Workers at Amazon.com Inc AMZN-Q seeking to organize a warehouse in Alabama after a bruising defeat last year have been invigorated by a resurgent labour movement, bringing energy to the campaign despite the long odds they face.
The vote by Bessemer warehouse employees concludes this month after the U.S. National Labor Relations Board found Amazon improperly interfered in the previous union election.
Given the retail giant’s two-to-one margin of victory in the original contest, the workers trying to bring the first-ever union to a U.S. Amazon warehouse face a tall order.
Yet since the last vote, the American labour movement has gained momentum, motivated by the high-profile Alabama campaign, ongoing pandemic concerns and strikes.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has vowed to implement policies to make it easier for workers to organize. Approval for unions is the highest since 1965, a Gallup poll showed last year.
Amazon employee Braxton Wright, 39, said that while he was hopeful for a win, even a near miss for the union in Bessemer would help others see that organizing is possible.
Simply by casting ballots, “You give more people the courage to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we want to form a union,’” Wright said.
Labor activity is already escalating at Amazon facilities beyond Bessemer. Led by former Amazon worker Christian Smalls, staff at two New York warehouses have received authorization from the NLRB to hold union votes, including one this month.
That enthusiasm has spread to other union-resistant brands, including Starbucks SBUX-Q. In the last seven months, workers from more than 140 Starbucks stores have asked for union elections.
The Bessemer warehouse’s union backers say organizing under the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) will help them counter productivity targets that are hard to meet and advocate for better working conditions at Amazon, which data shows had injury rates above average for U.S. warehouses in 2020.
For Amazon, unions threaten to alter how the online retailer manages its vast operation and drive up labour costs beyond what the company said was $4-billion in extra expenses related to a worker shortage last quarter.
With those stakes and businesses across America competing for workers, Amazon increased spending on digital ads touting its jobs, pay and benefits sevenfold through mid-February from the same period in 2021, to $2.8-million, according to marketing intelligence firm Pathmatics. The data excludes ads, if any, on video streaming services. Near the Bessemer warehouse, the company used a billboard to urge workers to vote.
“I see their ads every single day,” said Roger Wyatt, a 34-year-old worker at the facility who is voting for the union. Amazon last year advertised to workers as well, unrelated to conduct the NLRB deemed improper.
Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel has said workers’ safety is a top priority and that the company is investing heavily to help staff. Regarding the union contests in Alabama and New York, she said, “We look forward to having our employees’ voices heard in these elections, and our focus remains on working directly with our team to make Amazon a great place to work.”
Employee Eli Morrison needs no persuading. He disapproved of a union at a prior job and has already mailed in his vote against bringing one to the Bessemer warehouse.
“I love the work – I don’t even feel like I work,” he said.
Such distrust of unions is still common among workers, fanned by Amazon itself, which has warned in meetings staff were obliged to attend that labour groups could mandate strikes or shrink pay, something the RWDSU has disputed.
Wright, a miner who took a job at Amazon last year while on strike at Warrior Met Coal, is among the activists trying to change that.
Showing up for work in union gear, he has been outspoken on the warehouse floor. Union supporters on the whole have been more vocal this time around, pushing back against Amazon’s talking points in meetings, said worker Darryl Richardson, 52.
Across the country, more Amazon workers are putting pressure on their employer. In New York, employees have raised money on GoFundMe and collected signatures to persuade Amazon to drop charges against organizers. Workers from several sites likewise petitioned the company after a tornado tore through an Illinois warehouse in December, killing six workers. In Bessemer, staff in the shipping dock department circulated a petition calling for better working conditions, which the RWDSU said collected more than 100 signatures.
“There’s a hunger for innovative approaches,” said Wilma Liebman, a former NLRB chair during the Obama administration. “All this activism is going to continue for a while.”
Richardson said he senses the tide is turning for workers.
“Everybody around the world is standing up,” he said.
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