The Weird Amazon Anti-Union Blitz

Amazon is fighting unionization, as you might expect. What you might not expect is how they’re going about it.

A quick peek at a half-century of unions

According to NPR: In 1964, the Midwest was full of manufacturing jobs and had the highest concentration of union workers in America. That has changed dramatically — both because the share of jobs in manufacturing has fallen, and because fewer of the manufacturing jobs that remain are held by union workers.

Ronald Reagan, the man who broke my habit of being a Republican, took as his very first act as president to fire all the striking air traffic control workers. “Good luck the next time you fly on Air Force One,” I thought at the time, but the Great Communicator was serious and somehow we all got through it. But it was the beginning of the end for unions in America and they losses since 1980 are staggering, some because of shrinking manufacturing and probably more because of right to work laws.

Right to work sounds good, what’s the problem?

Sounded good to well-bribed state legislators too, because it was designed to obfuscate. Right to work laws allowed unions, but they also allowed workers to benefit from union advances without paying dues—because they had the right to work.

If that seems weird, it’s because it was. Hard to argue with and it seems fair, but it gutted unions because they no longer had  enough income to survive strikes, pay their employees or provide health and retirement benefits to their members. Essentially, from then on unions were gutted fish, flapping on the corporate decks.

But help may be on the way

(Investopedia) Approval for labor unions is at a 50-year high, according to an August 2019 Gallup Poll. In recent years, the biggest gains in union membership have been among younger workers, ages 34 and under.

That’s pretty encouraging news because young people, long dormant on social and political issues, are re-awakening to core issues in both areas.

So, back to Amazon?

Amazon is winding up to deliver what we call a brushback-pitch in baseball to workers planning to organize in Bessemer, Alabama. For the uninitiated, a brushback pitch is a baseball thrown close enough to a batter to move him back from an aggressive stance at the plate.

Alabama happens to be a right-to-work state and Amazon is going to extremes to lock in a no-vote. Even though Bessemer is not a large Amazon warehouse, the stakes are high because of the domino-effect. Remember that one? It kept us in Vietnam and all the useless wars since.

( Ahead of the union election, Amazon has strongly encouraged workers to vote against the union through texts, messaging, an anti-union website and several anti-union captive audience meetings with workers at the warehouse. In the texts, Amazon claims workers will “be giving up your right to speak for yourself” by signing a union authorization card and emphasizing union dues, claiming “unions are a business,” telling workers “don’t let the union take your money for nothing” and prompting them to visit their anti-union website

What’s at stake?

Surprisingly, it’s not about wages. Amazon already pays well above average in the industry, but this union move is about being heard by management.

Una Massey, a former level five Amazon area manager, affirmed the lack of communication, disorganization, and mistreatment of workers at the warehouse. She said a lack of experienced managers helped create the conditions where workers were now seeking to form a union

A majority of those leaders were external hires, meaning they were either college graduates or had been something similar to managers in other companies.” During the first few months of the pandemic, when the warehouse in Alabama opened, Amazon workers were allowed to keep their cell phones on them during work hours in case of emergency, but when that policy was revoked and replaced by a zero tolerance policy, it was only communicated on employees’ screens. “Instead of giving a transitional period for the associates for them to get used to this new rule, they went immediately just to say that if they were seen with it, it’s their fault, and it was going to be a final warning,” Massey said. “That they would be so callous as to just have something as simple as having your phone out.”

The same issue occurred when Amazon’s unlimited unpaid time-off policy ended during the pandemic in July. It was enacted abruptly in the new warehouse, leaving workers who left subject to termination. She and other managers spoke up against the policies, but were ignored. As staffing became an issue, safety protections were shoved aside.

The lines were designed so six feet of social distancing was impossible for workers while working, but Amazon still used a team called “Space Force” to enforce social distancing during lunches, clock-ins and clock-outs, writing up workers who did not follow protocols even though there wasn’t enough space for them to do so. “They started giving associates final warning for breaking social distancing, meaning that if associates were seen within six feet of each other, they were given that final pink slip. But that was unfair because there weren’t even enough seats in the lunchroom.”

So those are the main issues and we’ll see where it goes.

Another management decision on the wrong side of history

We’re seeing (in my view) the eclipse of dictator management, and for good reasons. All of the above issues are negotiable to fair minds, but Amazon is terrified of losing control. The company has 1.2 million employees around the world. Imagine the complication of what is important to workers in Poland compared to those in California, compared to those in Alabama.

But with those complications come almost endless opportunities to shape a company everyone wants to work for—in Warsaw, Santa Cruz or Bessemer.

A parting thought

It’s long been a prejudice of mine that unions should be represented by a seat on company Boards of Directors. That way they would have reason to understand the impact of wage and benefit costs from the company point-of-view—simultaneously working in line with both management and worker goals and best interests.

That solution might even turn out to be the right side of history.

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