Heroic Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, came together to claim their right to form a union, but antiquated federal labor law and a virulently anti-union company stood in their way. We all benefit from broad and accessible union membership. Organizing a union should not be a trial by combat. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act will make it easier for working people to organize if we so choose.
HERE’S HOW THE CAMPAIGN UNFOLDED IN BESSEMER, ALABAMA, AND HOW IT WOULD BE DIFFERENT UNDER THE PRO ACT.
Before Organizing Started—Firings and Surveillance:
Amazon workers were aware of the company’s anti-union position.
Amazon has fired workers for union activity in New York and Virginia, and faced no financial penalties. There are none under current labor law.
Amazon’s use of high-tech surveillance of workers’ organizing interests were widely reported. Amazon faced no penalties for this activity.
Under the PRO Act:
Workers who were fired would have had access to double damages for lost wages, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) would be required to use the courts to get these workers their jobs back quickly.
Amazon would have to inform employees about their rights under the law, like other federally guaranteed rights.
Unions would likely use labor law’s “unfair labor practice charge” system more vigorously because there would be meaningful penalties.
Unions and employees would have the option of going to court to remedy unlawful action.
When Workers Organized in Alabama:
The Amazon campaign moved rapidly, driven by a groundswell of worker support, because most organizers understand speed is one of the only shields against illegal, but unpunished, employer violations of labor law.
Workers met with organizers clandestinely because they were very fearful of losing their jobs.
A relatively small number of workers have become the public face of the campaign because the remedies for workers being illegally fired for union activity are ineffective. Workers being forced to silence themselves made it easier for Amazon to try to paint the union as an outside entity rather than a support for a genuine, new organization of working people.
Workers filed a petition to certify their union with the NLRB on Nov. 20, 2020, and immediately Amazon used legal maneuvers to attempt to have the petition thrown out.
In order to move forward with an election and accommodate Amazon, the union consented to thousands of seasonal workers, many of whom no longer worked in the facility, being included in the proposed bargaining unit and the representation election.
Under the PRO Act:
Unfair labor practices (violations of the labor law) could have penalties of up to $50,000 for each violation—which often number in the hundreds. Additionally, employers’ officers and directors may be held personally liable under certain circumstances, such as if they knew about violations and failed to prevent them.
With real costs to Amazon for violating the law, workers would be able to organize publicly without the fear of being fired, threatened or discriminated against.
Amazon’s central message of its anti-union campaign—that the union is a third party—would be countered by unafraid workers leading the organizing campaign.
When workers filed the petition with the NLRB, Amazon would not have been party to the hearing and, therefore, would have had less opportunity to manipulate the NLRB’s procedures to cause delay or object to the workers’ chosen bargaining unit.
As soon as the petition was filed, Amazon began a massive anti-union campaign. Flyers and banners were posted throughout the facility—even in bathroom stalls.
Amazon texted anti-union messages to workers’ personal cell phones.
Amazon required workers to attend weekly mandatory meetings where anti-union consultants would present distorted and false information about unions.
Workers reported that if people spoke up or countered Amazon’s anti-union propaganda, they would be called to the front of the room, photographed and dismissed.
Amazon flooded the plant with managers and anti-union consultants to interrogate workers one on one about their support for the union.
Key to Amazon’s rhetoric was the implied threat that if the workers formed a union, Amazon might refuse any improvements in bargaining, making the whole effort futile and costly.
Amazon tried repeated legal maneuvers to have the election held on its premises, in person despite the pandemic. When those efforts failed, Amazon induced the U.S. Postal Service to set up a drop box in the front of its facility, inside a tent supplied by Amazon, and encouraged workers to use it.
During the election period, Amazon offered $1,000 to any employee who quit—which also would mean that they were not entitled to vote in the election. The offer was limited to a period during balloting.
Under the PRO Act:
Amazon could not hold mandatory union-bashing meetings.
Amazon would face substantial financial penalties for threatening, intimidating, surveilling, bribing and/or firing workers for their union support.
The NLRB would hold elections in a neutral place, by mail or electronically, unless all parties agreed to hold it in company facilities.
If workers voted to certify their union, and no contract agreement could be negotiated in 90 days, the union or Amazon could ask for a mediator. If no contract were negotiated within 30 days of that request, the dispute would go to binding arbitration. This change would massively undermine Amazon’s implied threat that contract negotiations would be ineffective.
Simply put, Amazon workers faced an uphill climb from the moment they decided to join together for a better life, both by a company determined to stifle their voice and a law that has failed to keep up with the sophisticated landscape of employer intimidation and coercion.