• ITVI.USA
    15,033.570
    -36.610
    -0.2%
  • OTRI.USA
    24.380
    0.040
    0.2%
  • OTVI.USA
    15,017.490
    -33.390
    -0.2%
  • TLT.USA
    2.720
    0.010
    0.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    3.350
    0.280
    9.1%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    3.090
    0.230
    8%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.730
    0.070
    4.2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    3.100
    0.150
    5.1%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.160
    0.120
    5.9%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    3.570
    0.220
    6.6%
  • WAIT.USA
    125.000
    -2.000
    -1.6%
  • ITVI.USA
    15,033.570
    -36.610
    -0.2%
  • OTRI.USA
    24.380
    0.040
    0.2%
  • OTVI.USA
    15,017.490
    -33.390
    -0.2%
  • TLT.USA
    2.720
    0.010
    0.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    3.350
    0.280
    9.1%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    3.090
    0.230
    8%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.730
    0.070
    4.2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    3.100
    0.150
    5.1%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.160
    0.120
    5.9%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    3.570
    0.220
    6.6%
  • WAIT.USA
    125.000
    -2.000
    -1.6%
E-commerce & FulfillmentMost PopularTop StoriesWarehouse

Amazon borrows from FedEx playbook to smoke union drive in Bessemer

News Analysis: Amazon wins big by playing to well-paid workers’ logic

There is no love lost between Jeff Bezos and Fred Smith, given the unpleasant break- up of their companies’ shipping marriage in 2019. Yet in decisively thwarting efforts to organize 5,800 workers at Amazon.com Inc.’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, Bezos took a page right from the FedEx Corp. (NYSE:FDX) founder’s anti-union playbook.

Other than about 5,000 unionized pilots that came over after FedEx acquired the old Flying Tiger Line cargo airline in 1988, and a smattering of workers at its FedEx Freight LTL unit, FedEx has remained non-union for its 50-year history. Smith and Co. have beaten back multiple organizing efforts by persuading FedEx workers that wages, benefits, working conditions and an open-door relationship makes third-party bargaining units irrelevant. 

Amazon followed a similar strategy in Bessemer, where the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU) made the most serious effort to organize Amazon’s workers in its 27-year history. 

Amazon, which opened the warehouse in March 2020, paid the workers more than $15 an hour to start, almost twice the minimum wage. It offered good health insurance, a 401K plan, and opportunities for advancement.

With Bessemer being its first warehouse in Alabama, Amazon sought to show, or at least convey the impression, that it considered the workers more than just disposable assets. That’s an issue that has plagued the warehouse labor relations for decades until surging demand for e-commerce fulfillment flipped the script.

Amazon’s goal was to appeal to the workers’ collective common sense. The implied message was: What would union dues give you that the status quo couldn’t? Amazon hammered home the message every chance it got. It seemed to resonate with a workforce that sees the free-market pendulum swinging in its favor as demand for warehouse workers, and the prevailing wage to keep and attract them, continues to rise. 

“This particular union can’t give us anything that Amazon does not already offer,” LaVonette Stokes, a Bessemer worker who voted against unionizing said in an NPR story published Friday. “There are a [lot] of people who never have issues.” 

In the end, the company won big. Of the 2,536 workers who voted, 1,738 cast ballots against unionizing. The wide margin was surprising in light of the union’s aggressive campaign and pro-labor momentum that had built up in recent weeks. The pro-union sentiment included support from President Joe Biden, a near-unprecedented act from a sitting president.

“I knew the union was going to lose, but I didn’t think it would lose that badly,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. That a union election of such historical significance would draw less than half the eligible voters spoke volumes about the rank-and-file’s apparent lack of energy to be organized, Bronfenbenner said. The seeming ennui, Bronfenbrenner said, “is on the union.”

After the tally was made public, both sides retreated to their corners with their expected reactions. The union said it would file objections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charging Amazon interfered with a free and fair election, and will demand a hearing to determine if the results should be set aside because Amazon “created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice.” The union said it would continue its efforts to organize the warehouse.

Amazon assumed the mantle of generosity in its statement. The company, it said, “didn’t win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.” Workers, it added, “are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace. We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.” The tally was made public around mid-day, and Amazon shares rose more than 2% on the session.

No one knows how Amazon would have reacted had the vote gone the other way. What is known is Amazon has a need for speed, and pivots fast. Its operations might have been severely compromised by the emergence of bargaining units with the freedom to organize without the federal government standing in its way, as is called for under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). 

Bezos, like FedEx’s Smith, plays for keeps. More than a decade ago, FedEx faced the possibility that it would be re-classified as a trucking company under the National Labor Relations Act, and would no longer be governed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA), labor law that applies only to railroads and airlines. The RLA disallows terminal-by-terminal organizing and, most importantly, makes it very difficult for unions to strike. Smith, furious over the potential impact on his company, pulled out all the lobbying stops, going so far as to threaten to cancel contracts to buy dozens of Boeing freighters if the reclassification took place. It never did.

Alec MacGillis, a reporter for investigative publication ProPublica and the author of a new book on Amazon’s impact on society, said the retail workers union faced various obstacles, including anti-union policies from the Trump administration that put labor in general on the back foot. 

“The odds were long going into this, given the ground rules of today’s labor laws and Amazon’s aggressive resistance and well-honed tactics,” MacGillis said. “It’s too early to say,whether this represents a lasting setback to worker activism at the warehouses or will come to be seen as a first step in a broader rise of opposition against the company and its treatment of workers.”

Mark Solomon

Formerly the Executive Editor at DC Velocity, Mark Solomon joined FreightWaves as Managing Editor of Freight Markets. Solomon began his journalistic career in 1982 at Traffic World magazine, ran his own public relations firm (Media Based Solutions) from 1994 to 2008, and has been at DC Velocity since then. Over the course of his career, Solomon has covered nearly the whole gamut of the transportation and logistics industry, including trucking, railroads, maritime, 3PLs, and regulatory issues. Solomon witnessed and narrated the rise of Amazon and XPO Logistics and the shift of the U.S. Postal Service from a mail-focused service to parcel, as well as the exponential, e-commerce-driven growth of warehouse square footage and omnichannel fulfillment.

12 Comments

  1. What happened to Joe Biden being a “union man” he is the new commander and chief right? He has the power now to change whatever trump did. He also seems to love telling businesses what they should be doing? Have we heard anything from Biden on this?

  2. Bezos is a typical, hypocritical, leftist billionaire. He a promoter of left wing causes until they affect his company – then takes just the opposite tack. He did the same thing in Seattle, threatening to pull out of the city over a proposed employer tax.

  3. Besides money, Unions negotiate benefits like time off, days off, sickness, FMLA, vacation, health insurance, grievance policy, promotions, dismissal appeals..

    1. What is there to negotiate when wages and benefits are as comparable as they are? Teamster pensions are tanking and you really cant get everyone’s job back when they get themselves fired. The terminated employee is seldom the victim of a personal atack and doesnt get his or her job back because they were terminated unjustly but rather on a contractual technicality. So other than union dues and uncontrollable political donations, what to you really have to offer?

      1. Unions offer peace of mind. The company will not be able to force pissing in a bottle rather than going to a bathroom without reprisals from the company. How bout that just as a starting point?

        1. Yeah, tell that to the 15,000 Consolidated Freightways workers who got tanked in ONE DAY. The union drover them into the 3rd largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Guess the driver’s got their peace of mind on the way out the door.

    2. I joined the work force in the late 70’s at the tail of Union strength. I had the energy and drive of a new hire and quickly identified opportunities to do more that needed to be done better. Surprisingly, when i started doing them, sometimes on my lunch hour, the union shop steward tried to stop me, and then when i wouldn’t stol because if i did a customer would have been negatively impacted, he started filing union grievances against me. Initially, management went along and told me to stop doing what i was doing, then, after a chance conversation with a senior manager where i explained that what i was doing was needed to maintain the quality if service for our customers, he over rode the lower manager and they let me continue. Three times i was reported for doing work i was not authorized to do for my pay grade, a union thing, and three times i was promoted so that i could keep doing what i was doing. Unions stifle individual development and innovation by trying to hold everything in lock step. I do not dislike unions, they can be necessary and useful for society, however, they will not survive or grow unless they themselves become agile in their “way of work”, and rethink the truth that they represent.

  4. Amazon is a very bad company. I have seen injured workers from Amazon in the homeless shelter I stay at when I am not driving truck because of my foot.

  5. The reality is….unions do nothing but protect the people who are not doing their jobs. The workers you need pay dues to keep the bad apples. There is no point to unions today. A perfect example…the Govt Unions that are in State and Federal employers. You want a job with high pay and a good retirement. Get a Govt job. You never have actually work again!

    1. That is an absolutely ignorant statement. Do you think DHL Chicago delivers ? Do you think UPS drivers are slouches? The fact we pay dues is an important part of our unions well being. We pay for representation and good contracts and wages along with benefits and a decent workplace. You obviously have never been in a union but here are a couple of benefits you get because of UNIONS.
      40 hr work weeks
      Lunch break
      Vacation
      Time and a half for overtime
      Holiday pay
      Sick time
      And your 7 yr old wont be a child laborer like in china

  6. I joined the work force in the late 70’s at the tail of Union strength. I had the energy and drive of a new hire and quickly identified opportunities to do more that needed to be done better. Surprisingly, when i started doing them, sometimes on my lunch hour, the union shop steward tried to stop me, and then when i wouldn’t stol because if i did a customer would have been negatively impacted, he started filing union grievances against me. Initially, management went along and told me to stop doing what i was doing, then, after a chance conversation with a senior manager where i explained that what i was doing was needed to maintain the quality if service for our customers, he over rode the lower manager and they let me continue. Three times i was reported for doing work i was not authorized to do for my pay grade, a union thing, and three times i was promoted so that i could keep doing what i was doing. Unions stifle individual development and innovation by trying to hold everything in lock step. I do not dislike unions, they can be necessary and useful for society, however, they will not survive or grow unless they themselves become agile in their “way of work”, and rethink the truth that they represent.

  7. To get a full scale picture of unions I would recommend people research the United Auto Workers in Detroit and start in the 1960’s. You might be surprised what really brought the industry down and who actually benefited from the unions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We are glad you’re enjoying the content

Sign up for a free FreightWaves account today for unlimited access to all of our latest content