Amazon Faces Alabama Union Election

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From The Wall Street Journal: Inc. for years has successfully fended off attempts by its U.S. employees to unionize. Now the tech company is preparing for a labor battle unlike anything in its history.

In the next two months, thousands of Amazon employees at an Alabama warehouse are set to cast mail-in ballots over whether to organize into a union, a vote that could reshape the relationship between workers and the nation’s second-largest employer.

The commerce giant faces a familiar opponent: the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, which along with local organizers is helping to lead the pro-union campaign. The union has helped organize thousands of poultry workers in Alabama, a right-to-work state, and has become a frequent Amazon antagonist in recent years. The RWDSU fought the company’s plans for a second headquarters in New York in late 2018 and supported worker protests at some warehouses during the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, the current effort has had more success than other attempts to organize Amazon workers, according to labor experts. They note that a successful union push at the warehouse could spur similar actions at Amazon’s more than 800 facilities in the U.S.

“Amazon has seen their demand skyrocket” during the pandemic, said Arthur Wheaton, director of Western NY Labor and Environmental Programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell University. The company’s continued growth will bring increasing scrutiny over how it pays and treats its employees, he said.

The effort still faces formidable obstacles. Amazon has sought to postpone the election’s scheduled Feb. 8 start and appealed the National Labor Relations Board decision to allow a mail-in vote. While the vote is likely to proceed as scheduled, a decision to unionize could lead to years of bargaining over the first contract, labor experts say.

The company is holding frequent meetings at the 855,000-square-foot facility about 15 miles southwest of Birmingham to counter the union’s effort, employees say. It also hired a law firm that specializes in countering organizing efforts and set up a website asserting that employees already receive the benefits and pay for which a union would bargain and should vote no to avoid the cost of dues.

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company doesn’t “believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views. Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”

If workers vote in favor of the union, Alabama’s “right to work” rules mean employees aren’t automatically part of the union. Workers wouldn’t be required to join the union or pay dues, potentially making it harder to expand membership. Some workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they weren’t supportive because they didn’t believe union representation would substantially improve their conditions.

. . . .

Organizers collected thousands of signatures from employees showing support for an election. In December, the labor board decided to allow the election to move forward and later set the February-to-March voting period.

The RWDSU has had success in Southern states, particularly within the poultry industry. The union said it represents roughly 15,000 poultry workers across the South, including Alabama. Early in the pandemic, it reported on deadly Covid-19 outbreaks in poultry facilities while urging employers to improve working conditions. Major poultry companies have implemented temperature checks, increased cleaning and issued protective equipment, among other measures.

Chartered in the late 1930s, the RWDSU now represents thousands of employees from retail chains that include Macy’s Inc. and Bloomingdale’s, as well as workers in warehousing and the service industry.

. . . .

The union was among a group of critics at the heart of a fierce backlash when Amazon announced plans to locate a part of a second headquarters in New York City in late 2018.

Amazon had selected the city as part of its so-called “HQ2” development around the same time the RWDSU had been rallying support for workers to unionize at a facility in Staten Island, an effort that ultimately fizzled. The union opposed the nearly $3 billion in government incentives Amazon would have received for creating 25,000 jobs in the city.

The union was involved in a last-ditch meeting with company executives organized by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to salvage the planned expansion. In the meeting, executives and labor leaders tentatively agreed to continue discussions related to the unionization effort, according to people familiar with the talks.

Amazon ultimately scuttled its plans for the New York expansion, but the company has recently announced plans to hire thousands of new employees in various major U.S. cities, including New York.

“We saw that they were large and big and powerful, but they were also arrogant,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, said in an interview. “‘You can take on Amazon’ was an important lesson from HQ2.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG tends to be reflexively anti-union because of repeated corruption and criminal charges brought against union leaders.

He certainly believes there was a time when unions were an important force for improving the lives of blue-collar Americans, but, fortunately or unfortunately, that time has passed.

He also suspects that Amazon can afford to shut down the Alabama warehouse in question without seriously harming the company’s operations. At PG’s last check, Amazon had well over 200 general-purpose warehouses (including two others in Alabama plus 25+ warehouses in adjoining states) plus a bunch of additional specialty warehouses in the United States.

PG is not an expert on labor law, but he suspects that, if the employees in the warehouse described in the OP voted to unionize, Amazon might shut down the warehouse permanently or for a long period of time, ship all the computers and equipment to one or more new US warehouses under construction and either try to sell the building or leave it vacant for awhile. Amazon starts its warehouse employees at $15.00 per hour. The minimum wage in the United States and Alabama is $7.25 per hour.

(In the U.S., states can set higher minimum wages. After a quick check, it appears that California’s minimum wage is the highest state minimum wage – $14.00 in 2021 for employers with more than 26 employees.)

11 thoughts on “Amazon Faces Alabama Union Election”

  1. > anti-union because of repeated corruption and criminal charges brought against union leaders

    As opposed to organized religions and film studios and political parties and the Boy Scouts and any other large group of humans.
    But, sure, unions are the problem.

    • Reasonable points, Scott.

      I’m against bad behavior and/or abuse of power on the part of anybody, regardless of employment or affiliations.

    • I’d probably have something to say about the Boy Scouts if they were trying to organize Amazon warehouses.

  2. This shark is ordinarily pro union but has his eyes open to the abuses. (This shark’s first career was in the ultimate non-unionized/non-unionizable workplace; at that time, his first name was at various times “Lieutenant,” “Captain,” “Major,” or more generally “Sir.” Even to the unionized and nonunionized civilian subordinates and coworkers.)

    The historical problem, alluded to by PG, is that unions have all too often — through lack of imagination as much as anything else — adopted many of the same values and mechanisms as the abusers-of-workers they were formed to oppose. For every monopolist/monopsonist, there’s a closed shop (all too often racist/nativist; just look at the FOP!); for every employer who fires employees for not attending the “right” church that has nothing to do with the job, there’s inability to fire outright incompetents who have seniority; for every son-of-the-owner promoted beyond competence to the C-suite, there’s… seniority.{1}

    That said, the best way to combat “exessive unionization” is to treat one’s workforce well from top to bottom in the long term. Workers at Amazon aren’t seeing that because they’re looking — rightfully so — at the extreme, well, richness of “mere investors” and of those who were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time years ago. Whether a union is the right mechanism to deal with that is an abstract question; whether unionization is virtually the only currently legal means of doing so is not.

    {1} As y’all might infer, this shark despises pure-years-of-service seniority systems as entrenching past discriminatory attitudes and practices even more than because they result in hidebound workforces and companies unable to contemplate, let alone adapt to, change. The difficulty with anything else is ease of administrative abuse.

    • The union believes they can force Amazon, which pays better than average wages, to pay even more “because they have the money”.
      Well, that money has other uses and Amazon has shown no reluctance to spending massive sums on infrastructure and other capital expenses with a view to higher efficiency and longer term benefits.

      And they have long been working towards “Dark Warehouses”.

      As the Boston Dynamics dancing robots video on YouTube shows, today’s industrial robots are a lot different than the single function machines serving in factories since tbe ’80’s. Specifically, they are platforms with both an autonomous “nervous system” and high level programing API that can run entirely different procedures at a moment’s notice; they are generalists. Note:,systems%2C%20and%20automatic%20identification%20of%20inventory%20and%20shipments.

      “Although more companies are working to implement automated systems, few have achieved 100-percent automation. As explained by Gary Forger of Modern Materials Handling, costs of implementing a fully automated warehouse have left companies embracing the dark revolution avoiding the final 5 percent. The investment to achieve 100-percent automation is significant, so companies that view it as an all-or-nothing investment will continue to avoid the concept. However, the opportunities for savings and productivity gains exist below 100 percent. Instead of trying to achieve full automation, warehouse managers should focus on attaining 80-percent automation. ”

      The last 5% may be too expensive to implement now but that won’t always be the case.
      Forcibly adding labor cost to Amazon’s warehouse business changes the cost-benefit analysis towards more automation. It might not be enough to justify the full 100% automation of a true Dark Warehouse, but it might lead to a “dim” warehouse at 90-95% and a cut to the “meatbag” (1) side of the operation.

      Whether the increased labor costs come via government mandate or the demands of a worker collective, the kneejerk reaction of business types is to protect tbeir margins instead of meekly taking it. Which more often than not leads to staffing reductions via whatever mechanism is most handy. Belling the cat is rasy on paper but the real world comes added complexities.

      A bookseller, already under pressure from rising rents and declining foot traffic might resort to closing in the face of $15 an hour wages and book prices printed on the cover. Amazon is less likely to close up a warehouse choosing to unionize, but they might make it a pilot test site for a higher degree of automation to rebalance the cost structure.

      Actions breed reactions.

      We’ll see how successful the union is this time and then we’ll see how Amazon reacts, both short term and long term. The outcome may not follow the script the organizers are peddling.
      (1) – STAR WARS HK-47 coined the term with an assist from BIOWARE personnel, probably as a snarky analogue to “windbag”. Rumor has it there’s a new KOTOR on the way. Hopefully HK-47 will be in it. 😀

      • Without disclosing anything confidential:

        (1) The NLRB appears to be keeping a very close eye on this election, and even under the GWB and DJT administrations pursued employers who engaged in some of the described anti-election tactics for unfair labor practices.

        (2) The public descriptions of Amazon’s warehouse builds are not consistent with what I know of its internal planning and construction process.

        (3) It’s not just about money, although that’s a big issue. There are legitimate concerns about working conditions, both COVID-19 aware and in general. There are legitimate concerns about scheduling practices. There are legitimate concerns about product handling, labelling, and safety. So, yes, I was flip about “where the money is” — but a (properly run) union wouldn’t be expecting every dime to end up in paychecks.

        • Do they keep on eye on union provocateurs, too?
          In other words, how fair *is* the NLRB?
          We hear a lot about employers doity deeds but what about the labor unions misdeeds?
          Mildly curious.

          • Not fair at all, but it’s what we’ve got. The NLRB has had other agendas for decades… most informed by the so-called Reagan Revolution and the fallout from PATCO. And I say that without detailed knowledge of its entire range of activities; it mostly comes down to “how much can whichever entity is the defendant spend on outside counsel?” in the industry groups I’ve dealt with that interface significantly with the NLRB.

            The NLRB is a paradigmatic example of regulatory capture (full article downloadable PDF). And this is simple: Very, very few labor lawyers work exclusively on the “labor” side (except in the subset of “employment discrimination”), but a lot of labor lawyers work exclusively on the “employer” side — and the vast majority of “labor economists” get paid mostly by the “employer” side. Analogizing this circumstance to “news, journalism, and regulation of publishing” is left as an exercise for the (very frustrated) student.

            • That’s along the lines of my thoughts.

              It’s not that I consider all unions useless or corrupt–though way too many are, especially in the public sector–but rather tat I’m aware tbat big entrenched beareaucracies (both labor and corporate) devolve into self-bsorbed and ossified cartoons of what they start out as, and invariable forget the need and mission that created them.

              Two examples come to mind:
              – The UAW war against the foreign car pants, brand new, state of the art and complying with all regulations, paying decent salaries and engaging workers in production issues, yet the UAW couldn’t stand the thought of a big corporate payroll thdy weren’t getting a cut of. For years they kept sending undercover operators who’s sole function was to find issues or *create* them to try to get their share of the money. Amazon has been facing similar issues in NYC and parts of Europe. The ostensible excuses they offer are too often generic, divorced from reality, and just smokescreens for money grabs for the *union* not the workers.

              – About to become prominent again, the MLBPA, has lost all sight of what it was created to do and has become a rich boys club that in negotation after negotiation has given up or *offered* the rights of tge younger players, draftees, minor leaguers, and international free agents, all to preserve the right of the older players to squeeze every last buck long past their athletic peak. Seniority uber alles. Then about three years ago it all hit the fan: one of the most recent “minor” concesions was giving teams the rights to capture and record ultra fined-grain data about player performance. Not the traditional hits, outs, etc, but truly ground breaking physical data about every aspect of the game. Things like player fielding range, launch angle and speed of batter ball, even location, rotation speed and angle of pitches. Big data isn’t just the province of Amazon or Tesla. Teams are using advanced statistical analysis and agreed upon provisions, some *insisted upon* by the union, to drastically underpay young players when they lack seniority, somewhat overpay the few outliers who remain top performers into their declining years (mid to late 30’s) and treat the non-star (but still good) “middle age/middle class” as disposable commodities. Because analytics proves they *are* mostly fungible. One result is teams are very effectively managing their rosters and payrolls, improving competitive balance above all other pro sports leagues, and pocketing the vast sums that balance is bringing, all the while giving the union exactly what it asked for: ever-increasing salaries for the top players, rapidly approaching $40M a year, guaranteed, over seven to ten years. They asked for it, they got it. The union itself is rolling in cash. But the older non-stars are becoming gypsies on one year deals looking for a landing spots in an annual game of musical chairs. They’re all millionaires working for billionaires but the economics (and science) of the game has evolved past the union’s mantra of seniority, pay slots, arbitration, and free Agency after 6/7 years at the MLB level. A strike after the season is looking inevitable if the pandemic doesn’t cancel or truncate it first. The owners are fine with the status quo and most have already taken steps to minimize the impact on team finances in the event of a strike so the union has minimal leverage.
              A classic case of ossified tunnel vision.

              Unions don’t have to be corrupt to be bad for their members and companies don’t have to be oppresors to make out like bandits. It’s a different century with very different markets than the collectivists planned for.

              • I would have loved to see the UAW’s war against foreign car pants, because the firm I was with in Chicago in the mid-1990s took a lot of referrals for consumer-finance matters from the UAW on behalf of its members… and there was almost always someone pantless in those disputes. (That is, there were very few close calls — sometimes it was consumer weaseling, far more often it was creditor/collection agency weaseling, and the settlement rate on these disputes was considerably higher than for the rest of the firm’s clientele.)

                That said, the biggest problem with the UAW’s crusade on car parts is that it did not actually have authority in the field that it hadn’t accreted by gravitational pull. It would have been better off in the long run to go after insurers, but that’s a long and complicated story. (It’s also the case for almost all outsourcing disputes, but that’s even longer, more complicated, and more subject to tiny exceptions that distract from the entire argument.) When the UAW went outside of its, and its members, basic competence, it learned the hard way that it wasn’t nearly as smart as it thought it was about the realities of logistics.

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