What the Amazon union do-over in Alabama means for the future of retail



It’s been more than 20 years since Amazon warehouses first tried to unionize, and this year employees at two other Amazon facilities are trying again.


But times have changed.

For the second time in less than a year, Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting on whether to organize. Last April a union effort there was soundly defeated, but the National Labor Relations Board ruled in January that the company’s anti-union activities were unlawful and ordered a new vote.


Experts say these workers could prevail this time, reflecting growing dissatisfaction with work conditions — especially at lower-paying jobs like retail, fast food and e-commerce facilities — and higher expectations of businesses on the part of both workers and consumers that may be boosting public opinion of unions.

“There has been a significant increase in pro-union sentiment, and we’ve also seen a spike in worker resistance and worker protests,” said Kent Wong, director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. 


Many people are dismayed by the way some store, warehouse and factory workers have been left unprotected against COVID-19 and given inadequate sick time, he said. 


“We’ve seen corporations making massive profits — Amazon has done very, very well during the pandemic,” Wong said by phone. “And yet you see essential workers, who have been given that label, have been treated as anything but essential. And so, there is the phenomenon of the great resignation, where many workers have decided that it is not worth risking their lives for a minimum wage job.”

A healthier economy and worker shortages could also provide a more favorable environment for the pro-labor activity occurring at several retailers, including in Bessemer, according to several experts. 

The “BAmazon Union” organizers, who are working with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, believe their prospects have improved, even if Amazon’s tactics have not. They want the right to collectively bargain over working conditions, including safety standards, training, breaks, pay, benefits and other issues, and get a written contract so that Amazon follows through.

“We’re advocating more, we’ve got more employees involved, more than we had the first time,” Darryl Richardson, a worker at the Bessemer facility, said during a Jan. 26 video press conference. “We’ve just got more participating and more coming around … speaking out. So I think we got a better opportunity, a better chance this time. More employees understand now what we’re fighting for.”

Retailers say unions aren’t right for their employees


Amazon declined to comment on specific questions regarding Bessemer or labor efforts at other Amazon facilities. But Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said in an emailed statement that the e-commerce giant’s “employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union.”

“They always have,” Agrait said. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our employees and making Amazon a great place to work.”

“We don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees.”

Barbara Agrait

Amazon spokesperson

Similarly, REI is fighting a unionization effort at its SoHo store in New York City. During a podcast, REI CEO Eric Artz said the company does “not oppose unions.”

“It’s that we don’t believe, I do not believe, that introducing a union is the right thing for REI,” he said. “And more specifically, I believe the presence of union representation will impact our ability to communicate and work directly with our employees and resolve concerns at the speed the world is moving. And that is the core of why we don’t think that introducing a union is the right thing for our employees.”

The SoHo store employees want more cooperation between staff and management, and improved working conditions, according to their Twitter feed, where they also express their affection for the company.

“We don’t think that introducing a union is the right thing for our employees.”

Eric Artz

Chief Executive Office, REI

The BAmazon organizers are in a more adversarial relationship with their employer. On their website they call the working conditions at Amazon’s warehouse “deadly and dehumanizing,” citing work quotas that they say cause illness and “lifetime injuries,” and noting that 19 workers have died at Amazon facilities in the past nine years. An Amazon spokesperson was unable to comment on the claims, saying by phone that more details would be needed.

“There’s a lot of resentment and a lot of dissatisfaction among Amazon workers,” Wong said. “This notion that Amazon is a great place to work and that everybody loves working at Amazon — it’s not true. If you ask Amazon workers, they’ll say that it’s a killer job, and they’re treated like robots there. There’s relentless pressure to speed up, to perform more, to do more. Amazon pays more than fast food, but that doesn’t mean it’s enough — $15 an hour is not enough to live on in most places in this country.”

Is a union good for business?

Working with rather than against unions is rare, but not unheard of.

“There are enlightened companies that have negotiated with their workers and have signed union agreements,” Wong said. “And there are absolute benefits to having unionization in terms of worker satisfaction, in terms of maintaining a more stable workforce. But the trend within the private sector has been to see unions as the enemy.”

Arguably, Amazon could use a more stable workforce. Even pre-pandemic, the e-commerce giant each week lost around 3% of its hourly workers, according to an investigative report from The New York Times last year. That is an annual attrition rate of about 150%, nearly twice that of the retail and logistics industries overall. Amazon declined to comment to Retail Dive on those numbers or any steps the company may be taking to improve them.

“There are absolute benefits to having unionization in terms of worker satisfaction, in terms of maintaining a more stable workforce. But the trend within the private sector has been to see unions as the enemy.”

Kent Wong

Director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles

As a company that touts its own progressive bone fides, REI may risk more reputational harm by coming out so strongly against unionization, while Amazon has maintained high marks among consumers despite many unflattering reports over the years on its workplace culture. But Amazon has also often sought to reshape that reputation. In his final letter to shareholders, founder and now former CEO Jeff Bezos last year pushed back against bad press about working conditions in Amazon warehouses.

If you read some of the news reports, you might think we have no care for employees,” he said. “In those reports, our employees are sometimes accused of being desperate souls and treated as robots. That’s not accurate. They’re sophisticated and thoughtful people who have options for where to work. When we survey fulfillment center employees, 94% say they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work.” 

Writing before the NLRB ruling on Amazon’s misconduct, Bezos cited the “lopsided” voting results in Bessemer as evidence that the company is a great place to work. But he also said, “it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.”

Farther down, Bezos boasts of the company’s “distinctiveness,” and asks shareholders to brace themselves against pressure to be “more normal.” 

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