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Amazon union saga in Alabama spotlights ‘David versus Goliath nature’ of US labor laws


(NEW YORK) — It was dubbed a watershed moment for the withering organized labor movement when the first-ever union election at an Amazon warehouse took place last spring in Alabama.

Workers seeking collective bargaining rights at a fulfillment outpost of the e-commerce giant in Bessemer — a rural, predominantly Black suburb of Birmingham — garnered international headlines and even backing from the White House ahead of last year’s landmark vote.

Despite the high-profile support, hopes of forming Amazon’s first labor union were ultimately crushed last year when less than 16% of some 5,000 eligible workers voted in favor it, per the National Labor Relations Board’s tally.

The saga in the South, however, did not end there for the nation’s second-largest employer.

After objections alleging union-busting conduct from Amazon filed by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which sought to represent the workers, the NLRB ordered a do-over of the entire election.

Now, approximately a year since the first showdown, the NLRB is set to mail ballots out Friday for a second union vote at the same Bessemer Amazon facility. The rerun comes amid the backdrop of an American labor market still scarred by pandemic shocks, giving new leverage to workers, and in the wake of a tidal wave of workplace activism marked by strikes and collective actions at major companies from John Deere to Starbucks.

With all eyes back on Bessemer, here is what some economists and workers say the failed first unionizing attempt reveals about the climate of labor in the U.S., and the implications this could carry for the second vote.

“Our employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union, and they overwhelmingly chose not to join the RWDSU last year,” Amazon spokeswoman Barbara Agrait told ABC News in a statement. “We look forward to our team in BHM1 having their voices heard again.”

First vote ‘revealed the David versus Goliath nature of our labor laws’

Economists and labor researchers say the tossed-out results of the first union election at Amazon in Alabama is indicative of the uphill battle workers face in trying to form a union under current labor laws, despite the vocal support from lawmakers, and the power employers have in potentially influencing the vote.

“The first election in Bessemer was very revealing of how the odds are stacked up against workers trying to organize in this country, and particularly in a place like Amazon,” Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution whose research focuses on the present and future of work, especially for low-wage workers, told ABC News. She referenced how the NLRB ultimately found Amazon’s actions during the first vote may have influenced the results and thus ordered the do-over.

“The big sort of takeaway from that first experience in Bessemer was, yes, there was a lot of attention and excitement and this thought that if this worked, it would be this massive victory for labor, and ultimately it wasn’t successful,” Kinder said. “I think it opened up a lot of people’s eyes to just how imbalanced our labor laws are in this country.”

“It sort of revealed the David versus Goliath nature of our labor laws,” Kinder added. “We don’t have an even playing field in this country for workers who are trying to organize.”

Data similarly indicates a gulf between the growing number of Americans who support labor unions and dwindling rates of membership.

A majority of Americans approve of labor unions (68%), according to Gallup data released last September, marking the highest support levels for unions in nearly 60 years. Union membership, meanwhile, has fallen sharply over the past few decades. Just 10.3% of workers belonged to a union in 2021, per Bureau of Labor Statistics data, approximately half the 20.1% figure seen the first year data was collected in 1983.

“A major reason why you have this huge gap between support for unions and actual participation in unions is that the United States makes it extremely hard for workers to form a union,” Kinder said. “That interest in unions or desire for a union often dissipates because the obstacles to actually form one are just so great, and the playing field is so tipped in favor of the employer versus the worker when it comes to forming a union.”

Alex Colvin, dean of Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, told ABC News that this divide between workers wanting unions yet not joining them is referred to as “the representation gap.”

“The reality is we do not see workers who want representation being able to get it, and it’s really striking,” Colvin said. “There’s nowhere where you see such a big difference as you do in the United States in those numbers.”

“What I think it says is that our current labor law system isn’t functioning effectively,” Colvin added.

Rather than lending support via Twitter or hosting rallies, Colvin said the best thing lawmakers can do to support workers seeking to unionize is changing the laws so that it isn’t so difficult for them to create a union — such as putting in more protections for workers trying to organize and stiffer penalties for employers that attempt to influence the vote.

“The most important thing would be if there was passage of labor law reform,” Colvin said. “That would be the thing that would have the biggest impact.”

Brooking’s Kinder added that sputtering labor law reform has emerged as the major stumbling block impeding the post-pandemic labor movement from translating into long-term change for workers.

“We’ve heard a lot in the news about stories like the Starbucks workers in Buffalo, or workers going on strike, or workers quitting, and so there’s been a lot of sorts of unrest and quitting and workers dissatisfied, but it hasn’t necessarily been harnessed into longer-term change through more union membership,” she added. “A lot of that is because of our labor laws.”

‘There’s a really important element of racial justice in here’: Spotlight back on Bessemer

As the central Alabama community found itself at the center of a national labor movement showdown, some activists say out-of-town politicians and union organizers may have lost touch with day-to-day realities faced by the workers they sought to support.

Some 72.4% of Bessemer’s 26,000 residents are Black, according to Census data, and more than 25% of Bessemer’s population lives in poverty. The decadeslong decline of the mining and steel industry that historically built Bessemer’s economy evaporated jobs for many local laborers and their children and grandchildren. When Amazon brought its first Alabama fulfillment center to Bessemer in 2018, it was touted by one local business leader as “a big win for the Birmingham region,” because of its promise to bring thousands of well-paying jobs with benefits starting on day one.

With the federal minimum wage — and Alabama’s — unchanged for decades at $7.25 per hour, Amazon’s starting pay of at least $15 an hour makes it a relatively lucrative option for many.

Labor activist Chris Smalls, a former Amazon worker who is spearheading efforts to unionize at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, told ABC News that he visited Bessemer to lend his support last year and witnessed how local labor market conditions apparently left workers feeling like they have little power in the jobs market.

“I’ve seen how decimated that city was down there; it was like a time warp back into the 1950s,” Smalls said of the economy in Bessemer. “There’s nothing down there but major corporations like Walmart, Amazon, like Dollar General, but other than that these workers have nowhere else to turn [for jobs].”

Smalls added that the state’s historically unfriendly attitude toward labor also meant many of the workers he spoke to in Alabama were unfamiliar with how a union works or could benefit them, especially in an area where good job opportunities felt sparse.

Smalls, who is Black, sees unionizing Amazon’s workers as a racial justice issue both in the South, where Black workers have historically been oppressed by anti-labor policies, and at Amazon facilities in predominantly Black and Brown communities across the country.

“Black and brown workers make up the majority of these facilities no matter where they’re at,” Smalls said. “Amazon sets up shop specifically in these neighborhoods, just to hire from these communities.”

One area where labor activists may have made a misstep last year, according to Smalls, is by losing sight of the needs and hopes of the workers on the ground in Bessemer. He thinks this may have contributed in part to the dismal local turnout and support during last year’s union election.

“It’s the workers that are the most important thing. If you lose sight of the workers and drown out the workers’ stories and their voices and politicize it, that doesn’t help at all,” Smalls told ABC News.

“Bringing politicians into it, I don’t care if it’s Bernie Sanders or the president, that’s not going to resonate with the workers,” he said of the national messages of support. “You’ve got to be there on the ground, you’ve got to connect with them. You’ve got to build your own relationship and trust with them.”

Research from Kinder and her colleagues at Brookings back up Smalls’ sentiments.

“Amazon’s workforce is disproportionately Black,” Kinder told ABC News. “The percentages of Amazon’s workforce that’s Black is about twice what you find in the economy overall, and in Bessemer, you know, upwards of 85% of Amazon employees are Black.”

“There’s a really important element of racial justice in here,” she said. “When you take a step back and you think about Amazon, I mean very few companies have had the kind of financial success and in a pandemic that Amazon has had.”

Pointing to their skyrocketing profits and stock prices, Kinder said the company has created billions of dollars in wealth for its shareholders, but most of this has gone not to the Black and brown workers who contributed to this financial success during a pandemic but to the often wealthier, whiter shareholders. Income inequality at Amazon was also put under a harsh spotlight last summer when founder Jeff Bezos, then the world’s wealthiest man, took a trip to the edge of space via his own private company Blue Origin — and then thanked Amazon workers for paying for it.

Cornell’s Colvin added that more so than national attention, local labor market conditions play a major factor in unionization efforts. While factors at the national level — including struggles of major companies to find staff and record-high levels of workers quitting their jobs — may have given workers an upper hand at negotiating with employees elsewhere, this momentum doesn’t mean much to those in Bessemer if local conditions are not improving.

“There’s certainly a strong national labor market, but it’s what your actual day-to-day local terms are that matters,” Colvin said.

“The local labor market condition and the relative attractiveness of the Amazon jobs is something that you have to take into account and that’s, to be honest, something that goes into location decisions,” he said. “There’s a reason that non-American auto companies locating plants in the United States tend to be located in areas like Bessemer, in places that are low unionization generally.”

‘A change, it’s coming’: Excitement builds for 2nd vote

Colvin told ABC News that there is some precedent for the NLRB ordering do-overs for union elections, but that historically second votes have not had as high success rates as first votes.

Kinder added that Amazon’s famously high turnover rate could have some impact on the second election, telling ABC News, “I think it could go either way.”

“There is an opportunity for some new people who might not have voted for the union in the last election that might now do it now,” she said. “But it also means that the work of organizers to try to organize support for the union is also challenged because turnover is so high. Frankly, I think it’s a little unpredictable.”

The voter list this time around is 6,143 workers, according to the RWDSU, which estimates more than half of the workers remain from the invalidated vote.

Kristina Bell, an Amazon worker at the Bessemer facility who is supporting the union drive, said during a press conference organized by the RWDSU that she feels the exuberance among workers is different this time around.

“A lot of people went through the first election and is still there and they understand that nothing has changed,” Bell said. “The loss was a blessing — that loss making us motivated to win even more.”

Bell added that a lot of younger employees didn’t vote the first time around, saying, “A lot of young people didn’t understand the importance of the union.”

“But after we lost that vote, you know how many people said, ‘I should have voted?"” she added. “It’s a lot of mind-changing, they went home and talked to their parents and their grandparents. … They come to me and I tell them, ‘Get educated, talk to your family."”

“My community is excited and I’m from Bessemer, born and raised,” Bell said. “A change, it’s coming.”

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