US labour movement looks for path forward after Amazon defeat

People protest in support of the unionising efforts of the Alabama Amazon workers, in Los Angeles March 22, 2021. — Reuters pic
People protest in support of the unionising efforts of the Alabama Amazon workers, in Los Angeles March 22, 2021. — Reuters pic

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NEW YORK, April 15 — Regina McDowell was not surprised that workers overwhelmingly rejected a union at an Amazon.com Inc warehouse in Alabama last week.

She spent 42 years working in a unionised electrical equipment factory in Indiana and was active in organising drives — including traveling to the South to track down workers at their homes to make the pitch for her union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

“They’d sometimes shoo you off their property with a gun,” she said, adding that union dues were a sticking point for many.

“I think that gets them,” said the 63-year-old grandmother, “that it’s less money they’ll have.”

The landslide failure of the Amazon vote at the warehouse in Bessemer has sparked soul-searching in the labour movement over what went wrong and what unions need to do differently in the future to regain ground.

“Organising in America is no longer a fair fight. Our labour laws are no longer an effective way to capture the will of American workers to form unions,” said Tim Schlittner, communications director for the AFL-CIO, the largest US labour federation.

“The sentiment this reinforces is that there’s an overdue and dramatic need for labour law reform in the United States.”

Worth the risk?

Still, for many workers, labour experts reckon the decision whether to support a union campaign often boils down to a risk assessment.

“Once they know how strongly Amazon opposes them, and how much resources Amazon is willing to spend to defeat a union, then their fear sets in,” said Tom Kochan, a professor of industrial relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Kochan has conducted surveys that show high, and even growing, support for unions among Americans. But when it comes to individual campaigns in a workplace, “the reality sets in — when the employer campaigns so hard that you think you’re putting your job at risk.”

Changes in the economy have exacerbated the problem. Big companies like Amazon have operations dotting the country, making it easier for them to shift work. Compared to a steel mill or a car assembly plant, an e-commerce warehouse has fewer fixed investments in equipment, which also makes it easier to shift jobs.

“Why should I as an individual worker, earning US$15 an hour, risk three years of a battle with my employer to get something done,” said Kochan, “and at the same time, risk losing my job?

The traditional view, shared by Kochan and many other labour experts, is that company measures to fight unionisation, including tactics that would be illegal in other advanced countries such as requiring workers to attend meetings to hear anti-union arguments, need to be reined in.

The Democratic-led US House of Representatives narrowly passed legislation last month that would expand protections for labour organising and collective bargaining.

But the measure faces a difficult path in the Senate, where the two parties are evenly split and most legislation needs at least 60 backers to pass. A block of Republican senators from anti-union, “right-to-work” states is set to oppose the measure.

Dashed optimism

There was optimism among activists in the final months of the Amazon campaign, as it drew high-profile endorsements and national and international media attention, including a speech by President Joe Biden criticising Amazon for hindering union drives at its warehouses.

Biden, a Democrat, is widely viewed as the most pro-union president in modern times.

But none of that was enough to counteract the view of some workers at the facility that pay and conditions were relatively good on top of the everyday barriers that have combined over recent years to drive union membership in the United States to historic lows.

Only 6.3 per cent of private-sector workers belong to unions, according to the US Labor Department. The comparable rate is 15.8 per cent in neighbouring Canada.

One response in recent years has been new types of organising, which sidestep many legal restrictions on formal union campaigns to gain collective bargaining agreements with employers.

The Southern Workers Assembly, for instance, is a group that organises protests and conducts education campaigns aimed at promoting labour and other social causes. The group helped organise events in February across the country in support of the Amazon workers.

Michael Hicks, an economist at Ball State University in Indiana, said unions need to refurbish their image. Many workplace advances such as the 40-hour week were enacted decades ago. Recent years have seen waves of factory shutdowns where companies have blamed unions for making the operation uncompetitive.

“Here in the Midwest, every time a factory closed, it had a huge spillover to the rest of the community,” he added. “It caused restaurants and bars to close, so the loss of other jobs.”

Younger generations have little contact with unions, simply because the share of workers covered by contracts has diminished so greatly.

McDowell, the former electrical worker, has seen these forces play out in her hometown of Peru, Indiana. Her plant, owned by France’s Schneider Electric SE, closed last April after a battle by the local union to retain it. The company said it was a difficult decision to close but necessary to remain competitive. Part of the work moved to Mexico.

Many workers viewed the move as an effort to get out of a unionised operation, a charge the company has denied.

But it also has eroded the stature of the union in the eyes of some, said McDowell, who remains strongly pro-union. “There were people who felt the union should have done more” to save the factory, she said.

“But once the company said they were going to close it, what can we do? It’s their company.” — Reuters

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