The spotlight is shining on thousands of workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Alabama as they vote in a closely watched election where the stakes are high for both union and employer interests.
More than 5,000 employees of the facility in Bessemer, a Birmingham suburb, are mailing in ballots in an election to decide whether they will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Ballots must be returned by March 29.
Because of its scale and geographic region, the election has garnered nationwide attention. If the RWDSU is successful, the Bessemer site would become not just a win for the union in terms of the number of employees involved, it also would be a rare union victory in the South, which is made up of right-to-work states, and the first unionized Amazon facility in the country.
Regardless of the outcome, the Bessemer campaign may spark an uptick in union organizing, Richard I. Lehr, an attorney with Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C. in Birmingham, says. “That increase in union activity has not started yet, but I think we will see it at least during the next two years,” he adds.
Lehr says he is surprised the union obtained more than 3,000 signatures for an election just a few months after the Bessemer facility opened. “In some respects, Bessemer was the ‘perfect storm’ resulting in union activity,” he says, noting most of the employees are African Americans, who are generally more likely to support unions.
“Amazon has become a national target of the gap between the exceptional wealth of owners and the economic means of hourly workers,” Lehr says. “So, when Black Lives Matter energy is combined with economic inequity and demanding physical work during a pandemic, unionization became an attractive option to address what may be perceived as economic and social inequality.”
While the company makes the case that its pay and benefits are excellent and there are costs to union membership and risks to negotiations, the union argues it can bring leverage for employees to be treated respectfully, Lehr says, adding the union says that by supporting it, employees will enhance their economic opportunities and be part of the social justice efforts nationally.
National concerns aren’t the only consideration, though, Lehr says. “The number one reason why employees unionize is based on workplace concerns, not national political/social issues,” he adds.
So, although national social justice issues may affect the election, “fundamentally ‘all politics is local,’ meaning that if employees are satisfied with their workplace culture and pay, benefits, and safe working conditions, they will not seek or support a union,” Lehr says. His message to employers is they must “up their game to sustain union-free status.”
Murphy says efforts to resist unionization are common in the South, where the whole community often gets involved. He points out the wages Amazon pays—often at least $15 an hour—are likely to be higher than those paid at other employers in the area.
Much of the economic development model of local governments has been centered around keeping unions out, so unions shouldn’t underestimate the peer pressure they face and the notion among employees that “they’ve got a good thing going,” Murphy says.
Even with a lack of unionization in the region, unions haven’t given up in the South, Murphy says. In particular, they’ve tried to organize auto plants. “They’ve taken their shots at these employers, and they’ve come up pretty much empty,” he says.
Murphy says if Amazon workers vote to unionize and get a contract—not a sure thing even with a union victory because the company would likely challenge the election—employees at other large companies could be emboldened, making union campaigns spread to other large employers in the South.
The campaign has gotten support from President Joe Biden as well as Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio. Also, celebrities including actor Danny Glover and members of the NFL’s players union have voiced support for unionization at Bessemer.
Amazon has met the high-profile union support with its own campaign against unionization. The company’s “Do It Without Dues” website asks workers why they should pay almost $500 in union dues when the company offers “high wages, health care, vision, and dental benefits, as well as a safety committee and an appeals process.”
Murphy says Rubio’s support may be part of an effort to recast Republicans as the party of the working class, but it also may be Amazon-specific, since the giant online retailer isn’t a favorite in Republican circles.
Murphy also points out that workers are beginning to express their concerns in nontraditional ways, but that doesn’t always translate to support for a union. Such workers may not buy into the union model, “but activism is afoot,” he says.
Lookback at Previous Union Effort
Martin Regimbal, an attorney with The Kullman Firm in Columbus, Mississippi, saw a high-profile union drive in his state in 2017 when the United Autoworkers tried unsuccessfully to organize the Nissan plant in Canton. He says he saw the campaign spurring other employers to quickly make efforts to train supervisors “in the do’s and don’ts of responding to union campaigns and assessing hot-button issues that might drive employees to consider a union.”
Regimbal says he also noticed a wait-and-see approach from other employers and their employees. When the Nissan campaign failed, “the interest in committing resources to try and organize other employers in the area diminished, as did employee interest.”
The Nissan campaign failed because the union couldn’t connect with employees, Regimbal says. “Tactics that might be commonplace in other parts of the country do not necessarily resonate in the state,” he adds. “For instance, bringing in Hollywood types to tell employees in the area what they needed fell completely flat.”
Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications.