`Bellwether' for unions: Amazon battle could transform Biden's labor revival

If the push in Alabama, in the red state, is successful, it could lead to more organizational efforts at Amazon and other major retailers across the country. If that fails, it could become a lightning rod for the Democrats’ efforts to get one of the most sweeping extensions to collective bargaining rights in nearly a century – while encouraging a triumphant business community to strengthen their stance on organized labor.

“The implications of this election go beyond this one warehouse and even this company,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the retail, wholesale and department stores union that organizes the workers. “It’s about the future of work and how workers are treated.”

The visit of Sanders, an independent Vermonter, comes at a crucial time in the sweeping efforts of Democrats and President Joe Biden to rebuild the middle class through the empowerment of workers and unions. Their proposals to raise the federal minimum wage to $ 15 and facilitate union formation for workers are met by a wall of opposition from Republicans and the business lobby who say such moves will cripple the economy and destroy American jobs. And the lack of a clear Senate Democratic majority will make it difficult to pass sweeping laws.

The Amazon camp workers – most of them women and minorities – were classified as “essential” during the coronavirus pandemic and asked to work as much as possible for the rest of the economy. Workers said they had started organizing over concerns over the spread of the virus and frustration over the racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s protests last spring. But the complaints go beyond the pandemic, which some are calling distressing conditions.

“Amazon is a large plant the size of a soccer field. They want us to go to the bathroom and get back to the machine in five minutes, ”said Linda Burns, who was injured while working at the Bessemer facility. “They say we have good insurance. I still get bills in the mail from your good insurance company. “

Jennifer Bates, who also works at the facility, brought her case to Washington.

“Amazon goes to poor communities and claims they want to support economic growth,” Bates said at a recent congressional hearing. “That should mean … a living wage and social benefits that really match and ensure the cost of living[ing] Workers work in safe and healthy conditions because we are not robots that only live to work. “

Amazon responded to the union action by asking workers to attend “union formation meetings,” Bates told members of Congress, as well as posting “anti-union” signs in the fulfillment center and sending messages to workers’ phones.

Amazon declined to comment on this article. However, the e-commerce giant’s Twitter account for the past few days has directly addressed the Democrats’ criticism of working conditions at its facility.

Sanders “has been a powerful politician in Vermont for 30 years and their minimum wage is still $ 11.75,” the company tweeted Friday. “Amazon is $ 15 plus great health care from day one. Sanders would rather speak in Alabama than trade in Vermont.”

The National Labor Relations Board will begin counting votes on March 30th. This process can take a week or more. The vote itself took two months as it was carried out by postal vote for security reasons during the pandemic. The personal vote may have taken a few days.

Union critics warn that such drives are often heavily influenced by other locations and that local workers can be drawn into the struggle.

“There are definitely concerted, planned, and well-funded campaigns by big unions coming in from outside and creating new, high-profile jobs, and the Amazon campaign is a good example of that,” said Maxford Nelsen, policy director for labor at the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit Organization that is union critical. “And the employees are currently trying to choose between the two sides.”

Nelsen rejected the idea that the union vote had a greater impact on American labor policy.

“When employees vote against union formation at the end of the day. I think that means that the majority of workers were not convinced by the union’s arguments, ”added Nelsen. “That doesn’t mean more, less.”

The landmark labor law revision bill, backed by Biden and the unions, the Law to Protect the Right to Organize, would prohibit companies from requiring their workers to attend anti-union meetings, Sanders told reporters after the rally.

It would also ask that management go to mediation and arbitration with the union if both sides are unable to reach an initial collective agreement.

That bill was passed with just five GOP votes earlier this month, making it a long shot in the 50:50 Senate.

However, union and employee representatives say the unusual public attention to the union movement and the conditions at the fulfillment center have seized the moment, symbolizing how weak federal labor laws and increasing economic inequality have stacked the odds against workers.

“There has never been a better argument for labor law reform and the PRO law than this election,” said Appelbaum, the union leader.

Alabama is one of 27 states that have laws governing the right to work, which means workers can opt out of union membership at their discretion. The PRO Act would allow unions to override these laws and impose “fair share fees” on non-members for the cost of collective bargaining.

Unions say they are already seeing impetus from the effort in Bessemer and that the effort could also mobilize reluctant workers in countries with stricter collective bargaining laws, as well as younger workers who may be unfamiliar with unions after years of membership decline.

And your next destination may not be far away. Amazon already has plans expanding into Bessemer and neighboring Birmingham later that year.

“I think this campaign can be seen as a trailblazer for things to come,” said Christian Sweeney, deputy director of organization for the AFL-CIO. “We’re seeing more interest from workers in the South in many different sectors, from manufacturing to higher education to health care.”

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