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Amazon workers' union vote in Alabama could spark more organized labor efforts

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More than 5,800 employees who work at Amazon's Bessemer, Ala., fulfillment center will vote in the coming weeks on whether to form a union.
Source: Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

Thousands of Amazon.com Inc. employees who work at an Alabama fulfillment center will vote in the coming weeks on whether to establish a union, an effort labor experts say could spark more organized labor initiatives among the e-commerce company's U.S. employees.

The National Labor Relations Board is set to send ballots on Feb. 8 to 5,805 workers who report to Amazon's center in Bessemer, Ala., as part of an election conducted by mail. If successfully formed, the Alabama workers group would become the first-ever union of Amazon warehouse employees in the U.S., forcing the company into bargaining discussions over wages, safety protections, and other worker conditions.

"It could have a tremendous domino effect, particularly if this is a successful union campaign," said Joshua Freeman, distinguished professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "I think it could have a huge impact, not just on Amazon but across the whole industry."

Potential unionization comes at a pivotal time for Amazon and incoming CEO Andy Jassy, who is set to take the reins from founder and CEO Jeff Bezos later this year. Amazon has been hiring thousands of workers to meet demand amid soaring sales during the pandemic, and the new Biden administration in the U.S. is pursuing a pro-worker agenda that includes support of unionization. Amazon employs more than 800,000 U.S.-based workers.

The majority of Amazon workers at the Alabama facility have indicated interest in joining a union to push for better conditions, said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, which is conducting the unionization drive. "The two issues that are most important to them are being treated with respect, which they don't think they are by Amazon, and their safety when they work for Amazon," he said.

Mail ballots sent by the NLRB to the Alabama workers are due March 29. If more than half of those who voted are in favor, the board would certify the new union, which could then begin negotiations with Amazon, Appelbaum said.

Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said in an email to S&P Global Market Intelligence that the company does not believe the RWDSU represents the majority of the employees' views at the Alabama facility. "Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs," Knox said.

Most U.S. retail workers are not members of unions, at least in part due to the challenges of forming the workers' groups, labor experts said. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.6% of about 14.3 million retail workers in the U.S. were union members as of 2020. That's up slightly from 4% in 2019.

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But the pandemic has spurred some into action.

"What the pandemic has elevated is the reality that those are front-line workers, and we're depending on them," said Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of The Worker Institute at the ILR School at Cornell University.

Appelbaum, of RWDSU, said Amazon is actively trying to convince its workers not to form a union at meetings and in advertisements, both within the facility and in local media. "It's the most aggressive anti-union campaign that I've seen," Appelbaum said. "We've been told that just about every other commercial on the local TV station is a feel-good commercial about Amazon."

Such tactics are often taken by companies interested in staving off organized labor efforts, said Erin Hatton, labor expert and associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

"[Companies] say things like 'unions are corrupt and they just take your money," Hatton said. "They paint this picture of the boss and the workers being in an equal marriage, which is not accurate."

Starting pay at the Alabama facility is $15.30 per hour, exceeding the $15-per-hour minimum wage that many U.S. retail workers have pushed for in recent years. U.S. President Joe Biden recently included a more-than-doubling of the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour in his proposed coronavirus relief package.

Still, the Amazon employees will likely want to provide input on future decisions about wages and working conditions, said Mark Shmulik, vice president and senior analyst with AB Bernstein, in an email. "They've had an extremely difficult year, likely stretched to the limit to keep up with demand," he said.

Even if the Alabama union vote isn't successful, the effort to form one is likely to be closely watched by other workers, potentially leading to organized labor efforts elsewhere.

"It can raise your political consciousness," Hatton said. "Workers may say, 'Oh wait, maybe I can do something about it; maybe I will talk to these guys on the job tomorrow and see what they think.'"