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Big Union Loss At Amazon Warehouse Casts Shadow Over Labor Movement

Pro-union Amazon warehouse worker Jennifer Bates vows at a rally in Birmingham to keep fighting to unionize the Amazon Bessemer warehouse.
Pro-union Amazon warehouse worker Jennifer Bates vows at a rally in Birmingham to keep fighting to unionize the Amazon Bessemer warehouse.

After a nearly two-month-long union election, Amazon warehouse worker Carla Johnson is ready to move on.

"I'm glad it's over," Johnson said. "Now I can stop getting the emails, the phone calls, you know, from the union reps."

Results from last week showed Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted more than two-to-one against joining a union. Johnson voted to keep the union out because she trusts Amazon – the company treated her well during her recent battle with brain cancer. She also just doesn't believe the union could deliver on promises to raise pay and improve work conditions.

She hopes her co-workers can leave the idea of unionizing behind, but she doubts they will. And she's right.

"We're not running away with our tails behind us because there was no victory," said Amazon warehouse worker Jennifer Bates at a rally on Sunday at the union's Birmingham headquarters. "There was illegal things taking place and fear tactics that was done to people who didn't have any idea about what a union could do for them."

Union backers were hoping for a labor movement renaissance inspired by Alabama workers trying to create the first unionized Amazon workplace in the United States. Instead, the union's crushing defeat continued the decades-long decline of unions.

The defeat shows just how difficult it is for unions to get a foothold into one of the country's massive employers when the company is willing to fight back. Now Amazon's workers and the labor movement are trying to find a path forward after adding Bessemer to a long list of disappointments.

Labored Movement

At Sunday's rally, pro-union workers described the loss as a punch to the stomach.

But admissions of disappointment were preambles to pledges to keep fighting. They blamed the loss on Amazon's aggressive, anti-union campaign. The Retail, Wholesale And Department Store Union promised legal challenges. Organizers told stories of election victories following initial defeats.

Some labor experts say all the attention the Bessemer election brought to the labor movement was a good thing, regardless of the outcome. The union claimed that workers from other Amazon warehouses said they were inspired by what was happening in Bessemer and were interested in unionizing.

And despite the loss, there are several factors in favor of unions today. President Joe Biden sent out a Twitter video in February extolling unions and denouncing anti-union tactics.

"You might say, 'oh so what? He tweeted a video,'" said John Logan, the director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. "This was a really big deal. I mean, this was like the most pro-union presidential statement in history."

The pandemic also relabeled low-skilled jobs. Those workers were now called heroes, front-line workers and essential. A Gallup poll from September found 65 percent of Americans approve of unions.

But none of that matters if unions can't actually win in places like Bessemer. While unions do still pull off small victories, even in the traditionally anti-union South, they rarely happen at workplaces with more than 100 union-eligible workers. Over the past two decades, union membership in the private sector has been cut nearly in half, down to 6.3 percent last year.

"Unions are polling almost two-thirds support from American workers," said Wade Rathke, the chief organizer of United Labor Unions Local 100 in New Orleans. "Yet we're losing badly in places like Bessemer. That's a disconnect,".

While workers stayed defiant at the Birmingham union rally, pro-union worker Kevin Jackson said the atmosphere inside the warehouse is still tense.

"Everybody is still standing on eggshells," Jackson said. "People just don't talk about it. But it's like you can feel it."

Law And Reform

Unions blame weak labor laws for much of their troubles. While the National Labor Relations Board has rules meant to protect workers trying to organize, experts call the board toothless. If Amazon is found guilty of intimidating workers, it likely won't lead to anything beyond a few mandated posters at the Amazon warehouse.

"It takes so much, so much to prove that the company is retaliating against the employees," said Rose Turner, a United Food and Commercial Workers organizer. "You have to have strong people."

Even once a union wins, it can take years for unions to get to a first contract with the employer, if they manage that at all.

Democrats hope to change that with the Pro Act. The bill would let unions seek arbitration to help when a first contract stalls. It also adds teeth to existing laws, letting the NLRB fine companies that violate workers' rights. Mandatory, anti-union meetings like the ones held at Amazon's warehouse would be illegal.

The House approved the bill in March and now waits on the Senate. But Democrats have been trying to pass major labor law reform since the Carter Administration without any success.

For the workers at Amazon, they will have to wait another year before holding another union election, unless the NLRB orders a rerun. But campaigning against a big company like Amazon is expensive, a cost the union might be reluctant to take on after losing by such a wide margin.

"If I were the union I would think twice if I wanted to put the resources into a second election in the very near term," said Michelle Kaminski an associate professor of labor law at Michigan State University.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters. Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hopes for a renaissance for organized labor in the U.S. were dashed when Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., voted overwhelmingly against unionizing. Amazon, we should note, is one of NPR's financial supporters. WBHM's Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham reports on what's next for Amazon's workers and for the country's labor movement.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Amazon worker Carla Johnson says she's happy to just move on after a nearly two-month-long union election.

CARLA JOHNSON: I'm glad it's over. I'm glad it's over. Now I can stop getting the emails, the phone calls, you know, from the union reps.

BISAHA: Johnson voted against unionizing both because she trusts Amazon and distrusts the union's promises about raising pay and improving work conditions. She's hoping her co-workers who voted for the union can also move on, but she doubts that.

JOHNSON: Do I think that they're going to just be OK and let it rest? I don't.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When workers' rights under attack, what do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Stand up. Fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Stand up. Fight pack.

BISAHA: Organizers and workers held a rally outside the union's Birmingham headquarters on Sunday. Amazon worker Jennifer Bates said they were going to challenge the election results.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER BATES: We're not running away with our tails behind us because there was no victory. There was illegal things taking place and fear tactics that was done to people who didn't have any idea about what a union could do for them.

BISAHA: The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union says it plans on filing unfair labor practice charges against Amazon. Some workers want a new election, but that defiant attitude at the rally does not match what's happening inside the warehouse. Pro-union worker Kevin Jackson says the atmosphere is still tense.

KEVIN JACKSON: I say in kind of a creepy kind of way because everybody's still standing on - it's on eggshells. Know what I'm saying? People just don't talk about it. But it's like you can feel it.

BISAHA: Jackson and union supporters say they've heard from some workers that regret voting against the union. But he admits the loss will make a second election harder. He says after getting knocked down in the first round, they're back in the corner, trying to come up with a new plan.

JACKSON: You take a hit. You got to regroup and go with another strategy.

BISAHA: Union backers say the labor movement was already in such a rough shape before the vote, a loss in Alabama can't make things much worse. But New Orleans-based union organizer Wade Rathke has a more ominous interpretation.

WADE RATHKE: You're going to go after a big bear, you better - you know, if you slap it, you better bring it down.

BISAHA: Rathke's skeptical that the legal challenges will make a difference or that another election would do better.

RATHKE: Once you've beaten a union this bad, it's very difficult to believe that you can somehow move those noes to yeses or get people who didn't vote to vote when you've proven that the company can beat you.

BISAHA: There are actually a few things working in favor of unions today. The pandemic relabeled low-skill jobs as essential. President Joe Biden strongly supports unions. Jobs created by his proposed infrastructure plan would go to unionized workers. And Rathke notes a recent Gallup poll shows most Americans approve of unions.

RATHKE: Right now, we are - unions are polling at almost two-thirds support from American workers. Yet we're losing badly in places like Bessemer. That's a disconnect.

BISAHA: Today, just a little more than 6% of private sector employees are part of a union. Democrats want to address that disconnect by helping workers organize. The House approved the PRO Act, meant to protect those workers. It's now in the hands of the Senate. But Democrats have been trying to pass major labor law reform since the Carter administration without any success. For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUPO'S "I'M READY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.