OPINION: The future of work depends on stopping Amazon’s union busting

Shareholders and policymakers must play a role in protecting Amazon workers’ rights

By JENNIFER SHERER

The Amazon shareholder meeting provided an important opportunity to consider urgent steps that shareholders and policymakers can take to protect the threatened rights of unionizing Amazon workers and to counter the company’s growing impact on income inequality, racial and gender disparities, and the degradation of work across the labor market.

State and federal policymakers should take note of the policy priorities (that some shareholder) resolutions suggest for ensuring that Amazon’s anti-union, high-risk, high-turnover business model isn’t allowed to dictate the future of work in the United States and across the globe.

Amazon’s use of a wide range of legal and illegal tactics to prevent workers from unionizing has been well documented.

  • Amazon engaged in months of coercion, intimidation, vote gerrymandering, and retaliation against Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse workers in the lead-up to their 2021 union election. The National Labor Relations Board ordered a brand new election in 2022 (the outcome remains too close to call).
  • Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island overcame similar obstacles to win a decisive union election victory. In response, Amazon has refused to recognize the new Amazon Labor Union, instead dragging out legal challenges and refusing to meet with workers to start bargaining a contract.
  • Amazon appears to be escalating its corporation-wide union-busting campaign with a string of retaliatory firings targeting workers who supported past or current union organizing at both Bessemer and Staten Island, as well as several managers who failed to block union elections.

Meanwhile, 75 percent of Americans support Amazon workers unionizing, and pressure on Amazon has been mounting from customers, regulators and shareholders. Shareholder resolutions under consideration reflect growing public concern with Amazon’s crisis-level injury rates, racial and gender pay gaps, lack of benefits like paid sick leave, and consistent disregard for workers’ rights.

IMPACT ON U.S. ECONOMY
As the second-largest private employer in the United States (where one out of every 153 Americans worked as of 2021), Amazon’s business practices have consequences across the economy.

  • Amazon’s estimated employee turnover rate of 150 percent is so high that its own executives have expressed concern about running out of hirable employees in the United States.
  • Injury rates at Amazon have long outpaced industry averages, and new data shows Amazon warehouse injuries increased an additional 64 percent from 2020 to 2021 as the company expanded in New York.

Unionizing Amazon workers are doing their part to build the collective power necessary to reverse these damaging trends, often at great risk to their own livelihoods. Shareholders and policymakers should follow their lead.

CONGRESS SHOULD ACT
For its part, Congress must adopt Labor law reforms to better protect workers’ right to organize, like those proposed in the widely popular Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.

The NLRB is using the tools at its disposal to step in and order Amazon to comply with federal Labor law, and Congress must also commit adequate funding for the NLRB. Flat funding since 2014 has translated to an effective 20 percent funding cut when inflation is factored in, and the resulting 30 percent staff reductions are challenging the agency’s ability to keep up with violations resulting from any widespread, sustained anti-union retaliation campaign waged by a major employer like Amazon.

BAD FOR WORKERS, BAD FOR AMERICA
Amazon’s employment model is bad for workers and bad for the economy, and ultimately unsustainable. Shareholders, customers, and policymakers must all play a role in making sure Amazon’s union-busting does not succeed.

Recent Amazon worker organizing breakthroughs are significant but fragile, and at this moment in particular, it’s critical that all workers exercising their right to unionize know they are not alone and that if they are illegally fired by union busters, the whole country will demand justice for them.

(Excerpt from “Working Economics,” the Economic Policy Institute blog. Jennifer Sherer is senior state policy coordinator for the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN) Worker Power Project. Her work focuses on expanding the ability of working people to achieve racial, gender and economic justice through organizing, collective bargaining and public policies that promote worker voices.)

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