Thanks to unions, we have weekends, lunch breaks, 40-hour workweeks, paid vacations, sick leave and more. We can even thank union support for child labor laws. Now, in an election open to nearly 6,000 employees at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, 55% of the workers turned out to vote in a historic ballot: It could lead to the first-ever union at Amazon.
At their peak in 1954, almost 35% of all U.S. workers belonged to unions. Now, that number is at 12%. Why have so many workers abandoned this type of organization? There are many reasons, but sometimes, employers may use harsh tactics to break up unions or stop their employees from joining. And that’s what’s happening at Amazon‘s Alabama hub.
“Do it Without the Dues.”
Amazon has taken an anti-union stance throughout the process. The company has reportedly sent anti-union texts to workers’ personal cellphones and posted signs and flyers with slogans like “Do it Without the Dues.” The tech giant has already challenged hundreds of ballots in an effort to delay the results. Depending on the vote’s outcome, other legal challenges or objections could further delay the official results.
Leading up to the push for unions
Amazon’s sales skyrocketed during the pandemic, increasing profit by billions and solidifying Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest man. Meanwhile, warehouse workers received $2/hour more as hazard pay, but that lasted about three months until it lapsed last June. Some of the biggest criticism toward Amazon came after they fired warehouse workers who spoke out about insufficient or inconsistent warehouse safety measures. The attorney general in New York even sued Amazon in February 2020 for their inadequate pandemic protocols and for the alleged unlawful firing of Christian Smalls, a former assistant manager who protested working conditions.
Bessemer working conditions
In Bessemer, pro-union workers are fighting for clearer break policies and better job security. Amazon offers a 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks for those who work 10-hour shifts, but some say they’re still exhausted. Employees have said they walk upward of 10 miles a day around the warehouse. Plus, increased demand means stricter productivity tracking: Taking the allotted breaks could put them behind in orders, leading to punishment. Anti-union workers don’t want to get a third party involved, preferring to deal with managers directly and avoid paying dues out of their own pockets.
Today, union membership is low, with a majority of members being in the public sector – city employees, government workers, teachers and police. But if the union vote in Bessemer passes, it could set a huge precedent for labor across America. Amazon is the second-largest employer in the country, with a footprint in all 50 states, so a “yes” vote in Alabama could lead to “yeses” everywhere, possibly spiking union numbers back up to 1950s levels.
Despite labor unions’ continued influence on politics, research has shown that the decline of union membership may be tied to rising income inequality. Could the Bessemer vote turn things around?