News & Commentary

April 11, 2021

Nikita Rumsey

Nikita Rumsey is a student at Harvard Law School.

The most closely watched U.S. union election in years, perhaps decades, has resulted in a devastating defeat for organized labor as Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala. voted overwhelmingly against unionizing with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) by a vote of 1,798 to 738. Although there remain outstanding 505 disputed ballots, the vast majority of them reportedly challenged by Amazon, they will not be enough to reverse the outcome announced by the National Labor Relations Board on Friday.

RWDSU quickly announced its intent to challenge the results, which will likely include both filing objections to the election with the Board’s regional office based on Amazon’s alleged disruption of the voting process, as well as filing unfair labor practice charges against Amazon for allegedly violating federal labor law during the campaign. Although the union did not release a full statement of its allegations, its Friday statement pointed to Amazon’s installation of a USPS mailbox on warehouse property in violation of an NLRB order as a clear example of improper interference by the retail giant, which RDSWU said could have misled workers to wrongly believe that Amazon would play a role in collecting and counting their votes. As Rund Khayyat noted for OnLabor on Friday, emails obtained by the Washington Post showed that Amazon pressured local USPS officials to install the mailbox just as the election began in early February.

As Bloomberg and others have noted, the politics of the Board itself may come into play if and when Amazon’s alleged unfair labor practices work their way through the ranks of the NLRB. Assuming RWDSU files charges, an NLRB regional director, who functions like a prosecutor in these disputes, will investigate the union’s allegations and bring the case before an Administrative Law Judge if they find merit to the claims. The hearing examiner’s decision would then be appealed to the board in Washington, which still holds a three-member Republican majority (with one vacancy) at least until August, when member William Emanuel’s term expires. As a result, while Biden-appointee Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB’s acting general counsel, would be expected to likely side with the union, the management-side majority of the board may well decide in Amazon’s favor should the case reach their desks too quickly.

After the results of the election became clear, many who had been rooting for the Bessemer workers to vote #unionyes were wondering what went wrong, and how the results could be so lopsided after a campaign that received so much positive media attention and even prompted the sitting President to weigh in. While many accurately noted the obstacles posed by U.S. labor law to any union representation campaign, Jane McAlevey, writing for The Nation, argued that some tactical missteps from RWDSU itself were partly to blame. For one, when the union first petitioned for an election back in November, it assumed that there were only 1,500 workers at the Bessemer warehouse, only to be challenged by Amazon that there were actually 5,800 workers and thus required a much higher showing of interest. (When asked this week about the union’s decision to go ahead with the election in spite of Amazon’s purported expansion of the unit, RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said that they “felt [they] had no choice” for fear of delaying the campaign.) More to the point, McAlevey argued that RWDSU failed to effectively combat Amazon’s misleading campaign propaganda surrounding dues, and criticized the union’s choice to refrain from house-calling in light of the pandemic, noting that it would have been much more effective than relying on digital strategies and canvassing at the warehouse gates. She sympathized with the union’s difficulties, but stressed that organizers cannot afford any “shortcuts” especially when up against an employer with unlimited resources, unfettered access to workers, and a scorched earth anti-union mindset.

In other news, the Economic Policy Institute released a report detailing how the erosion of collective bargaining over the last several decades has played a major role in depressing wage growth and driving income inequality. Lawrence Mishel, the report’s author, highlighted research trends showing that the erosion of collective bargaining—which has fallen from covering 27.0% of U.S. workers in 1990 to merely 11.6% in 2019—has lowered the median hourly wage by $1.56 from 1979 to 2019, translating to a yearly loss of $3,250 for a full-time worker, and has widened the wage gap between high-wage and middle-wage earners by a considerable degree. Indeed, the report noted that the erosion of collective bargaining has been the largest single factor driving a wedge between middle- and high-wage male workers. Moreover, the report argued the such widening wage inequality is in large part a policy decision that can be reversed by means of legislation that enables workers to choose union representation and expands the density of collective bargaining for middle- and low-wage workers.

Meanwhile, St. Vincent Hospital nurses in Worcester, Mass. are set to enter their sixth week on strike as part of their ongoing dispute with hospital-owner Tenet Healthcare over safe staffing levels and the hospital’s alleged failure to address a growing patient safety crisis. As one press release noted, Tenet is projected to spend more than $33.5 million to prolong the strike, which includes costs of replacement nurses paid nearly twice as much as regular staff, extensive police details, and other expenses. The strike began on March 8 after the parties failed to reach agreement over nurses’ requests to improve safety conditions at the hospital. Recently, the nurses received a legislative boost after four Massachusetts representatives in Congress worked with newly appointed Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh to ensure that St. Vincent nurses, along with striking workers across the U.S., are eligible for full COBRA subsidies under the American Rescue Plan.

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