The Fight to Unionize an Amazon Warehouse

Listen to this episode

S1: When you buy something on Amazon, do you think a lot about what happens next?

S2: Yeah, but that’s probably an occupational hazard.

S3: Jay Green covers Amazon for The Washington Post.

S2: I mean, I do think about it because I’ve been to these warehouses and these distribution centers. But I you know, if you were to ask me if my neighbors thought about it, I could almost guarantee you the answer is no.

S3: When Jay CLECs add to CART, he knows all too well the staggering logistical effort it’s going to take to deliver him whatever he’s ordered, like magic. He knows about the software that figures out how his items are going to get boxed up and sent off. And he knows about the people who are going to do the boxing up on his behalf, chasing them at work.

Advertisement

S2: What is it like inside one of these warehouses? Oh, it’s a hive of they’re pretty big. They’re massive. And, you know, at any given moment, there are more than a thousand workers stowing items as they come in to the warehouse, picking them as people’s orders come in, boxing them up and putting them on trucks.

S1: Jay also knows the workers in these hives are alarmingly efficient. That’s because Amazon’s tracking every employee minute by minute, using these handheld computers workers, have they compile their orders and that efficiency, it’s called making. Right. It’s got a cost.

S2: If you don’t hit your rate, it can affect your ability to move up at the at the plant, at the warehouse. It can affect your pay some into some measure or at least you know how much you might get a raise or not. Honestly, one of the complaints is honestly using the bathroom. You know, a lot of workers will talk about how the bathrooms are far enough away that, you know, heeding the call of nature can actually eat into your productivity. And these workers are measured on their productivity by now.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: These stories are familiar. Journalists like GAO have documented the grueling realities of Amazon’s warehouses for years. The funny thing is all that reporting has done very little to alter the hunger that the rest of us have for stuff. And during the pandemic, that hunger has only grown.

S2: That’s exactly right. In fact, Amazon has added in the first nine months of last year, it added 400000 employees. It dramatically ramped up and it wasn’t just even adding employees. Well, that certainly is true. I mean, it added new buildings. It added new airplanes to deliver goods. It took advantage of a down market to expand rapidly.

S4: The Amazon Fulfillment Center opened its brand new facility in Bessemer not even a year ago. And already employees are unhappy.

Advertisement

S1: But one of Amazon’s newest warehouses is where their push for efficiency at all costs has just hit a snag.

S4: Now the fulfillment centers, five thousand employees are going to start voting by mail today to potentially form the first workers union for Amazon employees in the nation.

S1: Do you think when Amazon opened a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, they anticipated what would happen next?

S2: No, no, I don’t think Amazon thought about it at all. They have not had a union vote at a warehouse in more than six years, so, no, I can’t imagine they thought this was going to happen at all.

S3: Today on the show, can a warehouse in Alabama be the unionization tipping point for Amazon? A Mary Harris you’re listening to, what next? Stick with us.

Advertisement

S1: I’m wondering if you can tell me the story of how Amazon ended up opening a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, because it just opened. Right?

Advertisement

S2: It opened in March of last year. And, you know, I think a lot of this actually has to do with the pandemic. And as I mentioned, you know, when the pandemic hit, the speed with which Amazon moved to open warehouses just was dialed up early in the pandemic, it may be hard to remember, but Amazon was having a ton of difficulty meeting the demand for its services. And so one of the things it did was to open up these warehouses that had been on sort of a long list of of of places that would open. And so Bessemer was among those those facilities that was opened very quickly at the start of the pandemic to to meet that need.

Advertisement

S1: Alabama doesn’t seem like the place that would inspire a labor movement for Amazon’s warehouse workers. Workers here are less likely to be in a union than in other states. And Alabama is a right to work state. That means workers don’t actually have to join the union or pay dues if they don’t want to.

S2: That weakens unions in the long term, but says it could actually work in the organizers favor during this Amazon vote, if the union can convey that these workers that Amazon won’t take their their pay won’t take a chunk of their pay from their paychecks, as if a union comes in place, which is the very definition of a right to work state, it might actually be easier for the union to convince these folks to to join. Right.

Advertisement

S1: In other words, you get collective action for free, correct? I think it’s worth talking about who the workers are at this warehouse, because my understanding is that they are majority black. A lot of them are women. And that also the union that they’re working with, Retail Workers Union, it has been very involved in civil rights action. And so that seems to be a big part of what’s happening in Bessemer.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah, I think that’s fair. The Amazon won’t disclose the actual percentage of workers who are people of color, but the union says at least 80 percent of of the workers in the warehouse are black. And they have framed it as much as a civil rights issue as it is a labor rights one. And they talk about issues of respect and dignity. You know, Amazon actually pays pretty well for the region. It starts workers a little over fifteen dollars an hour. The minimum wage in Alabama is a little over seven bucks an hour, seven twenty five an hour, which is the federal minimum wage. And so when I’ve talked with workers about why they’re engaged in this fight, I mean, some certainly say we’d like to have more money. But a lot of it is about some of the issues we talked about before, which is, you know, the the you know, the ability to use the bathroom without having to worry that they might get docked some sort of pay or at least not have the ability to rise in the organization if they just aren’t working as quickly as Amazon requires. It sounds like issues of respect. That’s exactly what it is. And you hear that that word over and over again with a lot of these workers.

Advertisement

S3: So walk me through the timeline here. My understanding is that in November, the workers notified the National Labor Relations Board that they wanted to move forward. Is that right?

S2: Yeah, that’s right. So they notified the NLRB that they wanted to hold an election and filed paperwork to do that. Amazon then had to reply to that. And Amazon’s initial reply was that they didn’t think the workers had had signed enough cards. Typically, they’re supposed to have about 30 percent of the bargaining unit signing cards saying that they want to be wanted to be represented by the union. Amazon also said it wanted to have an election well after Christmas and actually wanted to have the hearing well after Christmas, because the Christmas rush is obviously important to Amazon. And so they wanted to delay and extend. The NLRB basically denied that in December. The NLRB heard the case in January. It said the vote was going to begin on February 8th. And the NLRB also decided that the vote was going to be a mail in process, which is common now in the pandemic era, but prior to the pandemic was quite uncommon. And so that process now started on Monday, February 8th. And it’s a seven week process in which ballots will be sent to the five thousand eight hundred and five people who are part of the bargaining unit that the NLRB determined. And they have seven weeks to return those ballots.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You can hear how Amazon. Has just been really resisting every step along the way here, trying to delay votes, trying to say, you know, you don’t have enough signatures here, not enough cards, can you just take me inside what it was like in the warehouse as Amazon tried to convince workers voting for a union wasn’t the way to go?

S2: Yeah, sure. The and with some of these workers, too, I haven’t actually been in the warehouse. Amazon’s not letting reporters in, to my knowledge right now. But the workers tell me is they’ve been barraged with text messages and emails like how many text messages? One worker told me they’re getting as many as five a day, five a day saying what they’re saying, basically, you know, stick with the winning team. That’s a direct quote. You know, they want the workers to reject the union and they’re and they’re saying it. And I think a fairly saccharine way. You know, we’re great together. The they have flyers all over the warehouse, including in the bathrooms. And so when you go into the bathroom and to have a moment of privacy and you close the bathroom stall on the back side of the door of the bathroom stall is a flyer that discourages joining the union and the messages about, you know, not letting you know that not paying dues. And it says, where will your dues go? Which is sort of an interesting message you put inside of a bathroom stall. And then they also have engaged in what is a fairly common practice. But it is referred to in the in the parlance of union fights as a captive audience sessions. And and really what it is, is workers are required, mandated to sit through these meetings, which can be a half an hour or even longer, where they get a PowerPoint presentation or a video or whatnot, essentially discouraging them from joining the union. You know, for a company that cares a whole lot about productivity, they hit to productivity in pulling workers into these sessions has got to be not insignificant.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: GAO says it’s not just Amazon’s PR campaign that’s working against the push to unionize. Some employees just don’t see the need for collective bargaining. They’re loyal and they know their wages and benefits are better than average. Jay spoke to some of these workers who worried that an intermediary would just get in the way.

S2: Karl actually had been a union member in a previous job. She was a seventh and eighth grade science teacher and she was supportive of the union in this job. She’s not. And there are a couple of reasons. I think the first one is, is a very personal experience for Carla. She early on in the job two months after she started, she had a seizure at work and she was taken to the hospital and it turned out she had brain cancer. And she as a worker, she had three and a half months leave while she underwent surgery and treatments. And she’s now cancer free. But the bills were over one hundred thousand dollars and Amazon’s health insurance covered most of that. And so she felt like, you know, she didn’t need a union because Amazon was treating her well and she worried that the union would get in between her and her managers and those moments where she really wanted to communicate with the company. And so for her, the union seems like an impediment rather than something that would help her out.

Advertisement

S1: Ideally, how would the warehouse change tomorrow if the union was bargaining?

S2: Well, if the union was bargaining prior to a contract, Lord knows. I mean, I think you could anticipate many of the same sort of tactics you’re seeing currently to try to discourage folks from supporting the union. But the moment they have a contract, there are a number of things that could change. I think one of them that the union would certainly press are the issues of of productivity at a warehouse. Those little handheld computers I mentioned, they they record what is known as rate and rate in an Amazon warehouse is the speed with which you do your job and you have to hit a certain number. If you’re picking packages, if you’re stowing packages for your pocket, boxing packages. And that’s always been an issue for the workers in Amazon warehouses across the world. And so if a union could negotiate rate, that would be a huge, huge difference. And I think that’s probably the biggest one. You know, you might also see things like negotiations over what the workers like to call hazard pay. But the pandemic Amazon gave a bonus at the start to workers of two dollars an hour, and they rolled that back in June. I’m certain workers at the facility would welcome a two dollar an hour raise, particularly during the pandemic, and as we’ve seen in recent months, you know, the the rate of infection and illness is is growing and is higher than it was when, you know, at the start of the pandemic. And yet Amazon hasn’t restored that bonus pay. And so I think you might see some of that as well.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: One thing I’ve been trying to puzzle out is that Amazon workers have been talking about unionizing for a long time. You know, this spring, Amazon workers in Staten Island, we’re talking about unionizing there. There was a sickout. But it didn’t happen, and in fact, one of the most outspoken workers was fired, so I just wonder what’s different about Bessemer, like what’s different this time?

S2: In my mind, it’s hard to underestimate the impact of the pandemic, Amazon has opened very, very quickly at these warehouses across the country, its hired workers at an astonishingly fast rate. It’s those workers are working as hard as you could imagine because more and more people are shopping from home and they’re doing it while their their lives and their health is under threat because of the pandemic. And I think all of those things have sort of come together to create this this situation where a union might be able to take hold in a way it wouldn’t of a year ago.

S3: When we come back, pretty soon Amazon is going to have to decide just how antiunion they want to be.

S1: So voting is going to be happening for weeks, when are we going to know what happened?

S2: So the balloting ends at the end of March and then there will be a count. And again, because we live in pandemic times, the count will actually be broadcast via Zoome by the NLRB and Amazon’s lawyers and the union’s lawyers will watch it.

S1: They’re literally going to count one by one.

S2: That is my understanding. Yeah, wow. Because both Amazon and the union have the right to challenge ballots. You know, you could imagine an Amazon lawyer saying that signature isn’t clear or there’s no signature on that envelope. Throw it out.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: This vote is happening is Amazon is going through big changes as a company. Jeff Bezos is stepping back from his day to day management role. The European Union has brought antitrust charges against Amazon and the U.S. is investigating to.

S2: The one thing you certainly do see, and it started last week, is that there are a number of members of Congress who have sent letters to to Jeff Bezos and to his successor, Andy Jassy, to say, we’re keeping an eye on this. And it isn’t so much that this is an antitrust issue because it doesn’t appear to be. But the displeasure that some of the members of Congress have had with Amazon over its its engagement with the antitrust committees and also some of its actions that many, many of the members of Congress, Congress believe are anti-competitive, those concerns spill over into this as well. And so, you know, you’ll see senators like Cory Booker and and others and you’ll see Bernie Sanders and you’ll see representatives. I spoke with Andy Levin of Michigan, who’s been long a supporter of labor in this country. And they’ve sent letters to business to basically say, we have an eye on you. You better let these workers do what they want to do. You shouldn’t stand in the way of their efforts to unionize, if that’s what they want. And so that’s sort of the way I think you see that playing out. Amazon is aggressively fighting this. I don’t know where things go from here. I think their big fear is that this will expand beyond. And so, you know, it’s an interesting sort of political calculus to to sort of decide how aggressively you stop this union drive in, Bessemer. But also, if you go to aggressively, maybe you alienate customers and invite Congress and others to to elevate the status of this drive.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah, but I guess I can hear what you’re. Thinking a little bit there, which is you’re seeing some support for this union, you know, you see Bernie Sanders sending folks pizza when they have a rally, stuff like that. But you’re seeing that Amazon has so much skin in the game here and is willing to really fight. And it sounds like that’s giving you some pause for thinking about what happens next.

S2: I guess I’m curious to see how much how much more volatile it can get. And I just don’t know the answer to that. You know, Amazon certainly is fighting vigorously to keep this union out of this warehouse. But if the union wins, you should absolutely expect other warehouses to start organizing drives as well. And it may even be starting already. I have not heard of others, but it wouldn’t surprise me that members in warehouses and other parts of the country are going to school on this. And I think the calculus that Amazon has to figure out is how aggressively do they work to shut this down? And if, you know, in doing so, does it shut down efforts elsewhere or does it encourage efforts elsewhere? And I honestly don’t know how they’re thinking inside the company about that.

S5: Jay Green, thank you so much for joining me, Mary. It’s great to be here. Thank you. Jay Green covers Amazon for The Washington Post. And I should add, The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos. Here’s what he had to say when I asked him about that.

S2: I always say what I do is my job and there’s a mandate for me to do it with accuracy, with clarity. You know, my goal is to cover Amazon the way my colleagues cover Apple or Google or the Pentagon or the White House, and that is without fear or favor. And I’ve been able to do that since I’ve been here and have never once had anyone tell me not to.

S5: All right. That’s the show. What Next is produced by David Land, Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Delana Schwartz. Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt are our big bosses. Stay tuned to this feed because tomorrow Lizzie O’Leary will be here with what next TBD. That’s our Friday show. We are taking the long weekend, so I will be back here on Tuesday.