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Friday, June 25, 2021

Explained: Why the Bessemer union vote is worrying for Amazon

With 1.3 million employees globally, Amazon is the world's second-largest private employer. However, Amazon has a long history of curtailing unionisation efforts in the United States.

Written by Nandni Mahajan , Edited by Explained Desk |
April 8, 2021 9:11:53 am
Amazon, Amazon workers union, Amazon union vote, Amazon unionization, Bessemer, Indian ExpressPeople protest in support of the unionizing efforts of the Alabama Amazon workers, in Los Angeles, California, US, March 22, 2021. (Reuters Photo: Lucy Nicholson)

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) said tallying of the more than 3,200 mail ballots were received by the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Amazon’s first-ever union election that concluded last Monday will start as early as Thursday afternoon.

The 5,200 eligible voters are workers in Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. A majority of these voters will have to vote ‘Yes’ in order to form a union. If the motion succeeds, Bessemer’s workers will have the option to be a part of the powerful RWDSU.

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With 1.3 million employees globally, Amazon is the world’s second-largest private employer. However, Amazon has a long history of curtailing unionisation efforts in the US, while it’s European employees are part of unions.

The stakes are extremely high for Amazon as Bessemer could set off a chain reaction across its operations in the country with more workers joining unions to demand better working conditions. Labor unions have seen declining memberships over decades thus labor advocates are hoping this would inspire workers beyond Amazon to form and join unions.

Why do Amazon workers want a union?

Amazon pays its employees in Alabama $15.30/h, over twice the state’s mandated minimum wage and healthcare benefits, but the reasons for unions are different. Employees have complained about Amazon’s unsafe working conditions and treatment of staff. A worker from Bessemer testified in a US state hearing, and described the conditions as ‘grueling’ and said workers are tracked all day and could be punished for taking more break time. Many delivery drivers have also reported urinating in plastic bottles due to lack of breaks.

Workers have complained about back breaking 10-hour workdays with only two 30-minute breaks that are insufficient when they are on their feet majority of the time. Workers have demanded that Amazon give more breaks, treat them with respect and backdown on their constant tracking of workers.

Business Insider reported that Amazon has long been tracking workers in their fulfilment centers to identify ‘potential hot spots’ for unionisation.

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How has Amazon responded?

Amazon has long reaffirmed that they care about their workers and have credible and ethical practices in place. It has been pressing workers to vote against the union.

At the same Senate hearing, another Bessemer worker testified that the company had hung huge anti-union signs throughout the Bessemer warehouse complex including bathroom stalls, while Amazon executives hold mandatory meetings and have created a website for employees on why unions are a bad idea.

Amongst other anti-union claims, Amazon’s campaign says workers will have to pay $500 a month in union fees each month, a number that is overly exaggerated. Alabama state laws allow workers to be part of unions and receive benefits without having to pay union dues.

Vox reported that the company is treating this as a crisis and is taking every step to prevent unionisation. Business Insider and Vox also reported that “Amazon has spent more than a decade preparing for a vote like the one happening in Bessemer.”

Amazon, Amazon workers union, Amazon union vote, Amazon unionization, Bessemer, Indian Express Michael Foster of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union holds a sign outside an Amazon facility where labor is trying to organize workers in Bessemer, Ala. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves, File)

Why is this happening now?

During the pandemic many workers felt betrayed by the treatment they received from their employers, Amazon workers held walkouts because they said they weren’t given protective gear and not informed when their co-workers tested positive for coronavirus.

The Black Lives Matter Movement that gained massive momentum in May 2020, has inspired workers to demand not only racial justice but to be treated with respect and dignity. According to organisers, majority workers in Bessemer are Black.

Labour organisations, workers rights unions and US politicians are amongst the few that have been pressuring calling out Amazon to improve working conditions and suspend widespread surveillance of its employees, meanwhile encouraging voters to unionise to meet their demands.

What happens next?

If the majority of the workers vote ‘Yes’ to the union, Amazon will have to start negotiating a contract with RWDSU, but Amazon can also delay the process through stalling deliberations and launching legal actions.

While a union in Bessemer does not mean a union win in other Amazon warehouses and Wholefoods stores, it will definitely set the precedent and inspire other workers to unionise. Even if the vote fails, such an attempt to unionise hasn’t been seen in Amazon’s history, thus it would continue to encourage labour organisations and other unions to crack Amazon.

Amazon, Amazon workers union, Amazon union vote, Amazon unionization, Bessemer, Indian Express A banner encouraging workers to vote in labor balloting is shown at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

When can we expect the results?

Voting began in early February and workers had to mail in their votes as well. Voting concluded last Monday and as the NLRB took over, they engage in an elaborate and exacting vote counting process. During the process both RWDSU and Amazon have the opportunity to contest votes on various grounds including the voter’s eligibility and even if the ballot was signed properly or not. Due to these factors, results might take days and even weeks.

Nandni Mahajan is an intern with indianexpress.com

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