Amazon and Unions: More Noise than Impact?

There is little doubt that Amazon is anti-union. While it claims to respect its workers’ rights to form a union – as it must under U.S. law – it is working hard to prevent that from happening. That’s the story in Bessemer, Alabama, where efforts to unionize an Amazon fulfillment center have been met with union-busters, floods of anti-union propaganda in the workplace, and bitter disputes in the National Labor Relations Board aimed at preventing a mail-in ballot in the first place. Amazon even persuaded the local Post Office to create a new mailbox for ballots right in the Amazon parking lot – presumably its world-class AI found that some lukewarm opponents of unionization might not mail in their ballots if they had to walk all the way to their own mailbox.

There has also been a ton of publicity about Bessemer; a cursory Google search found 490,000 stories. Optimists in the labor movement argue that success in the Bessemer warehouse could be a key turning point, leading to much wider unionization at Amazon and then beyond, across the retail sector (where currently only 5% of workers are unionized). One of many New York Times articles quoting Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School: “This is an organizing campaign in the right-to-work South during the pandemic at one of the largest companies in the world. The significance of a union victory there really couldn’t be overstated.”

Well, yes it can. True, it’s the first major effort to unionize at Amazon since 2014. Yes, it’s in an unusual place: Bessemer is not Detroit, and it’s in a right-to-work state. Obviously, Amazon is clearly concerned, at least enough to wheel out the heavy anti-union artillery. But behind all the noise and explosions, the long-term impact of a union win in Bessemer is likely to be much lower, for six main reasons:

Bessemer may be unusual. Similar efforts to force an election elsewhere have not worked, at least so far. It takes the signatures of 30% of the workforce, and that hasn’t happened elsewhere. So there may be special grievances at work, amplified by special concerns in the time of the pandemic.

It is extremely difficult to organize in high-turnover workplaces. Turnover is enormous in warehouses like Bessemer’s. The minimal data available comes from a lawsuit in Baltimore, where Amazon admitted that it fired about a third of the workforce within a 13-month period. At least that many – and possibly many more – will have left on their own. It’s possible that annual turnover overall was more than 100%. As a result, many of those who sign a union card for an election will have left by the time it is held, and other warehouse workers will find it hard to follow the lead of Bessemer.

Amazon may weed out organizers. Lawsuits pending in Staten Island suggest that’s exactly what Amazon did to block organizing efforts there – though Amazon of course denies this.

Unionization is like World War I, not Shock and Awe. Each facility has to be organized separately, and Amazon will fight every organizing effort to the death. This will be trench by trench, bayonets, and mustard gas, not a quick knockout. Don’t expect a flood of unionized warehouses to follow quickly, even if the union wins in Bessemer.

The Amazon responses could be harsh. The auto industry rejigged supply chains to move work to the anti-union South or to Mexico: Detroit’s share of U.S. autos sold tumbled over the past 40 years. So while Amazon won’t immediately close the Bessemer warehouse if it loses the election, goods that currently flow through Bessemer could gradually go elsewhere. Apparently, Amazon is now planning for a new fulfillment center in Montgomery, Alabama, which could of course address the area served by Bessemer as well. It’s not an accident for example that Amazon largely services the German market from Poland, where labor rights are much weaker.

Union wins are not permanent. Especially given the enormous worker turnover, it’s entirely possible that Amazon could come back to the NLRB and seek to decertify the union a few years down the road. It could make that easier by screening out workers with pro-union sympathies during its endless hiring cycles.

The intervention of Joe Biden may help in Bessemer, and labor-favoring changes at the NLRB are coming with the change in administration and a likely majority on the Board by the end of 2021. Still, even a win in Bessemer and a much more pro-union administration won’t mean much to Amazon: it’s just the starting gun for a marathon, and Amazon remains in the driver’s seat.