How Amazon Workers’ Union Fight Could Ripple Across Retail

Amazon.com Inc. has won its high-profile battle against labor organizers who were seeking to establish the company’s first unionized warehouse in the United States. But experts suggest that the organized labor movement could ripple across the retail sector and beyond.

Today, the National Labor Relations Board, which finished counting all votes that weren’t challenged by either side, reported that workers at the Bessemer, Ala., facility voted 1,798 to 738 against the effort. To defeat the union, Amazon needed 1,608 votes, or just over 50% of the 3,215 mail-in ballots that were submitted. (The results still need formal certification.)

The Bessemer station employs less than 1% of the approximately 950,000 Amazon employees in the country, but the vote marked a pivotal moment for the e-commerce behemoth, which has drawn criticism for its alleged shortfalls in handling the COVID-19 health crisis within its workforce.

According to experts, a win could have spurred more employees to seek bargaining power in the challenged U.S. economy, whose unionization rate for private-sector workers was at just 6.3% last year. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data reflected the net effect of declines in both the number of union members and the steep drop in employment.) The loss, however, could weaken labor movement in the future, which experts suggest could contribute to rising economic inequality.

“It’s going to be very discouraging for other workers to go through the effort of unionizing,” said Brian Ehrig, partner in the consumer practice of global strategy and management consulting firm Kearney. “[Had they been successful,] it would be pretty logical that others would look at this to see what it would take to get this over the finish line and apply some pressure on companies, whether to actually unionize or use it as an opportunity to increase their wages and benefits or make [their environment] a better place to work.”

In February, Amazon was sued by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who claimed that it “repeatedly and persistently failed” to protect workers and accused it of retaliating against employees who voiced concerns over what they perceived were inadequate safety measures.

The complaint, filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, noted several alleged incidents at the Seattle-based retailer’s fulfillment center on Staten Island and delivery station in Queens: Last June, the company was hit with a lawsuit by employees in the Staten Island facility. At the time, the workers argued that the retailer’s automated time-tracking system “[discouraged] workers from leaving their workstations to wash their hands and from taking the time to wipe down their workstations” and “[impeded] social distancing.” The filing also showed that at least 44 workers at the Staten Island warehouse had contracted COVID-19, and at least one worker had died.

What’s more, James pointed out Amazon’s alleged response to employees who have publicly criticized working conditions at its plants. Staten Island warehouse worker Christian Smalls organized a protest about purportedly unsafe practices at the warehouse in March and was fired by the company. (At the time, Amazon said Smalls was terminated because he violated company policy by ignoring 14-day quarantine rules after he had been exposed to coronavirus.) Smalls ultimately filed a class action lawsuit against the company in mid-November.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, individuals have the right to join and form unions. However, some experts say workers have been discouraged from unionizing for fear of retaliation. For example, in 2005, Walmart shut down a store in Quebec, Canada, where roughly 200 workers were close to winning a union contract.

“The reason that they haven’t been very successful over decades is because these big corporations with unlimited tactics and unlimited funds hire union-busting law firms to intimidate and delay and postpone elections if the union is voted on by the workers,” explained Sylvia Allegretto, co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California, Berkeley.

But recent government actions have given some fuel to pro-union advocates. Last month, President Joe Biden introduced the Protecting the Right to Organize (or PRO) Act of 2021 — a labor-reform bill intended to make it easier for employees to “collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions.” The pro-union policy was passed by the House of Representatives a year after the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed how much of Americans’ daily lives depend on essential workers like retail associates and warehouse employees.

“The way you counterveil the extreme inequality of power that exists between workers and their employers is through the power of collective voice,” Allegretto said. “The pandemic has exposed all of these problems that have existed for many decades in the labor market, and I think people are finally seeing the larger picture.”

Ultimately, Ehrig said, “Companies need to take this opportunity to look at how their employees feel about them with the same level of energy that they look at how their consumers feel about them. I really do think that this is a big signal and should be a pretty big wake-up call for the industry.”

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