It is hard to imagine a less hospitable environment in the United States for workers to organize than Alabama, where state law seriously curtails unions. But that is exactly what a group of Amazon warehouse employees in Bessemer, Alabama are attempting. In November, they notified the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of their intent to hold a vote on whether to unionize.
But failed promises from past US administrations have forced workers to fight for better conditions on uneven terrain. Although the right to unionize is formally reflected in US law, decisions by lawmakers and courts have “stacked the deck” in favor of employers.
According to a CNBC report, Amazon has sought to monitor workers’ organizing activities. An NLRB investigation found merit to the claim that Amazon illegally fired an employee, Gerald Bryson, for helping lead a protest over concerns about Covid-19 protections at one of the company’s warehouses. This finding is normally followed by settlement negotiations or a formal NLRB complaint before an administrative law judge. Amazon denies monitoring employees planning to organize and has indicated that it will dispute the NLRB investigation’s finding if the Board issues a complaint, asserting that Bryson was fired for violating the company’s harassment policy.
Amazon’s actions in Bessemer have prompted fears it is trying to impede workers’ unionization efforts. The company sought to delay a key NLRB hearing on whether the union the workers were seeking to join had sufficient support to hold an election. The Board rejected Amazon’s attempt to delay and its challenge to the union’s support.
Amazon told the Washington Post that it sought the delay to give the company adequate time to prepare for the hearing during its busy holiday season. Responding to an email from Human Rights Watch, Amazon stated that it does not believe that the group seeking unionization represents a majority of its workers and that its warehouse employees enjoy competitive pay and benefits.
Human Rights Watch has documented how federal law does not meet international standards on the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Employers can draw out cumbersome NLRB union election processes while mounting anti-union campaigns. Workers fired for organizing are only entitled to be rehired with backpay minus any amount they could have earned elsewhere in the interim, a penalty so low many employers treat it as a mere business expense. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised reforms to address these issues, but his administration largely abandoned the effort once in office.
The hostility of southern US states toward workers’ rights exacerbate the inadequacies of federal law. Almost all southern states have laws designed to disempower unions, and state lawmakers have intervened directly in unionization efforts.
President-elect Joe Biden should fulfill his campaign promises to bring US labor law closer to international standards. By increasing penalties for employers and instituting measures such as “card check” – which allows employees to bypass complex NLRB elections if a sufficient number sign union authorization cards – workers, like those in Bessemer, will be better able to join together to protect their rights.