Leading up to the Amazon union vote ballot delivery to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on March 29, 2021, the pressure on employees to vote for unionizing at the Bessemer, Alabama plant grew intense. Supporters from other unions offered food and drink to organizers outside the facility and handed out pro-union material to employees leaving Amazon grounds. Neighborhood yards in Birmingham, Homewood, Bessemer, and other nearby cities sprouted signs saying “Vote Yes” for the union. Flashing digital billboards along interstate 59 encouraged people to vote for or support the union. Television news reports kept the organizing campaign in the public’s minds. Television and radio ads promoted the union. A tsunami of federal, state, and local politicians showed union support both in person and via social media and statements made to the media. Soon, the Amazon vote results will be known.
The employee union votes will be counted on March 30, 2021, at the NLRB regional office. Union and Amazon representatives will witness the count.
Win or Lose: Lessons to UnionProof By
Win or lose, the union vote to decide whether employees will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is a momentous occasion for many reasons. The Bessemer Amazon facility has around 6,000 employees, but they are just a tiny percentage of the total number of employees employed by Amazon. The company has approximately 1.2 million global workers, of which 600,000 are in the U.S. – only Walmart has more workers.
Amazon has come to represent companies that have managed to stay union-free, despite numerous efforts by unions, employee activists at various Amazon locations, and a host of alt-labor groups pushing for unionization. The company has held firm through walkouts at Amazon facilities in New York, Illinois, and Detroit; various protests and sickouts; and a unionization vote in a small Delaware warehouse. It has been publicly accused of lacking concern about human rights, making promises it doesn’t keep, refusing to give employees wage increases despite making billions in profits, and skimping on health and safety standards during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through it all, Amazon’s management has been steadfast in explaining why it manages human resources the way it does and why it doesn’t support a unionized workforce. To date, employees have refused to vote in a union at any of the Amazon facilities.
There is speculation as to why this is so, and numerous employee online posts exist that give clues. Some like Amazon’s pay policy and benefits and know they can’t find jobs that pay more and provide them with health benefits upon hiring. Thousands of employees gave up low-paying jobs in various industries to join Amazon because they see a better future.
Others are pleased they have work that isn’t in the fast-food industry and don’t want to do anything to risk losing their Amazon jobs. Some employees say they fear retaliation by Amazon’s management should they show support for the union. They say their managers find a reason to fire them, i.e., violated company rules, can’t keep up with a grueling production schedule, won’t follow safety guidelines, etc.
Changing the Narrative
Now the Bessemer, Alabama union vote is changing the narrative. There should be no sighs of relief among your organization’s managers if the union doesn’t win the vote. The harsh reality is that losing the vote is likely to intensify unionizing efforts in other Amazon facilities located around the country. Even if the Bessemer facility does not unionize, this particular organizing effort will have a tangible impact on your ability to stay union-free.
One reason this is true is the Bessemer union organizing campaign has demonstrated the tremendous pro-union support that can rally now by utilizing technology in combination with in-person activities. The union organizing campaign showcased:
- The vocal support of unions that politicians are willing to give when they once stayed neutral
- The utilization of technology to virtually connect employees and organize supporters
- Interest of employees in supporting organizing efforts in other locations and other industries besides their own in the belief the same thing will eventually take place where they work
- The growing influence of alt-labor and other non-union organizations on unionizing
- The strategy of utilizing one operational effort in an industry to find common cause in other industries, creating issues-based solidarity, i.e., truck drivers or warehouse workers across industries throughout the country
- The ability to run a vigorous union organizing campaign in a Right-to-Work state
- The fact that a focus on social and economic issues garners attention, i.e., Amazon’s union focusing on issues like racial pay disparities, which cuts across job titles and geography (issue of wealth inequality)
- The fact that union organizing remains a long drawn-out effort that leads to brand reputation harm by giving union supporters plenty of time to portray management as non-response to human needs
As Kate Bronfenbrenner, Director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University, said about the organizing campaign at Amazon, “There are strikes and elections that become historical pivot points. This is one of them.” The Teamsters are already working to organize Amazon’s delivery operations, and construction unions are finding common cause with warehouse workers concerning workplace safety.
Alt-labor Organizations Have Growing Influence
The alt-labor organizations are not labor unions by law but help workers organize without a union label and advocate for change in health and safety, compensation, employee training, working conditions, and anything else employees want to be addressed. They have a growing influence which means your company must have a preventive strategy that addresses union and alt-labor organizing possibilities.
In other words – and this is important – you’re no longer opposing just the legal labor union. The Amazon union organizing campaign in Bessemer has received help from:
- Warehouse Worker Resource Center – nonprofit dedicated to improving working conditions in Southern California’s warehouse industry; focuses on education, advocacy, and action to change poor working conditions; assists workers with dealing with wage theft, health and safety, and workers’ compensation issues; provides a community center where workers can learn from each other and share experiences.
- Amazon Warehouse Associates Facebook Group -private Facebook group limited to Amazon employees; members discuss related concerns to find solutions collaboratively; calls itself a sleeping giant with unrealized potential.
- Amazonians United – an independent organization of workers that run their own organization and determine strategy collectively; mission is to stand up to oppression and help employees fight for dignity and control over work, their lives, and their collective future; builds solidary with fellow workers across industries, borders, and workplaces.
- Make Amazon Pay Coalition – a global coalition of many organizations that include unions, social and environmental organizations, charities, research and advocacy institutions, independent initiatives, and others; includes member politicians around the world.
- Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation – a global organization with a mission to combat and counter acts of violence against Blacks; active in supporting the Amazon union campaign in Bessemer, Alabama because approximately 80 percent of its workforce is Black.
The alt-labor groups have many of the same impacts as legal labor unions, and it’s crucial that you utilize the same union preventive strategy steps to keep them out of your business, i.e., developing strong positive employee relations, giving employees a voice, having an effective grievance procedure in place, etc.
The List of Union Demands is Growing
At one time, you could be reasonably sure about what employees wanted. It usually involved issues like wage increases, compensation schedules, promotion policies, and grievance procedures. Union and employee demands are not nearly as predictable as they once were.
A good example is found on the Make Amazon Pay website. In November 2020, the Make Amazon Pay coalition, the group made up of workers, activists, and politicians, unveiled a list of demands on its website:
- Improved health and safety – supplies, medical care, paid time off, etc.
- Flexible schedules
- End to employer surveillance of employees at work
- Commitment to zero emissions by 2030 (note the alt-labor group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice)
- Abolishment of Amazon Web Service contracts with fossil-fuel companies
- Giving employees a voice
- Allow Amazon employees to organize
- Show sincere concern and caring for employees as people
- Give employees protections from arbitrary dismissal
One of the major trends to note is that there are different types of union efforts today, as Ina Fried, Chief Technology Correspondent at Axios, points out. The traditional attempt involves employees asking for things like more wage increases. The more recent effort has workers, like tech workers, wanting a strong employee voice in things like the type of contracts or work their employer does. Notice the Make Amazon Pay list of demands includes Amazon ending contracting with fossil-fuel companies.
A number of employee unofficial organizing efforts today involve employees wanting their employers to exercise more social responsibility, like ending the production of greenhouse gasses, ending military contracts, increasing diversity hiring, and contributing to social justice and economic equity. The labor unions have taken note of and adopted the demands.
The Domino Effect is in Play Already
Opened in April 2020, the Amazon Bessemer facility has been operating for less than a year. In that short timeframe, the President of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, Stuart Appelbaum, said he heard from the employees who were concerned about the risk of injuries, COVID-19 health and safety issues, the brutal pace of work, and the stress and strain of the job. Note that it didn’t take long for the union to get involved.
The union organizing campaign was started last summer. By November 2020, the NLRB was notified employees wanted to hold a vote. They got permission for the vote in December. Voting began in early February 2021, with the votes due to the NLRB regional office by March 29. Votes are tallied on March 30. A facility in operation for eleven months has now undergone a union vote. This indicates the efficiency with which labor unions operate and why your organization must have a strong preventive strategy in place at all times.
The domino effect is in progress already. Workers at other Amazon facilities are already looking for ways to unionize because they have become inspired by what is going on in Bessemer. Those who are pro-union will look at the Amazon loss as a chance to prove their spirit is invincible, and they’re in solitary in unionizing Amazon and not giving up the fight. Those who are pro-union will see an Amazon win as an opportunity to show that labor unions are still needed and being willing to fight hard will bring results. There is also a belief that this union effort in Bessemer will be a pivotal point for unionizing other tech companies in Silicon Valley like Google and forming more tech workers’ micro-unions.
It’s believed that even if Amazon wins, the company will pursue a number of actions. They may include:
- Filing multiple objections to ballots which are decided by the NLRB regional director; the decision can be appealed to the NLRB in Washington, DC
- Have election results set aside by demonstrating the union interfered in the election by creating confusion or fear of reprisals; may lead to revote
- Draw out contract negotiations for 6-12 months
- End up in a contract impasse with the hope it leads to decertification
- File unfair labor practices
You can fight unionization. Law360 research found the percentage of elections won by unions went down by 10 percent during the pandemic. From June 1-September 11, 2021, the win rate was 65 percent. The average win rate for the three years before then was 72.96 percent.
The media hype and the reason so many politicians are so supportive of the RWDSU organizing campaign is because they know many Amazon employees are satisfied with their jobs. A number of current and past employees have publicly stated that Amazon is honest upfront during hiring about the physical requirements of the distribution center work. The alt-labor groups and politicians know prior unionizing efforts have failed for these types of reasons, so it’s in their favor to push employees to feel dissatisfied and abused by management.
Preventive Strategy is The Best Course
Of course, the best strategy is to never have to deal with a union organizing campaign by implementing an effective preventive strategy. The preventive strategy focuses on developing leaders who are good at creating positive employee relations (PER), which includes strengthening employee engagement. A lot can be learned from the Bessemer experience as to what employees want.
Jennifer Bates, a “learning ambassador” who trains new workers at the Bessemer facility, summed it up: “Being heard.” The unionizing effort is not really about getting more money or more benefits. It’s mostly about employees wanting to feel empowered and participatory in management’s decision-making process. It’s about employee voice.
The union preventive strategy is a set of goals and objectives that develop positive employee relations. Using the Amazon experience to pinpoint some of the ways your managers can strengthen PER and prevent union organizing, the following steps are essential to success.
- Know what is important to your particular workforce, and don’t generalize, i.e., more voice, social justice, environmental protection, more constructive management feedback and interactions, career opportunities, etc.
- Be transparent about your reaction to employee issues, rather than letting them fester. Ignoring employee concerns, rumblings, complaints posed to frontline supervisors about scheduling issues, comments posted on social media, and other indications there are issues developing will only give unions an opening. Management feedback is critical in every situation and should not depend only on an employee filing a formal grievance. You need to establish a communication system that enables the capture of data that can lead to early detection of employee issues or a process for reviewing online activity.
- For example, a former Fulfillment Associate posted a review of Amazon on Indeed (3/10/21), “The job itself was simple, and the pay is adequate for tasks completed. However, management is extremely absent, good work is overlooked, and getting raises or promotions seemed impossible.” Address any issue transparently, including updating the “dark website” or preventive union organizing website to address issues.
- Make sure your union-focused website is always current. A static website is a true turn-off for the digital generations of workers. They will click away in a matter of seconds. Employees will quickly figure out it doesn’t address relevant current workplace issues, increasing their vulnerability to unions. If you don’t acknowledge and respond to problems, the unions will. It’s also a missed opportunity to reinforce things like new benefits or scheduling policies to improve work-life balance.
- Utilize a variety of social media options to connect with employees. The alt-labor organizations are found on multiple social media sites that include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Tik Tok, YouTube, etc. They use mobile apps to make it easy for people to connect with others and find information; podcasts; videos; blogs; and online email registration to join a mailing list.
- Develop responses to employee issues that are sincere and enforced. BAmazonUnion is an organizing campaign of the Mid-South Council of the RWDSU. It is focused on working conditions in Alabama facilities, i.e., Amazon, chicken processing plants, etc.
- On its webpage is a video and a statement on “Why Do We Need a Union at Amazon?” It says, “Amazon sometimes addresses issues at work, but it’s all temporary.” This could be a real management issue or just hype. However, if your employees view management from this perspective, it’s vital to sincerely address it and develop new procedures for implementing and reinforcing changes.
- Recognize the particular pressures on your workforce. Every business is different. You may not have an issue with strict production schedules. Your workforce may have issues with governmental compliance, frequent deadlines, too much overtime, fear of downsizing, high turnover, and so on. The American Institute of Stress says the leading causes of work-related stress are workload (46 percent), people issues (28 percent); juggling work and personal lives (20 percent); and lack of job security (6 percent). You won’t be able to relieve all stress on employees, but you should know and recognize what they are. Address them transparently and honestly so your workforce KNOWS you care and are doing what you can.
- Reward your employees based on their effort. The Teamsters have admitted that $15 an hour starting pay and excellent benefits make it difficult to sell unions to employees. The unhappy Amazon employees don’t feel appreciated. However, there are other ways to recognize and reward employees to prove their effort is appreciated.
- For example, a recognition and reward program significantly increases employee engagement by making them feel appreciated. O.C. Tanner, a recognition and rewards solutions provider, says, “Most companies see recognition and reward programs as a fundamental part of employee engagement, the employee experience, and workplace culture.” One of Amazon’s issues is that employees get good pay and great benefits but feel like unrecognized cogs on a production line.
- Follow through with what you tout as a benefit. Disgruntled Amazon employees claim they are told upon hiring there are career growth opportunities. Once hired, many find the opportunities are minimal because technology is used extensively to monitor employees, meaning there are fewer supervisor and management positions needed. It’s important not to make statements you can’t follow up on. Once again, transparency and honesty are crucial in the entire talent management process, from recruiting to hiring and onboarding to training and performance reviews to promotions.
- Eliminate all biases in your company’s policies and procedures. It’s important to know what is really going on. Are wage increases and promotions administered equally without regard to personal characteristics? Is there racial or gender bias in supervisor decisions concerning who is allowed time off, appointed to exciting projects or teams, or given weekend work? Unconscious bias remains a serious problem in many companies and must be rooted out to stay union-free.
- Always be prepared to respond to signs of union organizing quickly. You should have materials and resources ready or quickly accessible, something UnionProof is fully prepared to help you accomplish.
- Know the facts about your company’s compensation and benefits policies by comparing them to the competition and industry benchmarks. Unions will always zero in on statistics that back up their claims. It’s not enough to say, “We pay $15 an hour.” Amazon says its distribution workers earn more than the average retail employees. However, a Seattle Times analysis found they often earn less than employees in the warehouse sector, which is largely unionized. A lot has to do with the area of operation and other factors, and your employees should have all the facts to avoid being misinformed.
Helping Your Organization WIN
There are other ways to strengthen positive employee relations. This list of ideas only addresses some of the issues specific to the Amazon union organizing campaign. It’s a dynamic work environment today, making it increasingly more difficult for employers to stay ahead of the unions and alt-labor organizations.
Whether the union wins or loses at Amazon in Bessemer, there’s no doubt the narrative on unions has changed. Don’t focus on the actual results. Focus on what can be learned from the Amazon experience and what it means for the future of your company in efforts to stay union-free.
Projections, Inc. recognizes how complex it has become to stay union-free strives to provide regularly updated critical information and state-of-the-art resources and tools you need to develop high-quality leadership, communicate with employees, and assess union vulnerabilities. UnionProof is dedicated to helping you develop a preventive strategy, and if a union organizing campaign starts, help you respond in a way that makes it more likely the union will fail. We are here to help you succeed in staying union-free.