News & Commentary

March 28, 2021

Nikita Rumsey

Nikita Rumsey is a student at Harvard Law School.

This Monday will mark the final day for ballots to be received by the National Labor Relations Board to be counted in the union election taking place at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama. While the nearly two months of voting is finally coming to an end, the intensity surrounding events of the election’s final week suggests that this may only be the beginning of a renewed fight to organize the retail giant. Signs that Amazon may be feeling the pressure leaked into the spotlight on Wednesday, when Amazon executive Dave Clark took to Twitter in response to reports that Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a long-time critic of Amazon who most recently held a publicized hearing before the Senate Budget Committee on income inequality featuring Amazon worker Jennifer Bates, planned to travel to Alabama to rally with workers at RWDSU headquarters in Birmingham alongside rapper Killer Mike and actor/activist Danny Glover. Clark, for some reason, decided to heckle the Senator in tweets, writing: “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace,” as well as “a safe and inclusive work environment.” In response to Clark’s outburst, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), co-chair of the recently formed House Labor Caucus, noted that Amazon union-busts as well as makes workers pee in water bottles—hardly an apt description of a progressive workplace. Then, as if the conversation was not strange enough, Amazon replied to Pocan via its official news account, writing, “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”

Putting aside the notion that throughout history no one has endured exploitative working conditions to put food on the table, Amazon’s brazen disavowal of “the peeing in bottles thing” is particularly troubling in light of how widespread the practice appears to be as an unfortunate consequence of high fulfillment demands and “time off task” tracking for Amazon workers. In addition to journalist James Bloodworth’s discoveries as an undercover Amazon worker in the UK, Vice reporter Lauren Kaori Gurley noted that inability to access a restroom was “one of the most universal concerns voiced by many Amazon delivery drivers across the country,” while another report leaked an email from an area manager admonishing employees over urinating in bottles and defecating in bags in work vehicles. Additionally, as to Amazon’s wage claims, many noted in response that the median wage in greater Birmingham is $3 above the $15.50 base pay that Amazon offers warehouse workers in Bessemer, which is also lower than the prevailing wage for similar, unionized work in nearby warehouses and poultry plants.

Regardless of the election outcome, which may not be known for weeks or even months, and will surely be the subject of challenge from the losing side, RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum has signaled that its fight “is just the beginning” and is bigger than Bessemer. He noted that “[w]hat we have done—which is crucial—is we have opened the door to union organizing at Amazon, we’ve gone further than anyone else has come close to in the past … and Amazon never anticipated it.”

In other news, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently told AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka that the PRO Act, the most comprehensive workers’ rights bill to gain traction in Congress in decades, will get a floor vote if labor leaders can round up 50 co-sponsors. The bill, which recently passed the House of Representatives, currently has 45 co-sponsors (44 Democrats and 1 Independent), and would require reforming the filibuster to pass the Senate under current rules. However, with recent reports suggesting that President Biden has taken a liking to emerging narratives that he is “bigger and bolder-thinking” than President Obama, coupled with his purported openness to a so-called “talking filibuster,” such reform is not beyond the realm of the possible. As for the magic number of 50 co-sponsors, organizing has already begun to pressure the remaining holdouts: Maine’s independent Angus King, Democrats Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia.

With the PRO Act gaining traction in Washington and in the media, reports have surfaced detailing growing concerns about the bill from freelance writers, who have expressed worries that the legislation’s new misclassification test would force companies to hire them as employees rather than let them remain independent contractors. Indeed, likeminded op-eds have appeared in The Hill, Forbes, Business Insider, and The Week, all expressing similar concerns about freelancer livelihoods. However, as Alex Press noted in TNR, the problem is that these concerns are simply unfounded: unlike California’s AB5, which expanded employment status for many freelancers for the purpose of employment laws including wage and hour laws and other protections, the PRO Act only uses the so-called ABC test to determine employee status for the purpose of protecting freelancers’ rights under the NLRA to engage in concerted activity and bargain collectively. Yet as Press noted, ideological opponents of the PRO Act have seized on the widespread confusion over the PRO Act’s impact on freelancers to sow division among sets of workers, which must be dispelled before it damages the prospects of the PRO Act in Congress.

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