For the past twenty-seven years, Amazon has successfully avoided its workers unionizing. Amazon has grown from an online bookstore to a 5 trillion-dollar empire in under thirty years; however, this growth rate has largely been at the expense of its workers. Amazon has consistently been listed as one of the worst companies to work for, with overwhelming evidence of sub-standard working conditions within public media. Today, Amazon employs roughly 1.3 million workers and possesses just over 150% turnover rate. However, while Amazon may have an extensive history of union-busting, there may be change on the horizon.
For many years, Naomi Soldon, a labor and employment law attorney, has watched Amazon’s battle against unions with great interest and concern. As a Partner at Soldon McCoy, Naomi Soldon has helped many groups successfully unionize and understands the many challenges currently facing Amazon warehouse workers. Naomi Soldon stresses the importance of Amazon’s potential unionization as a historic case in labor law, and for this reason, we will review Amazon’s history with unions and the company’s most recent cases of unionization.
Roughly five years ago, Amazon warehouse employees in east-central Virginia discovered a notice in the break room with a surprising declaration. Amazon’s notice to workers listed 22 forms of behaviors that it promised never to commit, including threatening workers with the loss of their job if they are union supporters, interrogating potential union supporters, or engaging in the surveillance of union activities. This list was posted after the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers accused Amazon of wrongfully intimidating workers during the push for unionization at a warehouse in Chester, Virginia. Although Amazon did not admit to violating any labor laws, it did promise to tell workers that the company would rigorously obey the labor laws protecting unions in the future. However, this would not be the only time Amazon would be accused of union-busting behavior.
Amazon has used a variety of anti-union tactics in the past to stop unionization at its 175 fulfillment centers. Some of these tactics have included:
- Tracking workplace unrest: One of Amazon’s most notable anti-union tactics has been tracking workplace unrest with video surveillance. However, recently, CNBC published an article showcasing an Amazon job listing for two intelligence analysts to monitor labor organizing threats and report their findings to internal stakeholders and executive leadership.
- Anti Union Videos: Recently, Amazon’s anti-union tactics have been featured on John Oliver’s popular show Last Week Tonight. Within the video they show Amazon’s videos designed to emphasize the company’s position on union organizing and the many downsides of unionizing.
When COVID-19 first came to the United States, many Americans turned to Amazon in order to safely purchase essentials while quarantining from the pandemic. Amazon reported 110.81 billion dollars in the third quarter of 2020, thanks to the large increase in the number of Amazon orders. However, during this time, Amazon’s relationship with its workers became more strained thanks to poor social distancing within the warehouses and the increased number of orders. The pandemic also affected Amazon workers’ ability to find other work when frustrated within their current position. This led to many Amazon workers reconsidering their position on unionizing, and in 2021 Amazon faced one of the largest union votes in company history at its warehouse location in Bessemer, Alabama. The vote attracted national attention in April as Amazon workers voted more than 2 to 1 against unionizing. However, recently a federal labor official has accused Amazon of using anti-union tactics to taint the election last spring, and is recommending a redo of the unionization vote.
For many years, Amazon has voiced its anti-union sentiments to its workers and often stated that being in a unionwould cost workers more and only serve to limit direct communication between managers and workers. However, many experts believe that Amazon views unionization as a threat to warehouse technological innovations in the future. For many years, Jeff Bezos has been candid about his intentions to replace his workforce with machines as a major cost-cutting initiative. Unions could potentially require Amazon to incur increased costs for employee wages when it prefers to simply hire temporary, seasonal on-call employees. As Amazon relies heavily on its ability to hire and fire workers to meet demand, a union would likely require Amazon to provide some stable work hours for employees and it would try to limit the number of lay-offs as well as seasonal or temporary workers hired.
In addition to Alabama, one of Amazon’s most active facilities, a Staten Island warehouse cluster, is also seeking to unionize. After a walkout and protest in March 2020 and a failed union vote, the Staten Island group will be asking for another vote after alleging that Amazon interfered with its organizing efforts. When asked, the National Labor Relations Board said that these claims are not unfounded and that they will continue to investigate these claims while pursuing another union vote for the Staten Island workers.