When the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) passed in 1935, organizers took their newfound legal protections and ran with them. Union membership doubled over the next six years and quadrupled by 1945.
“The President Wants You to Join a Union” read signs distributed in coal fields by John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Franklin Delano Roosevelt never said exactly that, but he did say that if he were a factory worker, he’d join a union. Between this and his backing of the NLRA, it was close enough to make for useful organizing agitprop.
Eighty-six years later, the unionization rate in the United States is lower than it was when the NLRA became law. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, 10.8 percent of US workers are union members. Further breaking the numbers down, private-sector union membership is only 6.3 percent, compared to 34.8 percent for public-sector workers.
There’s never been a better time for a high-profile politician — say, someone who has promised to be the “most pro-union” president in US history — to weigh in on the side of a private-sector union, and there is one union drive, in particular, that is garnering international attention.
At BHM1, an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, nearly six thousand workers are preparing to vote for unionizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). RWDSU represents workers at poultry-processing plants in virulently anti-union Southern states, including 7,500 such workers in Alabama. As the New York Times reports, a few dozen of those other workers are leading the organizing effort at BHM1, standing outside the warehouse gates every day starting at 4:30 AM to talk to Amazon employees.
Amazon is one of the largest employers in the United States, and the pandemic allowed the company to continue growing at an astonishing pace. Over the past year, Amazon went on a hiring spree almost unprecedented in history and now has more than 1.2 million employees globally, a number that does not include the hundreds of thousands of people who, while part of the Amazon workforce, are technically employed by third-party contractors.
The Bessemer facility is the product of all this growth: it opened in March of 2020, just as the pandemic set in across the United States. The union has been particularly tight-lipped in the months since workers filed for the election, but workers told the Prospect that the rate of work, with little downtime even at the height of the pandemic, is one reason for the union drive. A website for the union cites workers’ desire to collectively bargain over “safety standards, training, breaks, pay, benefits.”
The vote will be conducted by mail, as Jefferson County, where the facility is located, has a 17 percent positivity rate as of January 11, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite the prevalence of coronavirus in the area, Amazon has pushed for an in-person vote, an argument the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) shot down. Ballots will be mailed out on February 8, and workers will need to return them by March 29, with the votes tallied the following day.
Workers first filed a notice with the NLRB on holding a union election on November 20, 2020. The process was delayed as the two sides — the union and the employer — argued over the details of the election. At issue was not only whether to vote in person or by mail, but also on the size of the bargaining unit. The union originally proposed a 1,500-person unit, but Amazon proposed the larger size, an argument to which the union ultimately agreed. Throughout the negotiations, Amazon has been represented by Morgan Lewis, a premier union-busting firm.
Delay tactics aren’t the only way Amazon is fighting the union. The company put up a website that urges the workers to “Do It Without Dues” — photos of Amazon workers giving the camera a thumbs-up and cutesy images of dogs (Jeff Bezos’s obsession) are interspersed with anti-union talking points. It’s only the latest from a company that was recently revealed to keep the infamous Pinkerton agency on its payroll to spy on workers.
This anti-union campaign from one of the country’s most powerful companies deserves a rebuke from the highest office. There’s nothing stopping a politician from weighing in on the side of workers’ right to organize: in 2019, Tennessee governor Bill Lee personally encouraged Volkswagen workers to vote against unionizing during an all-plant captive audience meeting.
The only unusual thing would be a US president siding with workers over capital. Senator Bernie Sanders did as much last week, tweeting that “If Amazon workers in Alabama vote to form a union, that will benefit every worker in America.” The current president of the United States saying as much would help counter Amazon’s relentless anti-unionism. If Biden wants to live up to his promises, there’s no time like the present.