A labor union’s effort to organize about 5,800 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., has turned into a national story. The workers are now voting whether to join the union, in an election that runs through March 29.
I asked Noam Scheiber, who covers workplace issues for The Times, to explain what’s going on. Our conversation follows.
David: Why has this one local union election become such a big deal?
Noam: Amazon is the second-largest private employer in the U.S. In the more than 25 years since its founding, the company has successfully resisted unionization at all of its U.S. facilities, which now number in the hundreds. But labor leaders believe that a single high-profile success will reverberate across the country.
There are already signs that they may be right. Some nonunionized Amazon workers on Staten Island walked off the job last year, to protest pandemic working conditions. And the union that’s trying to organize the workers in Alabama — the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — says it has received more than 1,000 inquiries from other Amazon workers since this campaign started.
Amazon exerts a lot of influence over working conditions for tens of millions of other workers. When Amazon enters an industry, it often forces the competition to adopt similar labor practices — partly on pay, but also squeezing efficiency out of workers. Consider, for example, that shares of Walmart, Target, Kroger and Costco swooned after Amazon announced its acquisition of Whole Foods back in 2017.
Amazon and the union have made competing claims about whether the jobs already come with good wages and benefits. Can you help us understand them?
The company typically pays rank-and-file warehouse workers between $15 and $20 per hour and offers health care and retirement benefits. For a full-time worker, that translates into about $700 a week. Amazon touts its compensation package as “industry-leading,” though most of its workers are likely earning well below the national weekly median of about $1,000 for full-time workers.
tends to be higher than for nonunion workers, even when you control for factors like education and experience. But I suspect Amazon will likely raise wages even if the union loses, because credible threats of unionization tend to drive up wages even at nonunion companies.