News & Commentary

February 23, 2021

Jon Levitan

Jon Levitan is a student at Harvard Law School and a member of the Labor and Employment Lab.

The biggest story in labor – the union election at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama – continues to take new twists and turns. Amazon, who has seemingly pulled out every trick in the book to stop the workers from electing the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) as their representative, is now offering workers buyouts of at least $1000 to resign in the midst of the election. The “voluntary resignation program” does not appear to be directly targeted at the Bessemer warehouse, Amazon apparently offers the buyout to all warehouses nationwide every February. The offer still came as a surprise to the workers in Bessemer since the warehouse only opened last March. While acknowledging that the buyout program is not facially targeted at the union drive, organizers are concerned that it could be an effective anti-union tactic. Michael Foster, one of the lead organizers at the warehouse, told Vice that “it was a good time [for Amazon] to do it now in Bessemer. That could hurt the votes,” since anyone who takes the buyout would be ineligible to vote. Foster continued, “[t]o me it’s just to prevent the people from getting the union in. They need to thin out some people. It’s kind of a polite way to do it.”

As Kevin wrote about on Sunday, President Biden has not publicly commented on the Bessemer election. Dave Jamieson at HuffPost wrote yesterday about the pressure Biden, who promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” is facing to publicly support the union drive. Other than an early February tweet that did not mention Amazon by name, Biden has been silent. For Stuart Appelbaum, President of the RWDSU, that’s not enough: “I think it’s important for the administration to demonstrate during this campaign its support for unionization. This is the largest campaign in many years, and this is a great opportunity for the administration to show working people what’s important to them.” Jamieson points out that there are understandable reasons for Biden to want to stay out of the election, namely that his endorsement may have no effect, he may want to avoid being seen as putting his thumb on the scale, and an endorsement could put the NLRB in a difficult position. But those concerns, or at least the first two, have not stopped prominent Republicans politicians from vehemently opposing union drives in the past. Then-Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) went beyond simple opposition, he infamously intervened in 2014 to guarantee that Volkswagan would direct new projects to the Chattanooga plant if workers rejected the UAW’s organizing drive.

The proposed minimum wage increase to $15/hour is in peril. One roadblock is that reconciliation, the procedural mechanism Democrats are using to push through President Biden’s covid relief bill, which includes the minimum wage increase, requires strict compliance with a special Senate parliamentary rule called the “Byrd Rule.” Maxwell explained the restrictions that the Byrd Rule places on legislation earlier this month. For the purposes of the minimum wage increase, the Senate Parliamentarian is expected to decide soon on whether or not including a minimum wage increase in a reconciliation package complies with the Byrd Rule. If she rules against the Democrats arguing for inclusion, Democrats may be forced to lower the proposed new minimum or remove it entirely from the package. A second roadblock is much simpler: Democrats still do not have the votes. Democrats need a completely unified caucus to pass the increase since the Senate is tied 50-50 and Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are both opposed at the moment to an increase to $15/hour.

John Mackay, the CEO of Whole Foods, runs a company which sent workers home for wearing Black Lives Matter masks and closely tracked the risk that certain stores would unionize via a “heat map” has published a book called “Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business.” Mackay was interviewed by The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner and asked about Whole Foods’s record on workers’ rights. The entire interview should be read in full, but a couple highlights are worth noting. First, Chotiner asked if Mackay still believed that Whole Foods was “not so much as anti-union as beyond unions,” to which Mackay threatened to end the interview rather than talk about “controversial areas.” Second, Chotiner asked about the workers being sent home for wearing Black Lives Matter masks this summer. Mackay’s response: [w]ell, that’s not true. No one was sent home. People were given the choice. People chose to go home. If they didn’t want to wear one of the [Whole Foods branded] masks we gave them, then they could go home. If they went home, they didn’t work, they didn’t get paid, but nobody was sent home.”

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