In a closely watched November 29, 2021, decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Amazon had committed serious violations of federal labor law during a union campaign at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. In the decision, the NLRB attacked Amazon’s “flagrant disregard” for election rules, saying it “essentially hijacked the process.” The online retail giant won the union vote, held earlier this year, by a 2-1 margin but will now be forced into a do-over election.
The NLRB decision provided negative headlines for Amazon. “Amazon made ‘free and fair’ Bessemer union election ‘impossible,’ labor official rules,” ran the headline of the Alabama news site AL.com. The Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Postran with: “Labor board calls for revote at Amazon warehouse in Alabama in major victory for union.”
Even if it were to win the second ballot without violating the law, Amazon is highly sensitive about negative media, and company officials will likely loathe any coverage of another high-profile union election.
[Photo: Libby March for The Washington Post/Getty Images]
The issue of labor rights has seemingly garnered the nation’s attention like nothing I have seen in my lifetime or even in the past half century. And growing awareness of the issue could have an impact on efforts to improve the legislative environment for unionizing.
A recent poll found that 59% of respondents supported strengthening labor laws through proposals, such as penalizing companies that retaliate against workers trying to unionize and eliminating “right-to-work” laws that allow employees to benefit from union contracts without paying dues.
In the past, lack of public awareness has helped torpedo labor-law reform campaigns. In 2009-2010, during the campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act, it was rare to encounter anyone without a professional labor interest who had ever heard of the legislation, which attracted only lackluster support from the Obama White House and died in the Senate.
At present, the Biden-supported legislation aimed at strengthening the right to choose a union, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, is firmly on the back burner despite support from a majority of voters.
For the PRO Act to become a live proposition, it would likely need to convert its popular support into pressure on members of Congress.
This is the only way, in my view, to achieve meaningful change and make unionizing easier.
Headlines that focus on the coercive power that big corporations like Amazon exert over workers participating in elections could go some way to bolster support for union drives.
Unions are set to continue to be a talking point in the national media with the Starbucks vote.
The coffee chain had been engaged in what was described as “aggressive” anti-union tactics ahead of the vote, including forcing employees to attend mandatory anti-union meetings. Although it involves only a few dozen workers, the Workers United labor union victory at Starbucks in Buffalo is seen as one of the most important labor organizing victories in several decades.
Corporate America has employed brutal anti-union campaigns for decades. What has changed, from my perspective, is that such activities are now seen as newsworthy—at least when the companies involved are household names.
In addition to Amazon and Starbucks, in recent months an expanding number and variety of employees have been talking about forming unions at their own workplaces. In the past few months alone we have seen media, tech, and museum workers form unions and either stage or threaten strikes.
Organizing, it appears, can be contagious—under the right conditions.
Seizing the moment?
It’s not yet clear that unions and their allies can capitalize on this apparent newfound public attention and convert it into increased membership levels or changes in legislation.
But I believe we are at a unique moment in U.S. labor history. The question is, will unions take advantage of the increased media attention—and the negative headlines for high-profile companies attempting to quash workers’ rights—and spur a new era of labor activism?