Amazon is facing a General Motors moment, and I don’t mean electric cars.
The Seattle company faced congressional questions and embarrassing revelations about firing a labor organizer at its Staten Island, New York, warehouse last year. But the national attention span moved as quickly as a finger pressing the Prime order button, especially with the demand for Amazon deliveries rising during the pandemic lockdown.
This month the relationship between Amazon and employees at its fast-moving, high-stress warehouses (“fulfillment centers”) may get a longer spotlight as workers in Alabama begin voting on whether to unionize.
The focus is on a warehouse in Bessemer, outside Birmingham, where workers contacted the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. By December, more than 2,000 out of 5,800 employees at the site had signed cards saying they wanted union representation. That was enough for the National Labor Relations Board to schedule an election.
Not only that, but the board announced earlier this year that voting could be done by mail, which typically favors the union. Amazon wanted in-person voting.
With more than 1.2 million employees globally, Amazon is inevitably a target for unionization, as well as regulators. It’s a General Motors of the Digital Age.
This past year the European Union filed antitrust charges against the company over use of data. Meanwhile the U.S. House antitrust committee pulled Jeff Bezos and other Big Tech CEOs into a six-hour hearing to address concerns about market dominance and other issues.
At a time when only 6.3% of private-sector workers are union members, what happens in Bessemer, at what is the second-largest U.S. employer after Walmart, has big stakes for organized labor.
Amazon, which says it pays all U.S. workers at least $15 an hour, more than twice the federal minimum wage, has a sophisticated anti-union campaign in place, including a slick website warning employees of the cost of union dues and other downsides.
“HEY BHM1 DOERS, why pay almost $500 in dues?,” it reads, referring to the warehouse name. “We’ve got you covered* with high wages, health care, vision, and dental benefits, as well as a safety committee and an appeals process. There’s so much MORE you can do for your career and your family without paying dues.”
That asterisk means the benefits are for full-time regular employees.
The site also calls on employees to “get your voice back,” with steps they can take if they feel misled by the union or think a representation-seeking card had been submitted without their consent.
Metropolitan Birmingham was once an industrial powerhouse, especially in steelmaking. A 56-foot-tall statue of Vulcan, Roman god of the forge, sits atop a mountain overlooking the city.
Bessemer was named after Sir Henry Bessemer, a 19th century British innovator in the steel industry. And unlike most of the South, Birmingham saw a relatively successful union presence that included Black workers. That declined along with the closing of the steel mills.
Thus, as with so many localities, an Amazon warehouse was a big economic-development win for ailing, majority-Black Bessemer. But the pandemic, combined with the well-documented stress of working at Amazon warehouses, provided an opening for the union push.
As The New York Times reported, “Union organizers are also building their campaign around the themes of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of the employees at the Amazon warehouse are Black, a fact that the retail union has used to focus on issues of racial equality and empowerment. And leading the organizing effort are about two dozen unionized workers from nearby warehouses and poultry plants, most of whom are also Black.”
This could play out several ways. The vote might go against the union. It might win and gain a labor foothold at Amazon. The company might retaliate by closing the warehouse or increasing automation (Amazon acquired the robot maker Kiva Systems in 2012 and has deployed hundreds of thousands of the devices).
Or Bezos, who is stepping aside as chief executive but will be executive chairman and continue to own the largest block of shares, could be a grudging corporate statesman.
It happened at GM.
For 44 days in 1936-37, workers held a sit-down strike inside General Motors’ massive Flint, Mich., Fisher Body plant. They sought recognition of the United Auto Workers (UAW), an end to piecework wages instead of hourly pay, a 30-hour week instead of undependable hours, seniority rights and an end to exhausting “speedup” production. The factory was poorly ventilated and miserably hot in summer. Workers lacked health insurance.
The Flint plant was a chokepoint and the strike idled 125,000 workers in 25 cities.
Ultimately GM President Alfred Sloan ended the strike by recognizing the UAW and putting GM on a path to become “Generous Motors,” for decades the best place to work in America.
Sloan is a complicated character with a mixed legacy. And GM’s hand was forced by the refusal of Michigan’s governor to use the National Guard to evict the strikers, while President Franklin Roosevelt kept his distance, relying on Labor Secretary Frances Perkins.
Sloan, among the first modern corporate managers, disliked unions as much as Bezos does. But he didn’t want to copy the heavy-handed tactics of Henry Ford. At first angered by the strike — he thought GM employees were among the best treated in the industry — Sloan shut off the heat (it was winter) and barred food deliveries. But he quickly backed off.
He also grudgingly realized he was no match for John L. Lewis, charismatic head of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the umbrella organization. When Perkins finally got the two men in the same room, a deal was struck.
Getting there was messy. Much messier than anything Amazon would face. But Bezos could learn some lessons.
It’s true that GM and the other Big Three later became complacent, executives and UAW bosses both sideswiped by Japanese competition in the 1970s. Sloan himself, who retired in 1956, said that keeping GM in its top position would be harder than attaining it.
But it’s also true that the success of the UAW and organized labor created the broad middle class, spreading benefits far beyond unionized workplaces, and keeping wages rising at the same pace for most workers as the rich.
Not surprisingly, this changed drastically with the union busting of the 1980s. And it gives Bezos and other moguls of the Digital Age a sense they can brush away labor.
But keep an eye on Bessemer and Amazon. The status quo, with ever-rising inequality, is a recipe for unrest and declining living standards. Amazon could do some real fulfillment by recognizing the need for unions as an essential part of successful capitalism.
Otherwise, the company faces antagonizing more than organized labor. According to Reuters, the Biden administration is following the Bessemer saga. President Joe Biden supports the right to organize and collectively bargain, a White House spokesperson said.
This isn’t going away.
This column was updated to correct the name of the Alabama city where the vote is taking place. It is Bessemer, not Bessemer City, which is in North Carolina.