C Gopinath

Unions lose their lustre

C Gopinath | Updated on May 06, 2021

US workers feel they can speak for themselves

Organisations with many employees working in close proximity, in repetitive tasks, at low wages and with grievances are ripe grounds for unionisation. The unions provide a collective voice that evoke better response from the employer to pay attention to the employees’ concerns.

Even US President Joe Biden is known as a strong supporter of the union movement believing it will bring more jobs and higher wages. Yet, the US has seen a steady decline in unionisation that is only partly explained by the drop in manufacturing activity in the country. While unions reportedly represented 24.2 per cent of private sector workers in 1973, they have fallen to just about 6.3 per cent.

Amazon is an interesting case set in this background. Early April, the employees of the company’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse voted against unionisation. Amazon has 9,50,000 employees and this is one of 800 warehouses that the company operates in the US. There is no union operating anywhere in the company and previous efforts to form one in Delaware also failed.

Amazon seemed to be ripe territory for unionisation. It is the second largest employer in the country. Many anecdotal reports about the company’s operations have pointed to workers being under pressure to perform to company standards with barely enough time to go to the toilet, lots of walking within the warehouses, few breaks with unceasing flow of items to be packed and shipped within deadlines. The company’s promise to its Prime member customers is to reach the goods to them within 24 or 48 hours. In the last year marked by pandemic and significant online shopping by the public, Amazon has grown significantly. Its sales have boomed and it hired 500,000 employees just in the last year.

The vote for a union, conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, was spread over two months giving employees enough time to reflect on this move. It was anonymous, and conducted through postal balloting. Yet, of the eligible employees, 71 per cent voted not to join an union.

Some of those who voted against said at a press conference that although there were issues in the workplace that needed resolving such as more training for managers and work pressure, they believed that they can be resolved without the need for a union. In the words of one employee who has been quoted in a news report, ‘..we don’t need anybody there to speak for us and take our money’ (referring to the union dues that would become payable).

Amazon already pays its employees at this unit a minimum wage that is double that of the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Moreover, Amazon employees get health benefits from the time they join and they value that. So, in spite of the work place problems and at a time of nationally low unemployment rates, the employees decided that they don’t need a union to speak for them.

Trenchant unions

There is perhaps another factor in play here. Unions have not really shown themselves in a very good light. They tend to fight for more benefits for existing employees rather than expand employment. Organisations caught in a trap of contracted generous pension benefits have had to file bankruptcy to get out of the obligation. Moreover, many police and teachers unions in the US have been particularly trenchant, dragging out negotiations at the time of contract renewal and extracting benefits out of line with what generally pervades in society.

The national Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union that worked to ensure the Amazon unit vote have not given up hope and will continue to fight. They have already challenged the results. But they have an uphill task. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, appears to be softening when he says the company needs a better vision for its employees.

The writer is an emeritus professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on May 06, 2021

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