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The Rise of Amazon Labor Movements

By Matthew H on December 1, 2023

In the past few decades, Amazon has truly become a household name. Promising expedient delivery and quality service, Amazon's 1,000+ fulfillment centers in the United States alone manages to ship out more than 3.5 million packages a day. Yet despite the care the multinational tech giant seems to give its consumers, employees of the company have been less than satisfied. In recent times, a significant movement has been gaining momentum as Amazon workers across the country have been pushing to unionize to improve working conditions and protect their rights.

During the onset of the pandemic, news of the union organizing drive in Bessemer, Alabama made national headlines as warehouse worker Jennifer Bates, along with many of her coworkers, began organizing to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). In the early months of their organizing, the movement garnered significant support, with many workers advocating for higher wages, job security, paid leave, and longer breaks. The events in Bessemer soon became the catalyst for one of the most consequential movements in contemporary labor history. Workers from the area took a pivotal step in November 2020 by contacting the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) once they had amassed over 2,000 signatures, signifying a substantial interest in holding a union election.

The next few months of 2020 passed in a chaotic frenzy as union organizers attempted to answer warehouse workers’ questions and assuage their fears of unspecified reprisals. An important thing to note is that this activity, specifically under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), is protected. As it reads verbatim: Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees "the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection," as well as the right "to refrain from any or all such activities." In attempting to organize into a union and advocate for better working conditions, these workers had fulfilled the conditions of Section 7: being employees, engaging in concerted (group) activities, for the purpose of mutual aid (better working conditions for said workers).

In response, Amazon retained the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and instituted captive audience meetings in which workers were discouraged from voting to unionize. Although the mail-in election came to a close in March of 2020 with the majority of the workers voting not to unionize (as is their right) with the vote being 1,798 to 738 not in favor, the RWDSU filed unfair labor practices against Amazon with the NLRB, stating that its management had actively tracked employees who voted, used security guards to intimidate voters, and surveilled the mailbox outside the warehouse’s parking lot in Bessemer. Under Section 8(a) of the NLRA, these actions, including “threatening employees with adverse consequences if they engage in protected, concerted activity,” are violations of the law.

In November 2021, the NLRB ordered a revote on the grounds of an August report which found that "a free and fair election was impossible" and that "possibility that the employer's misconduct influenced some of these 2,000 eligible voters.

Presently, the issue of unionizing is hotly debated even among Amazon employees themselves. The workers are not a monolithic group and although many express the desire for better working conditions, many others side with their employer. According to couple William and Lavonette Stokes who work at the Bessemer facility they are more than satisfied with the relatively high wages compared to other factory jobs and the healthcare insurance benefits Amazon provides from day one.

Although the union organizing drive in Bessemer did not succeed, a similar movement in Staten Island was successful as workers from an Amazon warehouse facility there formed the first Amazon Labor Union in April of 2021. The union, originally organized by employees Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer was a grassroots movement, organized by many current and former employees outside of the JFK8 warehouse. Smalls himself was fired in March 2020 for leading a walkout due to unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. Much like the situation in Bessemer, workers had filed complaints against Amazon for “flagrant unfair labor practices” including the deletion of social messaging posts attempting to encourage workers to vote for unionization and threatening to withhold wage and benefit increases from warehouse employees if they voted to unionize. In both cases, judges ruled the actions to be illegal. As the complaints continue to amass, Amazon continues to deny any wrongdoing, claiming that every firing was done in good faith and that no labor violations have occurred. Despite initial low interest in union formation, persistent campaigning led to a vote held in March 2021, with a 50% voter turnout leading to the establishment of the first Amazon Labor Union. Furthermore, in November of the same year, US District Judge Diane Gujarati issued an injunction against Amazon, ordering it to cease and desist from retaliation against workers involved in union organizing. US District Judge Diane Gujarati issued an injunction against Amazon, ordering it to cease and desist from retaliation against workers involved in union organizing.

As the situation continues to develop, it will be interesting to see if more warehouses follow suit. Despite the challenges posed by the decline of unions in the current age, recent events such as the closely contested outcome in Bessemer and the historic victory at JFK8 collectively reflect a notable surge in union organizing momentum.

Note: I am a participant of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Student Ambassador Program and the views expressed in this document are exclusively my own and do not represent the views of the NLRB.

Thank you Sharon V for editing this article!

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