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Protocol | Workplace

What’s next for pro-union Amazon workers? A long, hard fight.

The union election is over in Bessemer, Alabama, but organizers still have big plans for the future of a unionized Amazon workforce.

What’s next for pro-union Amazon workers? A long, hard fight.

Pro-union Amazon workers lost the union election today in Bessemer, Alabama.

Photo: Amazon

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama still don't have their union — but that doesn't mean there's not more organizing on the horizon.

Linda Burns, an Amazon employee who organized in favor of the union, said she's not discouraged by the results. On a press call this morning, Burns said she's proud of her fellow organizers and doesn't see this as the end. She also had a message for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

"Bezos, you're wrong," she said. "You are wrong all the way around. You misled a lot of our people. You told us [the union was] going to take our money. Well, you're taking all our money."

The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union has already contested the results of the election and is on track to file an unfair labor practice charge against Amazon. Depending on how and when the National Labor Relations Board holds hearings on the charges, the process to reach an "official" result could drag on for months.

In the meantime, workers may want to start thinking about forming a minority union, Susan Schurman, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University's School of Management and Labor Relations, told Protocol. She pointed to how the United Auto Workers formed one after they lost a union drive at Volkswagen.

"I am of the opinion that America has to figure out how to organize Amazon," Schurman said. "Amazon is to the 21st century what the auto and steel industry were for the 20th century. If workers in the United States want to have some kind of voice over what happens to them at work, there is only one way to get that. And that is to form or join a union."

The more than 700 workers who voted in favor of a union could start acting like a union and recruit others to join, she said. If that effort proves to be successful, they could then take the steps to achieve collective bargaining.

The RWDSU has already begun to talk to other Amazon workers across the country about unionization, organization president Stuart Appelbaum said in a press call. "We have already started talking to workers at other facilities," he said. "What we need to do to change Amazon is to build worker power at facilities all over this country."

Appelbaum also said that Amazon misled and intimidated workers in the process. "Our system is broken and Amazon took full advantage of that," he said. "But make no mistake about it. This still represents an important moment for working people. And most importantly, people should not presume that the results of this vote are in any way a validation of Amazon's working conditions and the way it treats its employees. Quite the contrary. The results demonstrate the powerful impact of employer intimidation and interference."

Amazon staff wrote that the company would like to "move from talk to action" in a press statement in reaction to the election results, and invited people to tour Amazon warehouses. "It's easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that's not true," an Amazon spokesperson wrote in the statement. "Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn't win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union."

This vote does not signal the end of the union's efforts, Applebaum added. Instead, he said it has inspired workers all around the world. RWDSU said it has heard from Amazon workers globally who share similar experiences with the workers in Bessemer.

"Just because you feel like you have won this battle, [know] that the war is not over with," RWDSU lead organizer Michael Foster said on the press call, in remarks addressed to Bezos. "By no means necessary — this war is not over with. This battle has just begun. I don't know how to do nothing but fight."

Amazon workers are, indeed, continuing the fight. Earlier this month, workers in Chicago staged a walkout in an attempt to pressure the company to provide better working conditions and hours. Workers want more flexibility, better wages and Lyft rides to and from work during what's known as "megacycles," according to Amazonians United's list of demands. These megacycles require employees to work 10.5-hour shifts from 1:20 a.m. to 11:50 a.m.

Amazonians United Chicagoland, the group behind the walkout, said it's "just getting started." The plan is to form a union across multiple sites in Chicago, according to the group's social media post.

A local Teamsters union in Iowa has also been organizing hundreds of Amazon fulfillment center workers and delivery drivers in Des Moines and eastern Iowa since November. Rather than attempt to unionize like the Bessemer workers, the Teamsters are instead considering a series of strikes and labor stoppages. "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," Buzz Malone, the organizing director for Teamsters Local 238, told USA Today. "Right now, the way we stand, we have no intention of putting Iowa's workforce through that process."

The failed Bessemer election attempt comes as private sector unionization more broadly continues to decline in the United States. While union popularity has increased over the last few years (from a 48% approval rating in 2010 to 65% approval in 2020), the percentage of private sector workers in a union has declined from 20% in 1980 to 6% in 2020.

At the national level, union advocates are pushing for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would make it far easier for workplaces to unionize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions. The bill, which is currently in the Senate, received support from President Joe Biden last month, and advocates have cited the low private sector unionization rate as a sign that unionization laws need to change.

Critics of the PRO Act believe it would give national unions too much power and would limit flexibility for independent workers and contractors. "Under the PRO Act, many independent workers would lose the right to enter flexible work arrangements that they seek and value. PRO Act provisions applying to contractors are very similar to California's AB 5 law," Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, wrote in a Protocol op-ed.

Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs for the Economic Policy Institute, said the election system needs to undergo "significant change." Otherwise, she said employers will continue to coerce and intimidate workers.

"We should not be asking what these workers need to do to succeed at winning a union," McNicholas told Protocol. "We should be asking policymakers who campaigned on promoting workers' rights what they plan to do to ensure that workers like those at Amazon have a meaningful right to a union and collective bargaining."

In the meantime, the fight in Bessemer isn't over. "I expect organizing at Amazon to continue as well, both in Bessemer and in other parts of the country," Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of California, Berkeley's Labor Center, told Protocol. "The union victory at the Smithfield plant in North Carolina took three tries."
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