a spotty one. The company has often come under fire for its treatment of workers — particularly those in logistics and shipping, like the 6,000 currently employed in its Alabama fulfillment center. Many of those issues were amplified throughout 2020, as Amazon employees were deemed “essential workers” in the earliest days of the pandemic’s arrival in the States.
In November, former warehouse employee Christian Smalls filed a suit against the company, citing a failure to provide workers with proper PPE amid the pandemic.