Apr 9, 2021 - Technology

What Amazon's win over union organizers means for tech

Illustration of a cardboard box with boxes containing a fist symbol and a yes and no, with an "x" over the no

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amazon's success at stopping a union organizing drive at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, shows just how far the labor movement's effort to take on Big Tech still has to go.

Driving the news: The official National Labor Relations Board vote count announced Friday showed more than twice as many "no" votes as "yes."

The big picture: Inequality in the U.S. is real. It's harder than ever for blue-collar laborers to earn a comfortable living. But a lot of American workers still aren't persuaded that unions are the answer.

Catch up quick: Amazon has long faced criticism for assigning warehouse workers grueling shifts under trying conditions, and at the start of the pandemic, it faced charges of failing to protect workers from coronavirus transmission.

  • Amazon's $15-an-hour wage is less than workers earn in unionized manufacturing plants, but it's more than many workers at other retail giants are paid.

Labor activists saw the Alabama vote as a key chance to gain a hold in the tech giant's operations, which is now the second-largest employer in the U.S., behind Walmart.

  • Amazon, like every other Big Tech company, argues that its business works better for both management and workers without a union in the mix, and the industry remains almost entirely non-unionized.
  • Tech workforces are also typically divided between well-paid knowledge workers and ancillary roles typically taken by contractors. Amazon is unusual in tech for directly employing so many warehouse workers.

Alabama, like much of the Deep South, is notably hostile terrain for labor organizing.

  • Organizers hoped to capitalize on growing concern over the tech giants' outsized economic power, and they brought in supporters like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to cast a spotlight on the effort. They even got a shoutout on Twitter from President Biden — who didn't name Amazon specifically, but he didn't have to.

It wasn't enough. The Alabama loss won't end efforts to bring unions into tech, and organizers up against corporate power and union-hostile tactics take a long view. Right now, they have no choice.

Yes, but: The Biden administration and its labor-related appointments are pro-union to a degree D.C. hasn't seen in a long time.

  • The House has already passed the union-friendly PRO Act, though it faces major hurdles in the Senate.

What they're saying: "Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us," Amazon said in a blog post. "And Amazon didn’t win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union."

What's next: The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) said it would file objections before the NLRB and ask for a hearing "to determine if the results of the election should be set aside" because of unfair labor practices by Amazon.

  • Amazon "left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees," union president Stuart Appelbaum charged in a written statement.

Go deeper: Amazon's scorched-earth PR strategy

Go deeper