Regina McDowell was not surprised that workers overwhelmingly rejected a union at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama earlier this month.
She spent 42 years working in a unionized electrical equipment factory in Indiana and was active in organizing drives – including traveling to the South to track down workers at their homes to make the pitch for her union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
“They’d sometimes shoo you off their property with a gun,” she said, adding that union dues were a sticking point for many.
“I think that gets them,” Ms. McDowell said. “That it’s less money they’ll have.”
The landslide failure of the Amazon vote at the warehouse in Bessemer has sparked soul-searching in the labor movement over what went wrong and what unions need to do differently in the future to regain ground.
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“Organizing in America is no longer a fair fight. Our labor laws are no longer an effective way to capture the will of American workers to form unions,” said Tim Schlittner, communications director for the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation in the United States.
“The sentiment this reinforces is that there’s an overdue and dramatic need for labor law reform in the United States.”
Worth the risk?
Still, for many workers, labor experts reckon the decision whether to support a union campaign often boils down to a risk assessment.
“Once they know how strongly Amazon opposes them, and how much resources Amazon is willing to spend to defeat a union, then their fear sets in,” said Tom Kochan, a professor of industrial relations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.
Mr. Kochan has conducted surveys that show high, and even growing, support for unions among Americans. But when it comes to individual campaigns in a workplace, “the reality sets in – when the employer campaigns so hard that you think you’re putting your job at risk.”
Changes in the economy have exacerbated the problem. Big companies like Amazon have operations dotting the country, making it easier for them to shift work elsewhere. Compared to a steel mill or a car assembly plant, an e-commerce warehouse has fewer fixed investments in equipment, which also makes it easier to shift jobs.
“Why should I as an individual worker, earning $15 an hour, risk three years of a battle with my employer to get something done,” said Mr. Kochan, “and at the same time, risk losing my job?”
The traditional view, shared by Mr. Kochan and many other labor experts, is that company measures to fight unionization, including tactics that would be illegal in other advanced countries, such as requiring workers to attend meetings to hear anti-union arguments, need to be reined in.
The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed legislation last month that would expand protections for labor organizing and collective bargaining. But the measure faces a difficult path in the Senate, where the two parties are evenly split and most legislation needs at least 60 backers to pass. A block of Republican senators from anti-union, “right-to-work” states is set to oppose the measure.
There was optimism among activists in the final months of the Amazon campaign, as it drew high-profile endorsements and national and international media attention, including a speech by President Joe Biden criticizing Amazon for hindering union drives at its warehouses.
Mr. Biden, a Democrat, is widely viewed as the most pro-union president in modern times.
But none of that was enough to counteract the view of some workers at the facility that pay and conditions were relatively good on top of the everyday barriers that have combined over recent years to drive union membership in the U.S. to historic lows.
Only 6.3% of private-sector workers belong to unions, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The comparable rate is 15.8% in neighboring Canada.
One response in recent years has been new types of organizing, which sidestep many legal restrictions on formal union campaigns to gain collective bargaining agreements with employers.
The Southern Workers Assembly, for instance, is a group that organizes protests and conducts education campaigns aimed at promoting labor and other social causes. The group helped organize events in February across the country in support of the Amazon workers.
Michael Hicks, an economist at Ball State University in Indiana, said unions need to refurbish their image. Many workplace advances such as the 40-hour week were enacted decades ago. Recent years have seen waves of factory shutdowns where companies have blamed unions for making the operation uncompetitive.
“Here in the Midwest, every time a factory closed, it had a huge spillover to the rest of the community,” he added. “It caused restaurants and bars to close, so the loss of other jobs.”
Younger generations have little contact with unions, simply because the share of workers covered by contracts has diminished so greatly.
Ms. McDowell, the former electrical worker, has seen these forces play out in her hometown of Peru, Indiana. Her plant, owned by France’s Schneider Electric SE, closed last April after a battle by the local union to retain it. The company said it was a difficult decision to close but necessary to remain competitive. Part of the work moved to Mexico.
Many workers viewed the move as an effort to get out of a unionized operation, a charge the company has denied.
But it also has eroded the stature of the union in the eyes of some, said Ms. McDowell, who remains strongly pro-union. “There were people who felt the union should have done more” to save the factory, she said.
“But once the company said they were going to close it, what can we do? It’s their company.”
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