Vice President, Labor Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
April 12, 2021
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on April 9 announced the results of a union representation election at Amazon’s distribution facility in Bessemer, Alabama, which had been widely anticipated by observers of labor policy. After tallying 3,051 ballots from approximately 5,876 eligible voters, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) emerged with 738 votes in favor of representation versus 1,798 against. There also were 505 challenged ballots, which the NLRB declined to review, given the wide margin of defeat for the union.
The lopsided 2:1 outcome rejecting the RWDSU represents another failure for organized labor in its longstanding effort to make inroads in the South, where union membership has historically been low. Predictably, union officials groused about their defeat and vowed to keep up their campaign against Amazon, which reportedly added 500,000 job opportunities around the world in 2020, over 400,000 of which were in the United States.
In what has become almost a tradition after a union loss, the RWDSU said that it would not take “no” for an answer and that it would challenge the election results in a bid to hold a new vote. One of the union’s complaints included the fact that the U.S. Postal Service apparently placed a mailbox in front of the Amazon facility, and the offending mailbox somehow sent a signal that Amazon was involved with running the election, which is a bit of a stretch to say the least. More realistically one might argue that since this was a mail-in ballot campaign, placing a mailbox at the place where voters work might have helped increase turnout.
For his part, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka accused Amazon of “systematic bullying and intimidation” of its Alabama employees and repeated his call for passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which presumably he thinks might have produced a different outcome.
One has to wonder why passage of the PRO Act might make such a difference. One reason could be that with that legislation, spurious claims about mailboxes or similar alleged “interference” could actually become the basis for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to overturn the election results and force the employer—in this case Amazon—to bargain with the union that had just lost. That does not sound very democratic, but at least the union would get what it wants. In a touch of irony, the PRO Act would also allow unions to request mail-in ballots whenever they want (not just in a pandemic), but that didn’t seem to work out well here.
Rather than continue to harass an employer after losing or pushing for lopsided legislation, union officials might do well to consider the thoughts of the Amazon employees they so desperately want to welcome into their ranks. Were they to do so, they might realize that the issue is not employer interference or that the system that has allowed workers the right to unionize since 1935 is somehow “broken.”
As one Amazon employee put it, “A lot of us are in agreement that we don’t need anybody there to speak for us and take our money.” Another employee echoed that sentiment saying, “Amazon is not perfect, there are flaws, but we are committed to correcting those flaws…. We just feel like we can do it without a union. Why pay a union to do something we can do ourselves?” Indeed.
Considering that Amazon pays its Alabama employees at least double the state (and national) minimum wage and provides health care and other benefits, it seems that the RWDSU could not answer those questions by showing what it had to offer. In business that is called a value proposition. If you cannot demonstrate it, lopsided legislation like the PRO Act won’t convince workers to vote for you.