Workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, voted by a margin of more than two to one not to join a union. It’s a heavy blow for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, for the wider labor movement, and for the many politicians and activists who wanted the union’s push to succeed. But the workers have spoken — and all of the groups on the other side should be listening to the message.
Instead, many rejected the result and attacked the process, almost as though an election is to be respected only if you win. When Republicans did that after the presidential election, they were rightly condemned.
The idea that the overwhelming majority of workers in Bessemer were intimidated or bamboozled into voting against their interests — as unionization proponents have suggested — is not only implausible; it’s insulting, as though workers couldn’t possibly be so foolish to have voted against it, so they must have been coerced or tricked. Nonsense.
Workers are better positioned to assess their own employment situation than elected officials in Washington, or anyone else for that matter. They voted “No” because they struggled to see what they would gain in exchange for their dues, given that they work for a company that already provides industry-leading pay and benefits. The union lost the vote because it failed to answer, or even seriously address, that question.
Of course, that’s not to say everything is perfect at Amazon. In a letter to shareholders after the vote, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and CEO, wrote, “We need a better vision for how we create value for employees — a vision for their success.”
Unions should be taking away that same lesson: How can they offer workers a more attractive deal — a better vision for their success — than the one they turned down? Instead, the union is appealing the result, hoping that judges or regulators will overturn the will of the workers.
It remains to be seen what Amazon’s vision will be, and to be successful, it will have to be developed in partnership with employees. It would be good for workers if unions engaged in the same exercise, recognizing that what they are currently offering is not enough. But it’s not clear that’s the case.
Labor union rates have declined for myriad reasons, but one of them is simply that unions are still operating from the same playbook that they’ve used for decades, while companies are increasingly treating employees as their most valuable asset — and offering pay and benefits to attract and retain the best and hardest-working. In Bessemer, Amazon’s starting wage is more than double the minimum wage, plus it provides health care and other benefits that many other employers do not offer.
Workers at Amazon would benefit from a competition between management and unions, but at least for now, it seems that only one side is on the playing field, while the other is arguing with the referees. Workers know the score, and they know how to choose sides.
Of course, Amazon will continue to be an irresistible target. Unionizing the company would be a notable feat for the labor movement. Perhaps it will yet happen. But it may be that the company continues to offer workers what the union could not: a better deal.