Amazon is bracing for the results of a major union vote in its Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse. The results, which could certify or reject the first US Amazon union, are coming in this week against a backdrop of increased scrutiny on Amazon’s labor practices during the pandemic, with employees publicly pushing back against company policies.
While union drives have been quashed for years at Amazon, the past 12 months saw an uptick in worker activism. As employees risked exposure to a frightening new disease, some protested COVID-19 safety measures at Amazon facilities and complained that the company was firing workers who organized walkouts. Labor regulators have backed up some of these claims by finding merit in complaints that the layoffs were retaliatory. As the Bessemer union drive moved toward an election, Amazon required workers to attend anti-union training, sent messages to their phones and posted anti-union signs in facilities.
The bitter side of this fight spilled onto Twitter in late March when an Amazon executive derided Bernie Sanders in a series of tweets, claiming that Amazon is more progressive than the independent Vermont senator, who has spent his career championing workers’ rights and income equality. Further tweets from the official Amazon News account raised eyebrows for denying reports that workers have to pee in bottles to keep up with demanding schedules, and for goading Sen. Elizabeth Warren for failing to pass stricter tax regulations. (The tweets led to an apology.)
Behind the acrimony is Amazon’s desire for control over its warehouse operations, which power the company’s reliable, fast delivery. “That creates a lot of loyalty towards Amazon,” said GlobalData retail analyst Neil Saunders.
One union isn’t going to cause significant changes, but broad unionization and less control over the warehouse workforce could threaten the massive profits Amazon has turned in recent years. That’s because an organized workforce could increase the cost of maintaining the company’s speed and dependability, Saunders said.
Here’s what’s going on with Amazon’s labor woes, what its essential workers want, and how worker efforts might (or might not) affect customers:
What’s at stake with the union vote?
Nearly 6,000 workers at a fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, have turned in their ballots in an election to certify the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to negotiate on their behalf. It would be the first US Amazon union, and it’s also the largest group of Amazon workers to vote on the question of unionizing.
Amazon has fought the union effort, reportedly hiring an anti-union consultant at a high price in addition to using every opportunity to dissuade its workers from voting in favor of organizing.
Pro-union workers say they want better, clearer break policies and better job security. While the company offers a 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks in the workers’ 10-hour shifts, workers say they’re exhausted. They move constantly during their shifts, with some walking upward of 10 miles every day, and taking extra bathroom breaks puts them further and further behind on the company’s demands to fulfill orders. Firings also seem arbitrary, some of these workers say.
Amazon and some of its anti-union employees say they don’t want a third party getting between managers and workers. The company argues it already offers a good wage and generous health, retirement and tuition benefits. A union could give workers a say in the structure of shifts, the handling of safety complaints, and the way both promotions and discipline are meted out.
What are the retaliation allegations against Amazon?
The National Labor Relations Board has investigated multiple complaints from former Amazon employees saying the company intimidated or fired them for organizing walkouts or other protests. Jonathan Bailey, for example,for his role in organizing a walkout at a Queens warehouse early in the pandemic, and then written up for harassment.
The NLRB reportedly found merit in his complaint, and Amazon settled the case in March, agreeing to post notices in the facility reminding workers of their right to organize and work together to improve working conditions. Another worker, Gerald Bryson in Staten Island, complained to the NLRB, sayingfor his role in organizing a protest about pandemic safety measures (Bryson swore at a co-worker who opposed the protest during a reportedly heated argument).
NBC reported that Amazon faced 37 retaliation complaints to the NLRB since February 2020, a significant increase over the previous two years.
The complaints weren’t limited to warehouse workers. Two corporate Amazon employees who organized a walkout to protest the company’s approach to climate change and its treatment of warehouse employees complained they were fired for legally protected activities. The NLRB agreed the claim had merit and told the employees, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, that it would pursue the claim if Amazon didn’t settle with them. The case is pending.
Why doesn’t Amazon want a unionized workforce?
Amazon’s retail service thrives on getting purchases to customers on time, or early. The company’s “customer obsessed” ethos makes dependable delivery an essential part of its business model. Unions would take away some of Amazon’s control over this process, and could potentially disrupt speedy delivery if enough warehouses organized.
That’s not to say Amazon won’t be able to keep its two-day delivery if the warehouse in Bessemer organizes and then inspires a wave of unionization. It’ll simply cost more for Amazon to keep the service alive, and that will eat at the company’s vast profits. The company generated $21.3 billion in net profit in 2020, a 79% increase from the previous year.
What does this mean for you?
Unless you work at Amazon, it might not mean much. If a large number of warehouses unionize, Amazon might have to pay more to ensure two-day delivery, potentially by hiring more staff or paying workers more.
But Amazon is unlikely to pass increased logistics costs along to customers, said financial analyst Michael Pachter, who follows Amazon for investment firm Wedbush. That’s because Amazon has to match or beat competitors’ pricing.
“Price is always going to be determined by competition,” he said. “It’s never going to be a pass-through.”
What did Amazon tweet to lawmakers?
On March 24, Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon’s consumer operations, posted a series of tweets criticizing Sanders, who was planning to visit workers in Bessemer to support the union drive.
“I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace,” Clark wrote, going on to cite the company’s starting wage of at least $15 and its benefits package, which offers the same health insurance the company’s corporate employees receive.
While business analysts questioned the more aggressive stance, Vox reported that it resulted from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos‘ direct orders. Two days later, the Amazon News account went on to mock Warren for failing to pass tougher tax laws, while at the same time defending the amount of taxes Amazon pays.
Sanders didn’t reply to the tweets directed at him, but Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, responded by saying Amazon can’t call itself progressive amid charges of union busting and worker mistreatment. Pocan pointed out reports that workers have to pee in bottles to keep up with their workloads.
Then, Amazon News scoffed at Pocan’s tweets, saying, “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”
Do Amazon workers pee in bottles?
Yes. Later, on March 26, Amazon issued an apology to Pocan for the remark about the pee bottles. In a blog post, the company called the tweet an “own-goal” that was inaccurate, and acknowledged that Amazon delivery drivers struggle to find bathrooms along their routes.
The company went on to say the problem is not specific to Amazon drivers. “Regardless of the fact that this is industry-wide, we would like to solve it. We don’t yet know how, but will look for solutions,” the company said.
Previous reports have said somesaid they also peed in bottles or waste cans while trying to keep up with quotas, but Amazon’s statement didn’t respond to those allegations.