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Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., decided against unionizing in a consequential election last week. Despite the failed attempt, workers can still fight for improved working conditions at the facility.
Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of The Worker Institute at Cornell University, says it’s only a matter of time before the e-commerce giant is forced to do better. Between heightened worker activism across Amazon warehouses and elevated public awareness of the employees’ plights, “improvement is inevitable,” she said. Amazon is “going to have to make some changes.”
Workers at Amazon warehouses across the nation have long complained about grueling working conditions. They say they have too few bathroom breaks, which are all timed, excessive productivity goals, and an unsafe working environment. The pandemic, they claim, only exacerbated problems as more people turned to delivery.
If workers were to form a majority union, Amazon would be forced to bargain with it for a contract that would cover things like pay, benefits, and productivity goals. Such an outcome might seem like a long shot after last week’s decisive defeat, where more than 70% of ballots opposed the union—but it’s not yet out of the question.
Union organizers said they plan to challenge the result by filing labor complaints against Amazon, which they say violated labor laws during the election. Ultimately, they are seeking a redo.
But in lieu of establishing a majority union, Amazon workers could join together in two different ways to advocate for themselves.
The first approach involves forming a minority union.
Susan Schurman, a professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, says this is the best course of action, should union organizers lose their challenge with the NLRB. A minority union would give workers access to representation from a U.S. labor union, and therefore access to its advisors and lawyers, but wouldn’t require a majority vote.
Unlike a majority union, a minority union wouldn’t require Amazon to bargain for a contract. Instead, a minority union would give workers a formal chain-of-command through which they could make demands and take collective action.
Workers at Google-parent Alphabet recently debuted its minority union in January. Since then, the union has helped at least one employee get reinstated at her job after being fired under controversial circumstances. The group has also drawn attention to issues such as hate speech on YouTube and the suspension—and later firing—of Google’s Ethical A.I. team lead Margaret Mitchell.
“Unions have structural bargaining power,” Schurman said. “When they join together to make demand for certain things, they can get more accomplished.”
Even without setting up any kind of union, workers can still act collectively while enjoying the protections of U.S. labor law. (See section seven of the National Labor Relations Act, which states that employees “have the right to self-organization,” to “bargain collectively through the representatives of their choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities.”)
In other words, workers can form an internal group, or work with outside associations and community organizations, to join together and negotiate with management. Amazon workers in Chicago did this when they formed an independent group called Amazonians United in 2019. Any attempt by employers to interfere, restrain, or coerce employees from taking such actions would violate labor laws.
The right to self-organization is “ingrained in our labor laws,” Campos-Medina said. “That’s why you see efforts all over the country with warehouse workers [beyond Amazon] organizing and demanding improvements.”
Taking the fight outside
Whichever route Amazon’s workers take, garnering sympathy and support from people outside the company could prove key.
Campos-Medina said beyond worker activism, which she believes is one of the most effective tools for improving workplaces, public officials, the public, and regulators could serve as additional sources of pressure. Cities could threaten to end tax incentives and tax breaks for Amazon, or the public could boycott the company.
Schurman said regulation already exists to protect workers from dangerous workplace environments and unfair labor practices. But research shows that unions play a pivotal role in making sure employers adhere to those laws, she said.
“There is regulation in place. Whether or not it’s enforced is really the issue,” Schurman said. “But safety and health laws are much more likely to be enforced when there is a union present.“
While some workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala. warehouse might be disappointed about the failed union push, Medina-Campos said they’ve still made a lot of progress toward achieving their goals.
“They knew they were David in the David and Goliath” fight, said Medina-Campos. “They just needed to hit Amazon so they felt it, and I think they did that.”
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