Organizing Amazon still a goal for union activists

Jon Chavez, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·8 min read

Apr. 17—Because it carries a huge inventory, Amazon likes to keep its 248 U.S. warehouses well organized.

Ironically, it is adamantly opposed to having its employees organized.

On April 9, workers decisively rejected attempts to form a collective bargaining unit at the online retailer's fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., after a fierce year-long organizing battle between Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

The vote was 1,798 against the union to 738 in favor with 76 voided and 505 contested by either side, according to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the election. Just 53 percent of the nearly 6,000 workers at the facility voted.

RWDSU organizers have filed numerous grievances with the labor board, claiming the company had a mailbox to collect ballots placed in front of the warehouse to suggest it was monitoring voters; changed the timing of the stoplights near the warehouse to prevent organizers from talking to employees as they left work, and placed anti-union signs throughout the facility, including on the back of bathroom stall doors.

But post-vote, some may be wondering why an organizing effort was even attempted in Alabama — one of 27 Right-to-Work states that let workers refuse to join unions or forego paying dues if they do join.

David Madland, a senior fellow at the liberal policy institute Center for American Progress, told Time magazine that Alabama was a surprising place to attempt an organizing drive due to anti-union fervor in the Deep South. "In the South, the southern power structure has strongly opposed unionization for many, many decades in large part because of the fear of Blacks and whites joining together," he said.

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Bruce Baumhower, president of Toledo's UAW Local 12, which has notched a string of organizing victories the last 10 years and grown the local's membership from 7,000 to 11,000 and bargaining units from 33 to 44, said even the powerful auto union has largely struck out below the Mason-Dixon line.

"Volkswagen, Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan — we haven't had a lot of success in the South," Mr. Baumhower said. "It's pretty much common knowledge that what we try to do is get a good contract up here and at some point the people down there will want what we have up here."

Mr. Baumhower praised the organizing attempt at Bessemer. However, he said launching a drive in an anti-union state like Alabama put the RWDSU organizers "behind the eight ball" from the get-go.

In a northern city like Toledo, he added, the union would have an added weapon if they tried to organize the new Amazon warehouse in Rossford or delivery station in Toledo — assistance from other area unions.

"We all support each other. We would support their effort. We've had pretty awesome solidarity in northwest Ohio," Mr. Baumhower said.

Joseph Slater, a labor law professor at the University of Toledo, said since the RWDSU's defeat in Bessemer, two main and different explanations on why the effort failed.

"One is, 'Oh my god, they're going after one of the most anti-union employers in one of the most anti-union states! Why would anyone ever think this would work?' " Mr. Slater, a former labor law attorney, said.

"The other is that this just demonstrates how bad labor laws are in this country," he added.

After the vote, Amazon released a statement that said in part, "The union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that's not true." It added, "Amazon didn't win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union."

However, Mr. Slater said in his view Amazon did a number of things during the organizing drive that were clearly illegal or arguably illegal. "They also did things that should be illegal," he added.

Amazon, which has vigorously contested all previous tries to unionize any of its warehouse facilities with only one other attempt even going to a vote, may have felt emboldened to commit unfair labor practices because throughout the vast majority of the organizing campaign the majority of the members of the National Labor Relations Board were employer-friendly Trump administration appointees, Mr. Slater said.

One complaint made against Amazon was it held mandatory anti-union meetings for workers. Mr. Slater said that was perfectly legal.

"But even for things they did that were illegal, it's difficult to get any substantive remedies," he said.

So should the RWDSU have foregone an organizing effort in Alabama and waited for a chance in a more union-friendly state, like Ohio or Michigan, and a union-friendly place like the Toledo area?

"All things being equal, the answer is: Yes. There are cities and states that are more fertile ground that don't have all the things you face in a state like Alabama," Mr. Slater said.

But that doesn't mean the union was incorrect, he added.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told NPR in January that workers at the Bessemer warehouse had approached the union last summer and described 10-hour days and grueling productivity quotas. Workers wanted more input in shaping the workplace, including how people get disciplined or fired.

Mr. Slater said the South "has always been a tough nut to crack for organized labor," but once workers requested help in forming a union, the RWDSU could hardly refuse.

"From the point of the labor movement, you have to say, 'Look, if we just give up on a regional part of the country we are going to be just a regional movement ourselves,' " Mr. Slater said.

"They have to keep trying. You can't give up," he said. "You could say a few years ago that Georgia never would have voted for two Democratic candidates for Senator, and this last time they did."

Had the union delivered a victory, "It would have been such a big deal ...that it would have inspired various other attempts," he added.

Shaun Enright, executive secretary of the Northwest Ohio Building Trades Council and also the president of the Greater Northwest Ohio AFL-CIO, said he is surprised no union has attempted to organize workers at the Amazon warehouse in Rossford, which opened in August.

"I'm not sure why no one is going after it. It's not our work, but if it was building trades related, we'd be all over it," Mr. Enright said.

Mr. Enright said he thinks the RWDSU was correct in trying to unionize the Amazon facility in Alabama, but he might have gone about it differently.

"I guess in my opinion, the strategy was flawed. The union playbook and nonunion playbook have been around for about 100 years. Right?" Mr. Enright said. "So I don't think I would have used the old playbook.

"I would have really looked hard at the data, the tax breaks, who's getting hired there, maybe engaging with the NAACP. And then I'd have looked to see if there was any wage disparity among the employees and see if we could sit down and talk about it," Mr. Enright said.

"What I'm saying is I would have collected different data. Out of all these workers how many are minority, where are workers coming from, how much are they getting paid," he said.

At the Bessemer facility, Amazon paid an average $15.30 an hour — more than double Alabama's minimum wage — and offered health care and other benefits to the workforce, which is about 80 percent black.

"If we had done it up here it would have been a different kind of fight and maybe a more successful fight," said Mr. Enright, who added that perhaps supply chain disruptions rather than a straight-up vote would make for a better strategy.

Coincidentally, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters appears to share Mr. Enright's beliefs.

After the Alabama vote, Teamsters' National Director for Amazon Randy Korgan commended the Bessemer effort, but added, "This fight is not over, and the Teamsters will always support workers who want to build power by standing together and demanding dignity, a safe workplace, and a fair return on their work."

To that end, quietly in November the Teamsters began a unionization effort at Amazon warehouses in Iowa.

Buzz Malone, Teamsters Local 238 organizing director said recently the union has approached "400 to 500" current or former employees primarily tied to Amazon's distribution centers in Grimes and Iowa City.

Union organizers are demanding Amazon provide higher pay and less stringent rules, particularly regarding how fast warehouse employees and drivers have to work.

Amazon has been accused by some of employing hardball tactics against unions attempting to organize its facilities.

The Teamsters have not revealed their Iowa strategy, but Mr. Malone was quoted as saying he doesn't think Iowa workers will take the same route used by the Alabama workers. Rather than asking for a certification election, he said the Teamsters will try to pressure the company with labor actions.

"Amazon has proven, time and again, that they have no respect for the workers' right to organize under the (National Labor Relations Board) and the election process," Mr. Malone told a national newspaper. "Right now, the way we stand, we have no intention of putting Iowa's workforce through that process."