February 28, 2024

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The outcome of a vote to form a union at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., Depends heavily on it.

My colleague Karen Weise described it as the most significant union effort in Amazon’s history. The ballot papers are now counted, with results expected within a few days. Karen spoke to me about how the outcome can resonate beyond this one workplace.

Shira: Why is this union campaign? get so much attention?

Karen: This is a temperature test of beliefs about Amazon and unions at an important time for both. Amazon is on the rise and has created an incredible number of jobs in the last year, bringing its global workforce to around 1.3 million. And one question people have is: are these jobs as good as they could be? The union vote is, in a sense, a referendum on this issue.

Much is at stake for unions too. Membership has generally been in decline in the United States for decades. And the question that unions face is: what role, if any, will they play in the workforce of the future? The voices of these nearly 6,000 Amazon employees near Birmingham hold a great deal of meaning.

What do workers who support this union say that they want?

My colleague Michael Corkery and I have heard from Amazon employees who say they don’t feel valued. They believe they are constantly being monitored to make sure they are meeting productivity goals and the job can be exhausting.

While Amazon’s pay is higher than the minimum wage, it is not enough to compensate for the physical demands of work and the supervision they are under. There is a subset of workers who believe that a union would help them change their wages or working conditions.

And what does Amazon say?

Amazon believes workers are paid well – starting salaries are at least $ 15 an hour, compared to the US minimum wage of $ 7.25 an hour, which is also the minimum wage in Alabama. And Amazon says it is better for workers to contact the company directly than through a union.

What is the expected outcome of this union vote?

The usual wisdom is that the union will not succeed, so most experts want to see how close the vote will be. A tight vote against the union could continue to encourage work organizers to retry other workplaces at Amazon. However, if the union loses by a wide margin, Amazon will feel vindicated in its workplace practices and stance towards unions.

I wonder how best to interpret what it means when the union vote in Bessemer fails. It can be difficult to tell how satisfied workers are with their work and how many don’t believe a union is the solution, especially given the news from Amazon on the matter.

Why did this particular camp become the focus of a union campaign? And why now?

The Birmingham area has been described as an industrial area of ​​the Midwest rather than the South. It has a long history of strong steel and mining unions, and the unions have been particularly involved in the civil rights movement. About 85 percent of the workforce in the Bessemer camp are black, and union organizers have focused on issues of racial empowerment and equality.

And lately, worker fears about the health risks of the pandemic and the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement have encouraged some employees to ask more of Amazon.

part of Amazon position is that it does what people and politicians want companies to do: it creates many jobs and pays more than many of its retail competitors. Is Amazon being held to an unreasonable standard for doing far more?

Amazon is convinced of this and points to Walmart as a competitor with lower wages and benefits. However, at the height of Walmart’s growth, it also looked to see if the way we shop was changing and how workers were paid and treated. Companies that are growing rapidly will, of course, feel a lot of attention and pressure.

What do the critics want from Amazon?

Amazon’s retail business is more profitable than many people think, but it invests much of its profits in new technologies like drones, Alexa, or other innovations that we don’t yet know about. Some workers ask if Amazon workers, the economy, and perhaps the company itself, would be better off if Amazon spent more on them.

They point to examples of companies with different priorities. Costco, which employs nearly 200,000 people in the United States, recently announced its median wage was $ 24 an hour and plans to increase its starting wage to $ 16 an hour.

(Amazon has stated that a typical full-time employee in the US had total pay of about $ 18 an hour in 2019. This is not a direct comparison to Costco’s numbers, as it includes well-paid tech and corporate employees, as Costco did not disclose.)

The Costco chief executive said those wages were good for business.

((More information on this topic: Noam Scheiber discussed why this vote is a big deal for unions. Astead Herndon wrote about why Biden got involved. A Wall Street Journal podcast featured two Bessemer employees with opposing positions in the union.)

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Here is an elaborate, wing-flapping depiction of a beautiful wood grouse. Thank you to my colleague Charlie Warzel for sharing. (We have had a lot of bird videos in this area lately and I do NOT apologize. Birds are amazing.)

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