Op-Ed: How workers at one Amazon warehouse could change the union landscape

Steven Greenhouse
·5 min read
MANHATTAN, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2021/02/20: Participant seen holding a sign at the protest. Members of the Workers Assembly Against Racism gathered across from Jeff Bezos-owned Whole Foods Market in Union Square South for a nation-wide solidarity event with the unionizing Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Labor activists in New York participate in a nationwide event Feb. 20. to support the unionization of Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala. (Erik McGregor / LightRocket/Getty Images)

The effort to unionize 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is the most important unionization drive in years. This is happening at the corporation that is arguably doing more than any other company to shape the workplace and economy of the future.

After years of declining union membership, this campaign, conducted by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, hopes to show that unions can still win big — and organize thousands of workers in one fell swoop — even against a fiercely anti-union corporate giant.

The showdown in Alabama has echoes of Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight on behalf of the striking sanitation workers in Memphis. It is very much about dignity at work. Labor is intent on gaining a voice, and a foothold, inside Amazon, whose fulfillment centers are known for their high-speed pace of work and grueling production quotas.

This battle is important in another way: At a time when unions represent just 1 in 16 private-sector workers (down from 1 in 3 during labor’s prime), unions know that they need to pursue new strategies and allies if they are to reverse their decline.

In the campaign at the Alabama warehouse — where union officials say 85% of the workers are African American — the retail and wholesale union has allied itself with the Black Lives Matter movement. Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU’s president, told me, “We see this campaign as much as a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle.”

This campaign is also significant because labor unions are throwing their weight behind a growing movement in which many small businesses, progressive activists, antitrust experts, lawmakers and regulators are trying to check Amazon’s colossal size, power and expansion. (It added more than 400,000 workers worldwide last year and had $125 billion in revenue in the fourth quarter.)

Labor leaders believe that if the union wins in Alabama, that would pave the way to organizing Amazon warehouses in more pro-union states, such as California and New York, as well as inspire unions and workers nationwide to begin a larger wave of organizing.

The high-profile effort at Amazon has put pressure on President Biden, who promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” to offer support. On Sunday night, Biden did just that, making what some labor experts say was the most pro-union statement by a president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Biden said unions help increase wages, praised unions for lifting up Black and brown workers, and called on employers such as Amazon to let workers decide whether they want a union, without having to face the employer’s anti-union campaign.

The Amazon battle demonstrates just how tilted the playing field is when unions try to organize the workers at a major corporation.

Union elections in the U.S. often resemble political elections in authoritarian nations such as Hungary. The company has far more control over the flow of information, far more access to the voters and considerable power to silence the opposition. Amazon can propagandize its workers 24/7, making them attend lengthy anti-union meetings. It sends several anti-union texts to its workers each day; it has even installed anti-union posters in the bathroom stalls.

Worse, under a 1992 Supreme Court decision, corporations can bar union organizers from setting foot on company property, even the parking lot. As a result, the RWDSU’s organizers are relegated to standing at the bottom of a ramp outside Amazon’s warehouse, trying to get workers to stop their cars and talk when they are headed home after their exhausting 10½-hour shifts. These kinds of rules have been likened to a presidential election in which Donald Trump could prohibit Biden from campaigning anywhere in the U.S., relegating him to shouting across the border from Canada.

Sadly, Amazon has at times been less than truthful in communicating with its workers. In urging workers to vote against unionization, Amazon has given the strong impression — for instance, on its DoItWithoutDues.com website — that unionization will mean having to pay union dues. That’s false, because Alabama is a right-to-work state where employees at unionized workplaces can opt out of paying any union fees, though the union still represents and bargains for them.

Amazon has also told workers that their wages and benefits could decline if they vote in a union. The truth is that would only happen if Amazon insists on cutting wages or benefits, perhaps to punish the workers for unionizing. If Amazon were to talk as misleadingly to its shareholders as it has to its Alabama workers, it would probably face several shareholder lawsuits and an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The union balloting ends March 29. If a majority of the warehouse’s workers vote against unionizing, the main reason may well be that the playing field was too tilted. The U.S. already has the weakest labor movement (and the worst income inequality) of any major industrial nation. A union loss in Alabama would be a harsh blow for workers who want a real voice so they can bargain for better wages, more humane conditions and respect on the job — all things that would help build stronger communities and a fairer economy.

Steven Greenhouse is the author of “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.