The meaning of Bessemer
|March 17, 2021
By David Leonhardt
GOOD MORNING. WE explain why the union election at Amazon has become such a big deal.
The meaning of Bessemer
A labor union’s effort to organize about 5,800 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., has turned into a national story. The workers are now voting whether to join the union, in an election that runs through March 29.
I asked Noam Scheiber, who covers workplace issues for The Times, to explain what’s going on. Our conversation follows.
David: Why has this one local union election become such a big deal?
Noam: Amazon is the second-largest private employer in the U.S. In the more than 25 years since its founding, the company has successfully resisted unionization at all of its U.S. facilities, which now number in the hundreds. But labor leaders believe that a single high-profile success will reverberate across the country.
There are already signs that they may be right. Some nonunionized Amazon workers on Staten Island walked off the job last year, to protest pandemic working conditions. And the union that’s trying to organize the workers in Alabama — the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — says it has received more than 1,000 inquiries from other Amazon workers since this campaign started.
And I assume union leaders hope that success at Amazon may then lead to success elsewhere, too?
Yes. They feel that if they can begin to unionize the company in the United States, then blue-collar workers have a chance at humane working conditions and a middle-class quality of life. If not, they argue, then the future of work for those without a college degree will be low-paying jobs with backbreaking productivity quotas that are heavy on surveillance. That’s how they describe Amazon’s labor model, with some justification.
Amazon exerts a lot of influence over working conditions for tens of millions of other workers. When Amazon enters an industry, it often forces the competition to adopt similar labor practices — partly on pay, but also squeezing efficiency out of workers. Consider, for example, that shares of Walmart, Target, Kroger and Costco swooned after Amazon announced its acquisition of Whole Foods back in 2017.
Amazon and the union have made competing claims about whether the jobs already come with good wages and benefits. Can you help us understand them?
The company typically pays rank-and-file warehouse workers between $15 and $20 per hour and offers health care and retirement benefits. For a full-time worker, that translates into about $700 a week. Amazon touts its compensation package as “industry-leading,” though most of its workers are likely earning well below the national weekly median of about $1,000 for full-time workers.
An Amazon employee at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, N.Y., last month.
Is there reason to think that Amazon workers could earn more if they formed a union?
Yes, pay for unionized workers tends to be higher than for nonunion workers, even when you control for factors like education and experience. But I suspect Amazon will likely raise wages even if the union loses, because credible threats of unionization tend to drive up wages even at nonunion companies.
The bigger benefit to workers from unionizing may be negotiating over working conditions that they frequently complain about, like the pace of the work and the aggressiveness of production goals.
It’s been fascinating to see Joe Biden offer stronger pro-union words than any president in decades — and then see Marco Rubio, a conservative Republican, also encourage the Bessemer workers to join a union. Is it possible that labor unions are on the verge of growing again?
There’s an element of social contagion here, in which successful activism by some workers can inspire others. We saw that during the teacher walkouts that began in West Virginia in 2018 and quickly spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona. The same has recently happened in digital media and among white-collar tech workers.
That said, it’s hard to believe we’ll see a reversal in the decades-long decline in unionization, as opposed to a slowing of the decline, absent a major change in U.S. labor law. The current law gives employers enormous advantages in a union campaign. They can subject workers to a barrage of anti-union rhetoric, through mandatory meetings, emails, signage. Unions have no comparable way of getting their message out. And the law rarely results in more than a slap on the wrist for employers that fire workers for supporting a union.
What would “a major change in U.S. labor law” look like?
Something along the lines of the PRO Act that the House just passed, which would dramatically increase the penalties for retaliating against workers who organize. Or card check, which would allow workers to unionize if a majority sign cards, allowing them to bypass a contentious election like this one.
Another approach would be sectoral bargaining, in which a union could bargain with all the major employers in an industry by getting, say, 10 to 20 percent of the industry’s workers to sign cards. That would diminish the incentive of any one employer to fight a union campaign out of a fear of competitive disadvantage. Germany, France and Norway use sectoral bargaining.
Given Biden’s pro-union history, could some of these proposals actually happen?
As long as the filibuster is in place, it’s hard to imagine any legislation along these lines passing the Senate — though there are some intermediate steps he might be able to take, like allowing individual states to set up a sectoral bargaining system.
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