The Amazon Workers’ Campaign Shows the Need for Labor Law Reform

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The organizing drive still underway by workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., reveals some of the many ways our current labor law gives employers too much power to stand in the way of workers trying to gain a collective voice.

Workers at Amazon want a union to bargain better pay, safety protections, and dignity on the job. Instead of respecting its workers’ choice, what has Amazon done?

  • Amazon has forced workers to attend small group meetings where supervisors rail against the union.
  • Amazon has bombarded workers with anti-union communications, including anti-union posters in the restroom. Meanwhile, union organizers must meet with workers off the property, resulting in a huge imbalance in access to workers to talk about the union. Amazon has gone so far as to ask the county to change the timing on traffic lights outside the facility so organizers have less time to talk with workers driving to and from work.
  • Amazon gerrymandered the voting bloc by insisting that thousands of workers be added to the group that will vote on unionizing. Workers agreed because the alternative would have been weeks of litigation and delay.
  • Amazon has thrown up roadblocks to an election, including challenging the idea of mail ballots, to delay the vote and give the company more time to campaign against the union.
  • New evidence shows that Amazon has hired a notorious third-party union buster to help them with their anti-union campaign.

Earlier this month, in the wake of all this anti-union activity, ballots were mailed to workers at this fulfillment center, and workers are now voting on whether to form a union at their workplace. Ballots are due on March 29. How quickly we know the outcome depends on whether there are challenged ballots and other issues—it could be a day, or it could take longer.

There are many good reasons for Amazon workers to choose unionization, despite Amazon’s vicious anti-union campaign. Workers at Amazon and other companies have seen how, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, unionized workers have been able to negotiate stronger safety protections, premium pay, layoff protections, and other important benefits. The evidence overwhelmingly shows that unionized workers have better safety, pay, health insurance, and retirement security than nonunion workers. Black workers with a union earn substantially more than nonunion Black workers—the same as for other workers of color. The pay gap for unionized women compared to men is much smaller than for non-union women.

Support for unions is higher than it has been in decades, particularly among young workers. Research shows that four times as many non-union workers want a union at their workplace (48 percent) compared to the percentage of workers who currently have one (12 percent).

Despite this overwhelming demand on the part of workers to have a collective voice on the job, current law gives employers like Amazon far too much power to interfere with workers’ free choice and thwart union organizing.

Earlier this month, comprehensive legislation—the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—was reintroduced in Congress. The PRO Act would address many of the major obstacles that stand in the way when workers want to organize. It would prevent corporations like Amazon from interfering in the union election process, leaving these questions to workers and the National Labor Relations Board. It would ban the sort of captive audience meetings Amazon is conducting to scare workers. It would, for the first time, institute real penalties against companies and corporate executives who violate workers’ rights, so corporations like Amazon cannot fire activists like Chris Smalls (who organized a safety protest at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island) and face no real consequences. And it would override state so-called “right to work” laws that financially harm and weaken unions.

Despite a Democratic majority in the House and Senate for the first time since 2009, and a Democratic president who promises to be the most pro-union president ever, already the doubters and naysayers have started to downplay the possibilities of winning the PRO Act’s passage, prompted in large measure by the obstacles posed by the Senate filibuster, which as currently practiced requires a 60-vote supermajority to pass major legislation.

But here are four reasons why the PRO Act should pass this year:

  • First, our current economic, public health, and racial justice crises demand that Congress strengthen workers’ ability to join with their coworkers to bargain for better safety protections, premium pay, and fairer treatment on the job. These crises have shown that the need for workers to be able to exercise collective power is more compelling than ever.
  • Second, it is a mistake to assume that only Democrats will support labor law reform. Republicans should not be written off or given a pass. There is, and always has been, Republican support for unions. The PRO Act passed the House of Representatives last year with bipartisan support. A group of Republican conservatives recently penned a statement expressing support for unions as a free-market solution to the power imbalance between workers and corporations. There are millions of pro-union voters in Republican districts. It is a mistake to think that labor law reform is only for Democrats. Republicans can and should be brought on board—and those who won’t should be held accountable by voters.
  • Third, the PRO Act is not radical legislation. It works within our long-standing legal framework to address problems that have surfaced in our labor law—a law that was passed in 1935 and hasn’t been significantly amended in more than half a century.

Finally, if President Biden uses his legislative prowess and puts some muscle behind getting the PRO Act passed—something President Obama failed to do with the last major effort at labor law reform—it will make an enormous difference in the prospects for passage.

And if after all of this, the Senate filibuster stands in the way of a majority vote, there can be no more powerful illustration of the need for filibuster reform.

For the Amazon workers in Bessemer and across the country—and the millions of workers who would form a union today if the law gave them a reasonable shot—it’s time to prove the doubters wrong and get the PRO Act passed this year.