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Amazon’s win in Alabama is latest victory in power struggle between tech giants, workers

  • Author: Nitasha Tiku, Eli Rosenberg, Jay Greene, Craig Timberg, The Washington Post
  • Updated: April 10
  • Published April 10

On March 16, a sign at the entrance to Bessemer, Ala.'s Amazon Fulfillment Center encourages workers to vote to unionize. (Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson)

Amazon’s defeat of a union organizing effort in Alabama on Friday was the latest setback for workers who have been clamoring to assert more control over the technology companies that depend on them - one that showed how Silicon Valley giants still have a major edge in determining where power resides in the modern economy.

Labor advocates expressed dismay after a push to organize Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse was rejected by a surprisingly large margin amid fierce opposition from the Seattle-based e-commerce giant. The advocates, who have complained for years about worker treatment at Amazon warehouses, came to see the Bessemer warehouse as a top prospect for gaining a foothold in one of America’s biggest and most powerful companies.

The defeat comes amid a series of clashes between the nation’s major technology companies and workers who say they are not reaping the rewards of the digital economy, at a time when the share prices of many tech giants have reached all time highs and created hundreds of billions of dollars in new wealth.

California voters approved a ballot initiative in November, Proposition 22, exempting Uber and Lyft from classifying millions of drivers as employees - in essence denying those gig workers a minimum wage and other benefits.

Similar fights have emerged at Facebook and Google, where large numbers of workers employed by third-party contractors complained they were not getting fair treatment by the tech behemoths.

After the Bessemer vote, labor advocates say they will argue their case that Amazon acted illegally to squash the vote -- and, more broadly, are placing their hopes in a new administration in Washington led by avowedly pro-union President Joe Biden, who gave his blessing to the Bessemer effort.

“Once workers understand that historically the work has had better working conditions and pays much better than what Amazon thinks they’re worth, then you’re going to have this upheaval,” said Randy Korgan, who leads efforts to unionize Amazon for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who was not involved in the Bessemer drive.

Companies like Amazon and Uber say they are already at the leading edge of providing strong compensation, benefits and flexibility to workers. Amazon routinely notes it pays a $15 minimum wage to workers -- which liberals have pushed for the national standard. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“We hope that with this election now over, there’s an opportunity to move from talk to action across the country,” the company said in a statement Friday. “While our team is more than a million people around the world and we’ve created 500,000 new jobs since Covid began, we’re still a tiny fraction of the workforce. There are 40 million Americans who make less than the starting wage at Amazon, and many more who don’t get health care through their employers, and we think that should be fixed.”

Still, the prospect of a pro-labor president - at a time when bashing technology companies has become a bipartisan pastime on Capitol Hill as well - threatens to tilt the policy battleground against Silicon Valley. The companies are facing a new threat of regulation that could limit their power and upend their business models. And unions are hoping Democrats pass legislation that would drastically strengthen workers’ ability to organize.

Biden, whose margin of victory was narrow in several heavily unionized battleground states, tweeted a video in February praising the organizing efforts in Alabama and declaring, “Unions built the middle class.” And his recent infrastructure plan includes pro-union measures.

Tech companies have long been successful at squashing worker activism. The industry has cultivated a sense of exceptionalism around its highest-paid workers, engineers who are lavished with perks, stock options and benefits. Silicon Valley likewise positioned the work itself as a benefit to society.

But that perception has been increasingly challenged in recent years.

A year ago, Amazon fired two tech workers after they publicly denounced conditions at its warehouses as unsafe during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2019, hundreds of Google employees signed a letter demanding better treatment of temporary workers. The same year, hundreds of engineers and tech workers from companies including Twitter and Facebook signed an open letter pledging not to work for DoorDash until the company stopped “cheating” drivers out of their tips and set a pay floor.

Though engineers are the highly paid superstars of Silicon Valley, tech campuses also rely on thousands of subcontracted shuttle bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and janitorial staff. At tech giants such as Google, its shadow workforce of contractors now outnumbers its pool of 135,000 full-time employees, and includes roles in engineering and management, but without access to the same benefits.

“The technology industry is revolutionary, but the way work is done still looks a lot like it always did,” said Heidi Shierholz, a former top economist for the Labor Department under President Barack Obama, now policy director at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.

The majority of workers in warehousing and transportation, like every other private sector industry in U.S., are not unionized. However, 17 percent are unionized nationwide, the second-highest rate for the private sector after utility workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That includes at shipping partner UPS, which is organized by the Teamsters. Rivals FedEx and Walmart are not unionized.

Amazon, facing political pressure in 2018, raised its minimum wage for its hundreds of thousands of warehouse workers to $15 an hour. That - along with benefits like health care and continuing education - have been primary selling points for the company, particularly as it fights off unionization. (The minimum wage in Alabama is $7.25, while the starting wage in Bessemer is $15.30.)

Nonsupervisory production workers in the warehousing and storage field average $18.52 an hour nationally, however, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This figure isn’t directly comparable since it reflects the average wage, not the minimum wage.

• • •

Amazon on Friday celebrated its win in a blog post touting its wages and benefits.

Amazon’s campaign against the organizing effort raised a public outcry and galvanized support for the union even before the 1,798 to 738 vote on Friday. Amazon bombarded workers with anti-union messages under the slogan “Do it without dues” through text messages, signs in bathroom stalls and mandatory meetings at the warehouse.

Amazon also successfully petitioned the county to change the stoplight patterns in front of its facility, in what some workers said was a bid to make it harder to organize. It had the U.S. Postal Service install an unmarked mailbox at the facility in the midst of the election, something the union said could prompt workers to think Amazon would count their votes. It also put up a website that said all workers would have to pay dues in Alabama, a state where that isn’t required with unionized employers.

An unnamed worker filed an unfair labor practices complaint to the National Labor Relations Board over the website. The union said it plans to file another about the mailbox, saying it sent a misleading message to workers about the election process.

“Anyone who has ever tried to make a change at their workplace isn’t surprised by Amazon’s behavior,” said Beth Allen, communications director for Communications Workers of America, which helped workers at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, launch a minority union in January.

Amazon has defended its approach to the union organizing effort. Company spokeswoman Heather Knox said, “It will impact everyone at the site, and it’s important all associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”

Amazon has said the mailbox provides a convenient way for workers to vote and that the website was an educational site to help employees understand the facts about joining a union.

Allen, like other labor advocates, said the experience made clear that action from Washington has become necessary. Many Democrats, including the president, are pushing for the Senate to pass the Pro Act, which would overhaul the country’s labor laws to give workers more leverage when organizing.

The bill would create harsher penalties for companies that violate laws protecting worker activism, allow gig workers to potentially form unions, and outlaw some of the coercive anti-union activity that many companies, including Amazon, have employed in the face of union drives.

“I can’t imagine a better example of why the Pro Act is necessary than the last few months of what Amazon has done in this election,” said labor lawyer Brandon Magner, who writes the Labor Law Lite newsletter.

Beyond proposing legislation, Biden also is nominating noted skeptics of tech industry power to key positions. That includes a prominent advocate for considering antitrust action against Amazon, Columbia University associate law professor Lina Khan, to the Federal Trade Commission, which shares with the Justice Department responsibility for enforcing the nation’s antitrust laws.

Biden also has chosen to the National Economic Council outspoken scholar Tim Wu, author of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age,” to advise him on technology and competition policy. Vanita Gupta, who in her previous post as president of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights issued pointed critiques of Facebook’s civil rights record, is Biden’s nominee as associate attorney general, the number three post at the Justice Department.

Those moves come in addition to federal and state moves - begun during the Trump administration - to pursue antitrust investigations against some of the biggest names in tech, including Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook.

Last year, Congress for the first time grilled the CEOs of those four companies, demanding answers from them on acquisitions and other monopolistic behaviors.

“The growth of big tech has outpaced legislation to control them,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said in an interview with The Post after the union vote count. “We need the Attorney General to start looking at the antitrust implications of some of the growth of some of these companies, and we need legislation to address it as well.”

• • •

Silicon Valley has had an anti-union reputation since the 1970s, as the region’s fruit orchards were transformed into an electronics hub. Industry leaders touted automation, but pioneered the use of subcontractors in its offices and relied on immigrants and undocumented workers in its factories to avoid offering the kind of protections standard in manufacturing jobs elsewhere in the country.

The perks now synonymous with working in tech, such as stock options and free lunches, were awarded to full-time employees in part to ward off labor unions. But companies narrowly defined who counted as a tech worker and had access to the benefits and high salaries.

Even as far back as 1998, engineers for Microsoft hired as contractors attempted to unionize, but efforts faltered. In 2000, the Communications Workers of America unsuccessfully tried to persuade 400 Amazon call-center workers in Seattle to unionize.

In the early 2010s, when bus drivers, security guards, cafeteria workers, and other subcontracted swaths of workers who served in the San Francisco Bay area’s sprawling tech campuses began unionizing and fighting for fair wages and working conditions, it drew little attention from the tech press or support from white collar tech workers.

But years of backlash against the tech industry, including public criticism from white collar workers disillusioned by what they thought was a different kind of capitalism, has exposed some of these hidden hierarchies. Now, tech companies are increasingly pressured to be accountable for the treatment of vital swaths of their workforce that were framed as somehow outside the core.

Companies like Facebook and Google, for instance, have faced pressure to treat content moderators better. Some contract workers have said they were underpaid and faced the worst of the Internet-hate speech, child porn, suicides, massacres-without adequate mental health support, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Companies says they work with third-party firms because it allows them to adjust to shifting demands around language and time zones and that they carefully choose partners who provide support for moderators’s mental health and well-being.

Last year, gig companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash spent more than $200 million on a California ballot initiative to roll back the gains after state legislators approved Assembly Bill 5 (AB5) which would reclassify certain gig workers as employees.

After the win, Uber and Lyft said they planned to loudly advocate for similar policies at the federal level.

And for years, critics have accused Amazon of underpaying and overworking its warehouse employees. Most of the company’s 1.3 million employees work in its logistics operation, picking, packing or stowing goods. Those jobs can be mundane and strenuous, with workers walking many miles a day, moving package after package in the process with few breaks.

The challenges came into sharp relief during the pandemic. Last October, the company disclosed that nearly 20,000 of its U.S. employees had tested positive, or had been presumed positive, for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic.

And earlier this month, the company came under fire after it disputed claims that its productivity demands are so intense that workers routinely urinate in bottles because they can’t take restroom breaks.

After Twitter lit up with claims by workers, particularly drivers who work for companies that deliver packages for Amazon, that they have needed to pee in bottles, Amazon apologized. The company acknowledged that its drivers, as well as those who deliver packages for other companies, often have trouble finding restrooms.

Meredith Whittaker, one of the organizers of a 2018 walkout at Google, when 20,000 workers stepped out of their offices to protest the company’s mishandling of sexual harassment allegations and other issues, said at the time, there was little recognition from Google leadership that organizing efforts might lead to efforts like the Alphabet Workers Union because the prospect seemed so foreign to Silicon Valley.

Despite the historical antipathy toward unions, Whittaker says what executives fear is a shift in power, “They’re afraid of losing control, control of workers, control of workplaces.”

Now, workers at various levels of the tech hierarchy see parallels in their efforts and the vote in Bessemer, even if they have yet to win major victories.

“It mirrors in a lot of ways how we had to take on Shipt and Target,” said Willy Solis, a labor organizer who helps run campaigns helping workers for Shipt, a grocery-delivery app owned by Target, through two worker-led groups, Shipt Shoppers and Gig Workers Collective. “We have to operate in a way that allows us to take on corporate giants that could quash us at any moment.”

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