A high-profile attempt to unionize nearly 6,000 workers at Amazon’s warehouse near Bessemer, Ala., could spur more organizing at Amazon facilities elsewhere, say Washington state labor leaders.
Win or lose, the union vote, which began in early February and ends March 29, could energize the labor movement, in part because of the steep odds stacked against organizers, said Nicole Grant, who leads King County’s MLK Labor Council. Alabama, a right-to-work state, has one of the nation’s lowest unionization rates. And Amazon has unleashed a no-holds-barred anti-union campaign targeting the Alabama workers while wooing the public with a crusade highlighting the company’s $15 minimum wage.
“It could have a domino effect,” Grant said. “Everything that’s happened in Bessemer makes things better for Amazon warehouse workers in Seattle and across the country.” For one, the union drive has focused on issues of racial pay disparities within Amazon’s workforce that are particularly relevant in Bessemer, where the vast majority of Amazon workers are Black, but which cut across geography and job titles at Amazon, Grant said.
A bipartisan chorus of policymakers, including President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, have voiced their support for the organizing drive in Alabama. Union organizer Jennifer Bates, who trains employees at the Alabama warehouse,testified Wednesday at a Senate Budget Committee hearing on income inequalitythat she and other workers believed unionizing could help them earn “a living wage, not just Amazon’s minimum wage.”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — often the wealthiest man in the world, depending on fluctuations in the price of Amazon shares — declined an invitation to testify. Amazon has said it believes a majority of workers do not support unionizing.
At the same hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced a bill to increase taxes on companies at which CEOs earn 50 times more than their median employees.
Critics have accused Amazon of playing hardball to halt the Bessemer organizers’ momentum. The company rolled out a slick website that says union dues would make it hard for workers to afford their children’s school supplies. On Amazon’s request, county officials changed traffic signals outside the Bessemer fulfillment center to make it harder for organizers to canvass workers driving into the warehouse. Amazon sent workers anti-union texts and hung anti-union signs throughout the Bessemer facility, including in bathroom stalls. And the company unsuccessfully attempted to force an in-person vote, a move organizers said was intended to sway the outcome, and held mandatory meetings with workers about the perils of unionization.
The company said in a statement that it is following all National Labor Relations Board rules and guidelines in Alabama and that it respects employees’ right to form, join or not join a labor union.
Amazon’s history of employing similar tactics to quash dissent has made the employer a difficult target for union organizing, say Washington labor leaders.
“It’s challenging in high-turnover industries to get a committee together and organize, especially when you have one of the wealthiest organizations in the world fighting against you,” said Faye Guenther, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21, representing Washington grocery workers. The Alabama union drive “will really help workers feel like there’s hope in organizing, hope in sticking together and building something better for the future.”
The local labor movement has launched few public shots across Amazon’s bow in recent months. The MLK Labor Council helped organize two marches in the past year outside Amazon facilities in South King County, and spearheaded a protest letter after Amazon fired two Seattle software workers who decried safety conditions at warehouses. Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, an influential activist group with roots inside Amazon’s Seattle corporate campus, last week tweeted a video message supporting the union drive.
Meanwhile, Amazon has rolled out advertising calling on policymakers to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The company has used its implementation of the $15 wage floor in 2018 to burnish its own image, circulating videos of Amazon workers saying they’re grateful to be earning more than at previous jobs.
Though a federal initiative to institute a $15 minimum wage died last month, Amazon issued another salvo in the debate Tuesday, publishing results of a national survey showing 2 out of 3 Americans with an opinion on the federal minimum wage believe it should be raised to $15, from where it currently rests at $7.25.
“We have advocated for an increase to the federal minimum wage for some time, and believe while there are many voices from various experts, policy makers or others being cited — the opinions of the American people should be heard loud and clear,” Amazon spokesperson Karen Sawyer said in a statement.
Amazon critics have said the company’s support for a $15 minimum wage could in part be a cynical attempt to undermine rival retailers while deflecting attention from the union push in Alabama.
“It’s a sleight of hand. They’re using the PR blitz to obscure that they are aggressively anti-union,” said Stacy Mitchell, the co-executive director of the Maine-based antimonopoly think tank Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Bates, at Wednesday’s hearing, said what she and other employees at Amazon earned was not commensurate with the strain of the job.
“Amazon brags it pays workers above the minimum wage,” Bates said. “What they don’t tell you is what those jobs are really like. And they certainly don’t tell you that they can afford to do much better for the workers.” Amazon has seen record profits during the pandemic, driven in part by a surge in online shopping from quarantined consumers.
Meanwhile, Amazon “would like to see the $15 minimum wage as the same floor as their competitors might be operating in,” said Larry Brown, the president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the state’s largest union organization.
Amazon executives have said they were “thrilled” when other retailers, including Target, Best Buy and Costco, chose to pay workers at least $15 an hour, according to a statement by Jay Carney, Amazon’s senior vice president of global corporate affairs. “We are hopeful that more [companies] follow suit. That’s what U.S. workers deserve.”
Amazon has sought to control the narrative around its $15 minimum wage. The company declined an invitation to testify at another Senate Budget Committee hearing last month about how large companies pay their workers. (Costco CEO Craig Jelinek announced at that hearing that the Issaquah-headquartered wholesale club planned to raise its wage floor to $16 an hour.)
While Amazon boasts that its fulfillment center employees, on average, earn more than workers in the retail sector, those Amazon employees typically earn less than workers in the more-unionized warehouse sector. An analysis by Bloomberg showed non-Amazon warehouse workers saw no wage growth for five years in counties where Amazon built fulfillment centers, and that average industry wages fell in the first two years after the Amazon warehouses opened.
“Retail is not the right comparison point because it’s so much less taxing on your body” than working in a fulfillment center, Mitchell said, pointing to evidence that Amazon’s warehouse workers are injured at higher rates than industry averages.
Delivery drivers are concerned that Amazon’s major expansion in trucking, shipping and “last-mile” delivery could threaten wages and benefits in that sector, too, said John Scearcy, the principal officer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents retail, transportation and delivery workers in Washington state.
“Teamsters are interested in this [Alabama] organizing effort and in Amazon as a whole, not only to make sure that workers in this system are brought up to a standard that includes livable wages, health care benefits and retirement security, and also so that Amazon doesn’t threaten those benefits for the rest of our workers,” he said.
Amazon has rebutted attempts to muddy its minimum-wage campaign, pointing to recent research from the University of California, Berkeley and Brandeis University showing that its minimum-wage increase in 2018 led to a 2.6% uptick in average wages among all nearby employers.
And, Amazon says, its own polling shows that Americans believe large employers like Amazon should play a larger role in increasing the federal minimum wage than policymakers, advocacy groups or the media.
The survey did not ask respondents what role unions should play.