By: Russell Facente
America could be exiting its period of anti-Union sentiment, during which legislatures enacted “right-to-work” laws and the Supreme Court reduced the power of labor unions in the name of free speech. (Apparently, some fail to see the irony that protecting free speech for the individual can actually reduce the power of their voice.) COVID-19’s effect on industry, from manufacturing to supply chain to point-of-purchase, has exposed fundamental inequity between frontline workers and the capitalists (the CEOs and shareholders who control the company and, therefore, the profit distribution).
In 2020, Amazon workers in one Alabama warehouse voted on unionization. The vote to unionize seemingly fell short by 191 votes, but it was later determined that Amazon violated the laws protecting the democratic process of unionizing. Among other interference and intimidation tactics, Amazon installed an unauthorized ballot collection box underneath a surveillance camera, giving the impression that it would surveil and retaliate against voters. Since Amazon is willing to spend $10,000 per day to stop unionization, it surely has no lack of resources to engage in such a scheme. A second vote is scheduled for February of 2022.
One of the issues unionization will confront is employee turnover, which exceeds 150% at Amazon’s warehouses. This high turnover rate benefits Amazon because new workers will start at base pay and other benefits like health insurance and retirement won’t vest. Long shifts and “performance quotas can lead to burn out” and heavy fatigue for even young workers. While another vote is scheduled for the Alabama warehouse to join the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, one of the largest union organizations in the U.S., has voted to attempt to unionize Amazon workers across the continent.
So, is unionizing a good thing? Before we look deeper into the effects of unions, to the anti-government, “free market” enthusiasts out there, remember: “Take away the laws, all property ceases.” Laws of business and property – created and enforced by government – are precisely what enables the very existence of “the free market.” The government determines who has the right of ownership and allocates risks and benefits. (Risks and benefits don’t always go hand in hand, as anyone alive during the 2008 financial crisis will remember, companies were considered too big to fail and given government assistance for their mismanagement in the “free market.”) Absence of government regulation would mean that any mid or even large company could be bought, bullied, or beaten out of business by the largest mega-corporations. Corporations swallow the competition to manipulate the market all the time. Any business or consumer not at the top of the food chain is wholly reliant on big, bad government to protect them. In short, the “free” market argument is essentially a fallacy; it is certainly not a “fair” or “competitive” market, and government’s role requires balance, not absence.
We can assess the effect of unions in three ways: the mathematical approach, the historical approach, and the simple-logic approach.
Mathematical. For workers like Mark Janus who reap the benefits of union bargaining but hate paying union dues: your pay and benefits increase, thanks to the union, is far greater than your dues. Union workers make 1.23x the wage of their nonunion counterparts. The pay increase that comes with unionization also benefits women, especially women of color, as they experience greater pay disparity in nonunion positions than their male counterparts. Union workers have greater access to nearly all employer-sponsored benefits programs, including health insurance and more sick leave. Union workers are more likely to have retirement plans and less likely to be fired before those plans vest.
Despite these statistics, corporations and their shills argue that joining a union will cause a worker’s take-home wages to decrease because of the obligation of paying union dues. Allegedly, “[w]hen unions demand above-market wages, employers must either raise prices or reduce quality.” I guess because employers must not be able to cut into fat CEO bonuses or 940% increases in CEO compensation instead. For $0.28/hour, Mark Janus’s union secured him and each of his coworkers: $17,000 in raises, childcare programs, reasonable healthcare costs, working heat and A/C, a pension, and promotions based on seniority and merit.
Historical. Looking through U.S. history, what good have unions created? Unions and collective strikes are responsible for the 40-hour workweek, the 8-hour workday, the weekend, employer-based health coverage (a boon for those who oppose government healthcare), the Family and Medical Leave Act, and “fair” wages.
Simple logic (a.k.a. the sniff test). If a capitalist machine like Amazon is willing to lie, cheat, and break the law to prevent workers from unionizing, then logic would hold that unionization is good for the laborers and not for the profiteers. In fact, if Amazon is willing to spend $10,000 per DAY of its profits to avoid unionization (and break the law) when a single warehouse of 6,000 workers threatens to unionize, the value of unions to the workers must be much more than that! Nationally, companies spend $340 million and break the law 41.5% of the time to stop unionizing campaigns. Logically, if unions cost more than they provide for workers, companies like Amazon would let them run their course and prove it. Logic (and history) also hold that – out of self-preservation – a union would never bargain a company into bankruptcy.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon profits increased $8.1 billion (220%). Amazon says its supply chain (including the workers in its warehouses and its drivers) is “Amazon’s holy grail” or “crown jewel.” If earnings are supposed to be commensurate with value, as many capitalists attest to justify CEO pay, Amazon’s workers should be getting paid more than $15 per hour, which is less than living wage in many locations. But after the deadly tornado incident and increasing calls for better working conditions, it appears appropriately valuing workers will only occur if workers are treated not as individuals – individuals get fired – but as a union.
So, will Amazon workers unionize? If the Teamsters are even mildly successful in garnering support, we will likely see a full-scale response from Amazon. The retail Titan versus the union Titan. A clash that could define business for a century.
Russell is currently a 3L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He believes the law should value people over property and be accessible to everyone. His legal interests include criminal legal reform, movement lawyering, and human rights.