Amazon’s defeat of a union in Bessemer, Ala., is the latest in a string of victories for Big Tech companies over labor that may force groups to rethink their organizing efforts.
The wide margin of victory, which is expected to be challenged by the union, has dealt a setback to organizers who had hoped a win in Alabama would galvanize similar efforts elsewhere.
As the wins for tech companies add up, future labor efforts may have to consider alternative strategies and even look to Washington for help.
The resounding win for Amazon — by a margin of 1,798 votes to 738 — underscores the challenges unions face going forward.
“Amazon certainly has a lot of strength,” said Alexander Colvin, dean of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “It's a large company with a lot of resources, but actually a lot of what went on is pretty typical of what we see in organizing campaigns in other industries.”
The online retail giant devoted significant resources as it appealed to the nearly 6,000 employees at the warehouse in the form of posters, meetings, snacks and an avalanche of text messages.
Amazon’s winning strategy came on the heels of a successful campaign by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Postmates to pass Prop 22 to create a carveout for gig workers in California labor laws last fall.
The companies funneled over $200 million into advertising, texts and mailers, ultimately overwhelming $20 million in opposition from labor groups en route to a double digit percentage point win.
The back-to-back wins are signs that organizers may need to try new strategies in their efforts to increase worker power.
One of those potential strategies is already being trialed at Alphabet, Google’s parent company.
The Alphabet Workers’ Union (AWU) is organized as a minority union, meaning they are not seeking traditional recognition from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), bypassing the need for an election.
The AWU launched with roughly 230 members earlier this year, gaining a couple hundred in the days after going public.
Despite not having collective bargaining power, the group was involved with getting Google and its contractor Modis to post notices about worker rights at a data center in South Carolina, and last week it launched a petition calling for the company to bar employees who have harassment claims against them from managing others.
Susan Schurman, a labor studies professor at Rutgers, told The Hill that workers at the Bessemer warehouse could pursue a similar strategy.
Even if the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union were successful in its challenge to last week’s election count, she said, it would still have to devote resources to another election that may fall short again.
“Why not take the same energy and resources and put it into building a union at the site and recruiting members to the union as opposed to asking people to vote in an election,” she said.
Less traditional worker groups have already been formed at several other Amazon facilities, like Amazonians United New York City and Chicagoland, that have successfully fought for increased protections.
Labor advocates also see a role for Congress to play.
The PRO Act, which made its way through the House last month but is unlikely to garner enough GOP support in the Senate, could address many of the concerns critics had with the election in Bessemer.
For example, if the legislation had been enacted before the Alabama vote, Amazon would not have been able to require attendance at meetings during work hours where they criticized the union, the union’s proposed smaller bargaining unit would have been accepted and the union would have been guaranteed a first contract in the case of a victory. It also would expand the NLRB’s authority to dole out penalties for labor law violations.
Although the Biden administration can make some changes without Congress, such changes would likely prove insufficient absent the PRO Act, according to Schurman.
“There will be a change in composition at the National Labor Relations Board in a direction that somewhat levels the playing field, and I say somewhat because the fact of the matter is the National Labor Relations Act and the rules and regulations that fall under it just heavily favor employers,” she said. “That only gets changed with the change in the law.”
While Congress debates the legislation, workers and unions are expected to continue pushing for stronger worker protections at tech companies, whether that process includes the NLRB or not.
“Workers in Bessemer have just widened the path for all of us,” said Clarissa Redwine, an organizer who helped unionize Kickstarter and is now a fellow at New York University. “What we need now is to remember the outlandish union busting tactics employed by Amazon and organize for stronger labor legislation like the PRO Act to give future workers a fighting chance.”