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    Amazon Union Vote: Labor Loss May Bring Shift in Strategy

    After an election defeat in Alabama, many in labor are shifting strategies, wary of the challenges and expense of winning votes site by site.The lopsided vote against a union at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., was a major disappointment to organized labor, which regards the fight with Amazon as central to labor’s survival. Yet the defeat doesn’t mark the end of the campaign against Amazon so much as a shift in strategy.In interviews, labor leaders said they would step up their informal efforts to highlight and resist the company’s business and labor practices rather than seek elections at individual job sites, as in Bessemer. The approach includes everything from walkouts and protests to public relations campaigns that draw attention to Amazon’s leverage over its customers and competitors.“We’re focused on building a new type of labor movement where we don’t rely on the election process to raise standards,” said Jesse Case, secretary-treasurer of a Teamsters local in Iowa that is seeking to rally the state’s Amazon drivers and warehouse workers to pressure the company.The strategy reflects a paradox of the labor movement: While the Gallup Poll has found that roughly two-thirds of Americans approve of unions — up from half in 2009, a low point — it has rarely been more difficult to unionize a large company.One reason is that labor law gives employers sizable advantages. The law typically forces workers to win elections at individual work sites of a company like Amazon, which would mean hundreds of separate campaigns. It allows employers to campaign aggressively against unions and does little to punish employers that threaten or retaliate against workers who try to organize.Lawyers representing management say that union membership has declined — from about one-third of private-sector workers in the 1950s to just over 6 percent today — because employers have gotten better at addressing workers’ needs. “Employees have access to the company in order to express any concerns they might have,” said Michael J. Lotito of the firm Littler Mendelson.But labor leaders say wealthy, powerful companies have grown much bolder in pressing the advantages that labor law affords them.Before Amazon, few companies better epitomized this posture than Walmart, which union leaders targeted in the 1990s and 2000s, convinced that the retail giant was driving down wages and benefits across the retail industry.Walmart, in turn, took sometimes drastic steps to keep unions at bay. In 2000, after a small group of meat cutters at a Texas store decided to unionize, the company eliminated the position across other stores. Five years later, when workers at a Walmart in Quebec were seeking to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union, the company shut the store. Walmart said the store was not performing well financially.“Everywhere they tried, they were defeated,’’ Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said of the unions. “Walmart would send teams to swamp the stores to work against a union. They are good at it.”As with Walmart, labor leaders believed it was critical to establish a foothold at Amazon, which influences pay and working conditions for millions of workers thanks to the competitive pressure it puts on rivals in industries like groceries and fashion.But the labor movement’s failure to make inroads at Walmart despite investing millions of dollars has loomed over its thinking on Amazon. “They felt so burned by trying to organize Walmart and getting basically nowhere,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.It was only a relatively small, scrappy union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, that felt the election in Alabama was worth the large investment. As the votes were being tallied, Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, attributed the one-sided result to a “broken” election system that favors employers.Amazon saw things differently. “It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company said in a statement. “Our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union. Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them.”Yet even as elections have often proven futile, labor has enjoyed some success over the years with an alternative model — what Dr. Milkman called the “air war plus ground war.”The idea is to combine workplace actions like walkouts (the ground war) with pressure on company executives through public relations campaigns that highlight labor conditions and enlist the support of public figures (the air war). The Service Employees International Union used the strategy to organize janitors beginning in the 1980s, and to win gains for fast-food workers in the past few years, including wage increases across the industry.“There are almost never any elections,” Dr. Milkman said. “It’s all about putting pressure on decision makers at the top.”In some respects, labor’s effort to gain traction at Amazon had begun to follow this playbook before the campaign in Alabama. In early 2019, Mr. Appelbaum’s union, working with nonprofit organizations, local politicians and other labor groups, helped scuttle a deal that would have brought a second Amazon headquarters to New York by drawing attention to the company’s anti-union posture.That fall, several nonprofit groups formed a coalition, called Athena, to help persuade Americans that the company was a monopolist and that it exploited workers. And during the pandemic, Amazon workers around the country have joined groups and staged walkouts to amplify their concerns about safety and pay.Labor leaders and progressive activists and politicians said they intended to escalate both the ground war and the air war against Amazon after the failed union election, though some skeptics within the labor movement are likely to resist spending more revenue, which is in the billions of dollars a year but declining.More than 1,000 Amazon workers across the country have contacted the retail workers union in recent months and many appear to be girding for confrontation with the company.Mr. Appelbaum said in an interview that elections should remain an important part of labor’s Amazon strategy. “I think we opened the door,” he said. “If you want to build real power, you have to do it with a majority of workers.”But other leaders said elections should be de-emphasized. Mr. Case said the Teamsters were trying to organize Amazon workers in Iowa so they could take actions like labor stoppages and enlist members of the community — for example, by turning them out for rallies.During the pandemic, Amazon workers around the country have joined groups and staged walkouts to amplify their concerns about safety and pay.Elaine Cromie for The New York TimesLate last year, a nonprofit group called the Solidarity Fund invited tech industry workers to apply for stipends that would help fund their organizing efforts. According to Jess Kutch, the group’s executive director, Amazon employees claimed about half of the roughly $100,000 that the group has distributed, reflecting the growing activism of its employees.As for external pressure, progressive groups said they intended to draw attention to a broad range of concerns about Amazon, from its power over small businesses to the potentially questionable uses of its home security technology, Ring.“We will be raising questions around Ring and the breadth of agreements they have with local police departments,” as they relate to surveillance of people of color, said Lauren Jacobs, a longtime labor organizer who now runs the Partnership for Working Families, a network that seeks to reduce economic inequality and that is a co-founder of the Athena coalition.Many labor officials urged Congress to increase its scrutiny of Amazon’s labor practices, including its use of mandatory meetings, texts and signs to discourage workers in Alabama from unionizing. “There have to be consequences for people like Bezos,” said Richard Bensinger, a former A.F.L.-C.I.O. organizing director who is advising workers at other Amazon facilities, referring to Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder. “We need congressional hearings to publicize this stuff.”Some members of Congress indicated that they would heed this call. “How long will Jeff Bezos thumb his nose at the United States Senate?” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said in an interview, citing Mr. Bezos’s refusal to appear at a recent Senate hearing on executive pay. “He has done it in the past, but the winds are blowing from a different direction today.”Other labor leaders said the loss in Alabama should prompt Congress to rewrite labor law to make it easier for workers to form unions. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, which the House passed last month, would outlaw mandatory anti-union meetings and impose penalties on employers who violate labor law. (There are currently no financial penalties for doing so.)But after Bessemer, many labor leaders think Congress should go further, letting workers unionize companywide or industrywide, not just by work site as is typical. The loss “can be an opportunity to look beyond the PRO Act and why we need labor law with a focus on the sector,” Larry Cohen, chairman of the progressive advocacy group Our Revolution and a former president of the Communications Workers of America, said in a text message.Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, agreed that the key to taking on a company as powerful as Amazon was to make it easier for workers to unionize across a company or industry. “It’s not going to happen one warehouse at a time,” she said.But Ms. Henry said workers and politicians could pressure Amazon to come to the bargaining table long before the law formally requires it — in the same way that President Biden warned that there should be no intimidation or coercion during the Alabama union election.“It would be incredibly powerful if Biden and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh called on McDonald’s and Amazon and other major corporations to set a bargaining table with workers and government and they would help support it,” she said.Michael Corkery More

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    Amazon’s Clashes With Labor: Days of Conflict and Control

    Amazon was built on an underdog philosophy, but its workers are finding a voice. That presents a problem for the company that goes far beyond the union vote in Alabama.It has been Day 1 at Amazon ever since the company began more than a quarter-century ago. Day 1 is Amazon shorthand for staying hungry, making bold decisions and never forgetting about the customer. This start-up mentality — underdogs against the world — has been extremely good for Amazon’s shoppers and shareholders.Day 1 holds less appeal for some of Amazon’s employees, especially those doing the physical work in the warehouses. A growing number feel the company is pushing them past their limits and risking their health. They would like Amazon to usher in a more benign Day 2.The clash between the desire for Day 1 and Day 2 has been unfolding in Alabama, where Amazon warehouse workers in the community of Bessemer have voted on whether to form a union. Government labor regulators are getting ready to sort through the votes in the closely watched election. A result may come as soon as this week. If the union gains a foothold, it will be the first in the company’s history.Attention has been focused on Bessemer, but the struggle between Day 1 and Day 2 is increasingly playing out everywhere in Amazon’s world. At its heart, the conflict is about control. To maintain Day 1, the company needs to lower labor costs and increase productivity, which requires measuring and tweaking every moment of a worker’s existence.That kind of control is at the heart of the Amazon enterprise. The idea of surrendering it is the company’s greatest horror. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, wrote in his 2016 shareholder letter: “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”For many years, Amazon has managed to maintain control and keep Day 1 going by dazzling with delivery and counted on the media, regulators and politicians to ignore everything unpleasant. The few stories about workers rarely got traction.But it is now the second-largest private employer in the country. There is widespread pro-worker sentiment in the United States and a pro-union president. In Bessemer, many of the pro-union workers are Black, which makes this a civil rights story as well.Amazon needs to measure and tweak every moment of a worker’s existence to maintain its edge, but it is facing more pushback against its control.Bob Miller for The New York TimesSo the costs associated with Day 1 are finally coming into view. And it is showing up not only in Alabama, but in the form of lawsuits, restive workers at other warehouses, Congressional oversight, scrutiny from labor regulators and, most noisily, on Twitter.In recent weeks, a heated discussion about whether Amazon’s workers must urinate in bottles because they have no time to go to the bathroom — a level of control that few modern corporations would dare exercise — has raged on Twitter.“Amazon is reorganizing the very nature of retail work — something that traditionally is physically undemanding and has a large amount of downtime — into something more akin to a factory, which never lets up,” said Spencer Cox, a former Amazon worker who is writing his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Minnesota about how the company is transforming labor. “For Amazon, this isn’t about money. This is about control of workers’ bodies and every possible moment of their time.”Amazon did not have a comment for this story.Signs that Amazon is facing more pushback against its control have started to pile up. In February, Lovenia Scott, a former warehouse worker for the company in Vacaville, Calif., accused Amazon in a lawsuit of having such an “immense volume of work to be completed” that she and her colleagues did not get any breaks. Ms. Scott is seeking class-action status. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the suit.Last month, the California Labor Commissioner said 718 delivery drivers who worked for Green Messengers, a Southern California contractor for Amazon, were owed $5 million in wages that never made it to their wallets. The drivers were paid for 10-hour days, the labor commissioner said, but the volume of packages was so great that they often had to work 11 or more hours and through breaks.Amazon said it no longer worked with Green Messengers and would appeal the decision. Green Messengers could not be reached for comment.An Amazon warehouse in the Canadian province of Ontario showed rapid spread of Covid-19 in March. “Our investigation determined a closure was required to break the chain of transmission,” said Dr. Lawrence Loh, the regional medical officer. “We provided our recommendation to Amazon.” The company, he said, “did not answer.” The health officials ordered the workers to self-isolate, effectively shutting the facility for two weeks. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the situation.And five U.S. senators wrote a letter to the company last month demanding more information about why it was equipping its delivery vans with surveillance cameras that constantly monitor the driver. The technology, the senators wrote, “raises important privacy and worker oversight questions Amazon must answer.”Amazon has presented a different opinion of what Day 1 means for workers. The first thing it mentions in its official statement on Bessemer is the starting pay of $15.30 per hour, double the federal minimum wage.Mr. Cox, who worked in an Amazon warehouse in Washington state, said the higher pay has paradoxically fueled the discontent. The pay “is better than working at a gas station, so people naturally want to keep these jobs,” he said. “That’s why they want them to be fair. I saw a lot of depression and anxiety when I worked for Amazon.”(Mr. Cox said he was fired by Amazon in 2018 for organizing. Amazon told him he had violated safety protocol).The confrontation between Day 1 and Day 2 has been sharpest over bladders.The topic erupted last month when Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, tweeted at the company, “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles.”Amazon’s social media account fired back: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”This isn’t the way corporations usually talk to members of Congress, even on Twitter. On Friday, after days of being pummeled on the issue, Amazon apologized to Representative Pocan, saying: “The tweet was incorrect. It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers.” Amazon blamed Covid and “traffic,” not its punishing schedules.Representative Pocan responded on Saturday with a sigh. “This is not about me, this is about your workers — who you don’t treat with enough respect or dignity,” he wrote.The bathroom question is one on which the company has long been vulnerable. Enforcement files from regulators in Amazon’s home state of Washington indicate that questions about whether the company had an appropriate number of bathrooms in its Seattle headquarters have arisen over the past dozen years.The company has “insufficient lavatory facilities for male employees” according to a 2012 complaint received by the state’s Department of Labor and Industries. “Employees routinely traverse multiple buildings in search of available facilities.”A 2014 complaint filed by an Amazon employee to the same department said employees got 12 minutes a day for “bathroom, getting water, personal calls, etc.” outside of normally scheduled breaks. Those who needed further toilet time had to provide a doctor’s note “explaining why the need to void more than usual.”The complaints went beyond Amazon’s white-collar offices. A warehouse worker told Labor and Industries in 2009 that a manager and a human resources representative had told her that “there would be disciplinary action against me if I continue to use the bathroom on company time” — she meant unscheduled breaks. The employee added that the H.R. representative told her that “it was not fair to the company that I was getting paid when I’m not working because I’m in the bathroom.”Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle. Some employees have filed bathroom-related complaints, including saying some of the offices have too few restrooms.Miles Fortune for The New York TimesAmazon did not respond to questions about the enforcement reports. A spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industries declined to comment, except to note that outside of Amazon, “We really don’t get a lot of bathroom-related complaints.”Other technology companies have prided themselves on overriding mere bodily needs. Marissa Mayer, an early Google employee, attributed the search company’s success to working 130 hours a week — entirely possible, she said in a 2016 interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, “if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.”When Google was a start-up, the notion was that you gave up everything — family, sleep, diversion — so you might become successful and rich. But former workers at Amazon warehouses said that under the Day 1 philosophy, they suffered merely to stay employed.“I believe many employees have indirectly lost their job for going to the bathroom. You’re like, can I hold it to break time?” said John Burgett, who blogged for several years about working in an Amazon warehouse in Indiana.His conclusion on his last entry, in 2016: Amazon was “testing the limits of human beings as a technical tool.” More

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    Google Aims to Be the Anti-Amazon of E-Commerce. It Has a Long Way to Go.

    Google presents itself to independent sellers as cheaper and less restrictive. But it is not clear whether it can change people’s habits of going straight to Amazon.OAKLAND, Calif. — Google tried to copy Amazon’s playbook to become the shopping hub of the internet, with little success. Now it is trying something different: the anti-Amazon strategy.Google is trying to present itself as a cheaper and less restrictive option for independent sellers. And it is focused on driving traffic to sellers’ sites, not selling its own version of products, as Amazon does.In the last year, Google eliminated fees for merchants and allowed sellers to list their wares in its search results for free. It is also trying to make it easier for small, independent shops to upload their inventory of products to appear in search results and buy ads on Google by teaming up with Shopify, which powers online stores for 1.7 million merchants who sell directly to consumers.But like Google’s many attempts during its two-decade quest to compete with Amazon, this one shows little sign of working. Google has nothing as alluring as the $295 billion that passed through Amazon’s third-party marketplace in 2020. The amount of goods people buy on Google is “very small” by comparison — probably around $1 billion, said Juozas Kaziukenas, the founder of Marketplace Pulse, a research company.Amazon is a fixture in the lives of many Americans. It has usurped Google as the starting point for shoppers and has become equally essential for marketers. Amazon’s global advertising business grew 30 percent to $17.6 billion in 2020, trailing only Google and Facebook in the United States.But as the pandemic has forced many stores to go online, it has created a new opening for Google to woo sellers who feel uneasy about building their businesses on Amazon.Christina Stang, 33, opened Fritzy’s Roller Skate Shop near Pacific Beach in San Diego last March. Shelter-in-place orders forced her to set up an online storefront on Shopify.She got lucky. She was sitting on a huge supply of skates when demand surged as skating videos became popular on TikTok during the pandemic.Christina Stang, the owner of Fritzy’s, avoided selling on Amazon because of its fees, but now Google has suspended her account because of a discrepancy in shipping costs.John Francis Peters for The New York TimesShe linked her Shopify account to Google’s retail software and started buying so-called smart shopping ads. Working within an allotted budget, Google’s algorithms pick where to place ads and what products to feature. In 2020, she spent $1,800 on the ads, which were viewed 3.6 million times and led to $247,000 in sales, she said.She considered selling her products on Amazon’s marketplace, but she worried what Amazon’s fees would mean for her already-thin profit margins. She also liked that Google redirected people to her carefully curated website rather than keeping them inside its own store, as Amazon does.“I could sell on Amazon and not make any real money but have a bigger online presence,” Ms. Stang said. “It didn’t seem like a great idea.”Recently, however, she has experienced one of the drawbacks of being stuck in the middle of the partnership between Google and Shopify. Her shop has been unable to list any products since January because Google suspended her account. It said her shipping costs appeared more expensive on Google than on her Shopify-powered website, even though they were no different.Shopify told her that it was a Google issue. Google’s customer service representatives recommended that she hire a web designer. She continues to manage without Google, but it has tainted her largely positive experience.“This has completely cut me off at the knees,” she said. “I’m a small business, and I don’t have hundreds or thousands of dollars to resolve this.”Sellers often complain about Amazon’s fees, which can account for a quarter of every sale, not including the cost of advertising, and the pressure to spend more to succeed. Merchants on Amazon do not have a direct relationship with their customers, limiting their ability to communicate with them and to generate future business. And because everything is contained within the Amazon world, it is harder to create a unique look and feel that express a brand’s identity the way companies can on their own websites.But since 2002, when it started a price comparison site called Froogle, a confusing play on the word “frugal” that required a rebranding five years later, Google has struggled to chart a cohesive vision for its shopping experience.It tried to challenge Amazon directly by piloting its own same-day delivery service, but it shuttered the project as costs ballooned. It tried to forge partnerships with traditional retail giants, only to see the alliances wilt from a lack of sales. It built its own marketplace to make it easier for shoppers to buy the things they find on Google, but was not able to break consumers from their Amazon habit.Last year, Google brought in Bill Ready, a former chief operating officer at PayPal, to fill a new senior position and spearhead an overhaul of its shopping strategy.Around the time of his hiring, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, warned senior executives that the new approach could mean a short-term crimp in advertising revenue, according to two people familiar with the conversations, who requested anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss them publicly. He asked teams to support the e-commerce push because it was a company priority.When the pandemic spurred huge demand for online shopping, Google eliminated fees, allowing retailers to list products for free and walking back a 2012 decision to allow only advertisers to display goods on its shopping site.Three months after hiring Mr. Ready, Google said the free listings would show up on its main search results. Then Google said customers could buy products directly from merchants on Google with no commissions. It also said Google would open its platform to third parties like Shopify and PayPal so that sellers could continue to use their existing tools to manage inventory and orders and processing payments.Google brought in Bill Ready to spearhead an overhaul of its shopping strategy.Kendrick Brinson for The New York TimesThe partnership with Shopify was especially meaningful because hundreds of thousands of small businesses have flocked to the software platform during the pandemic. About 9 percent of U.S. online shopping sales took place on storefronts powered by Shopify as of October, according to research firm eMarketer. That was up from 6 percent the prior year and second only to Amazon’s share of 37 percent.Harley Finkelstein, Shopify’s president, said Google and Shopify were developing new ways for merchants to sell through Google services, such as experiments to allow customers to buy items directly on YouTube and to display what products stores are carrying in Google Maps.Mr. Ready walked a fine line when it came to Amazon, which is a big buyer of ads on Google, but he made it clear he believed Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce posed a threat to other merchants.“Nobody wants to live in a world where there is only one place to buy something, and retailers don’t want to be dependent on gatekeepers,” he said in an interview.Google said it had increased the number of sellers appearing in its results by 80 percent in 2020, with the most significant growth coming from small and midsize businesses. And existing retailers are listing more products.Overstock.com, a seller of discount furniture and home bedding, said it had paid to list products on Google in the past. But now that listings are free, Overstock is adding low-margin products, too.“When all shopping starts and stops at Amazon, that’s bad for the industry,” said Jonathan E. Johnson, Overstock’s chief executive. “It’s nice to have another 800-pound tech gorilla in this space.”What remains unclear is whether increasing the number of merchants and listings on Google will ultimately change online shopping habits.BACtrack, a maker of breathalyzers, has more than doubled its advertising spending on Amazon in the last two years because that is where the customers are, it said, while it has spent 6 percent less advertising its products on Google.“It seems like more and more people are skipping Google and going straight to Amazon,” said Keith Nothacker, the chief executive of BACtrack. More

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    Why Biden May Not Be Able to Save Unions

    Labor leaders are effusive in praising the new president, but experts worry that he may be powerless to reverse unions’ long-term decline.Two months into the new administration, labor leaders are proclaiming Joseph R. Biden Jr. to be the most union-friendly president of their lifetime — and “maybe ever,” as Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in an interview.Mr. Biden has moved quickly to oust government officials whom unions deemed hostile to labor, and to reverse Trump-era rules that weakened worker protections. He has pushed through legislation sending hundreds of billions of dollars to cities and states, aid that public-sector unions consider essential, and tens of billions to shore up union pension plans.Perhaps most notably, the president appeared in a video alluding to a union vote underway at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, warning that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda” — an unusually outspoken move by a president in a standard union election.Yet Mr. Rosenthal and other labor advocates confess to a gnawing anxiety: Despite Mr. Biden’s remarkable support for their movement, unions may not be much better off when he leaves office than when he entered it.That’s because labor law gives employers considerable power to fend off union organizing, which is one reason that union membership has sunk to record lows in recent decades. And Senate Republicans will seek to thwart any legislative attempts — such as the PRO Act, which the House passed this month — to reverse the trend.“The PRO Act is vital,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “But what happens now in terms of Republicans in Congress, the Senate filibuster, is anyone’s guess.”Until recently, it was far from clear that Mr. Biden would govern in such a union-friendly way. Though he has long promoted the benefits of unions and cited close relationships with labor leaders, the president has also maintained ties to corporate figures like Steve Ricchetti, a counselor to the president who was a lobbyist for companies including AT&T and Eli Lilly. Mr. Biden voted over the years for free-trade agreement that unions opposed.Then there is the fact that he served as vice president in an administration that sometimes annoyed unions, as when President Barack Obama weighed in on behalf of a school district in Rhode Island that fired the faculty of an underperforming school. Mr. Biden also captained an Obama administration team that negotiated with Republicans over deficit reduction, an effort that raised hackles within labor.During the 2020 presidential campaign, Mr. Biden’s allies and advisers argued that he had merely acted as a loyal deputy to his boss, and that he would prove more in sync with labor as president.But for many in labor who had doubts, Mr. Biden has exceeded expectations. Shortly after his swearing-in as president, the White House asked for the resignation of the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel, Peter B. Robb, whose office enforces the labor rights of private-sector employees.Mr. Robb was deeply unpopular with organized labor, which viewed him as overly friendly to management. His term was set to expire in November, and presidents of both parties have allowed general counsels to serve out their time in office.But with no letter of resignation from Mr. Robb forthcoming on Inauguration Day, the White House fired him.“What was really promising and exciting to those of us who care was the firing of Peter Robb and the dramatic way it came down,” said Lisa Canada, the political and legislative director for Michigan’s state carpenters union.Yet it is the Alabama video that most clearly highlights the differences between Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama on labor. When state workers flocked to Madison, Wis., in 2011 protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to roll back their bargaining rights, union leaders pleaded with the White House to send a top administration official in solidarity. The White House declined, though Mr. Obama did say the plan seemed like “an assault on unions.”“We made every imaginable effort to get someone there,” said Larry Cohen, who was then president of the Communications Workers of America and is now chair of the progressive advocacy group Our Revolution. “They would not allow anyone to go.”Protesters at the Wisconsin State Capitol in 2011 opposed a bill curbing union bargaining rights. The Obama administration declined labor leaders’ pleas to send a representative.Darren Hauck/ReutersBy contrast, Mr. Biden seemed eager to offer his statement alluding to the Amazon election, which a number of labor leaders had urged him to deliver.“We haven’t seen this level of elected support for organizing since Franklin Roosevelt,” said Mr. Cohen, who expected the Amazon statement to discourage anti-union behavior among employers.Still, Mr. Cohen and other labor officials said that absent a change in labor law, union membership was likely to follow a path under Mr. Biden that was similar to the one it took under Mr. Obama, when the share of workers in unions dropped about 1.5 percentage points. Over all, union membership has fallen from about one-third of workers in the 1950s to just over one-tenth today, and a mere 6 percent in the private sector.“Because of growing inequality, our economy is on a trajectory to implosion,” said Richard Trumka, the president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., in an interview. The PRO Act “will increase wages and slow that trajectory,” he added.Under current law, employers can inundate workers with anti-union messages — through mandatory meetings, email, signs in the workplace — while unions often have trouble gaining access to workers. And though it is technically illegal to threaten or fire workers who take part in an organizing campaign, employers face minimal punishment for doing so.Labor board cases can drag on for years, after which an employer frequently must only post a notice promising to abide by labor law in the future, said Wilma B. Liebman, a former board chairwoman. There are no monetary penalties for such violations, though workers can be made whole through back pay.The PRO Act would outlaw mandatory anti-union meetings, enact financial penalties for threatening or firing workers and help wrongly terminated workers win quick reinstatement. It would also give unions leverage by allowing them to engage in secondary boycotts — say, asking customers to boycott restaurants that buy food from a bakery they are trying to unionize.Glenn Spencer, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, criticized the bill as “a radical rewrite of labor law” and said the provision on secondary boycotts could be highly disruptive for their targets.“Those companies don’t have anything to do with the nature of the labor dispute, but they’re suddenly wrapped up in it,” Mr. Spencer said.Even with the legal protections envisioned under the PRO Act, however, it will be hard for unions to make large-scale gains in coverage, many experts say. Labor law often effectively requires workers to win union elections one work site at a time, which could mean hundreds of separate elections at Amazon alone.The system is “optimized to build weak labor movements,” said David Rolf, a former vice president of the Service Employees International Union, who favors industrywide unions and bargaining.And the PRO Act’s chances for enactment are remote so long as opponents have recourse to the Senate filibuster, which effectively requires 60 votes to pass legislation.Labor organizers outside an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Mr. Biden appeared in a video alluding to the current union vote there and warning against anti-union efforts.Bob Miller for The New York TimesSenator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, appeared before the executive council of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. this month to make the case for exempting certain types of legislation from the filibuster. In a statement after the meeting, the council members called for “swift and necessary changes” to Senate rules to remove the filibuster as an obstacle to progressive legislation.Mr. Biden has since indicated that he is open to weakening the filibuster, though it is not clear whether the PRO Act would benefit. Mr. Trumka said he was confident that Mr. Biden would seize the opportunity that Mr. Obama had let pass when Democrats enjoyed a large Senate majority but still failed to change labor law. “This president understands the power of solving inequalities through collective bargaining,” Mr. Trumka said.But others are skeptical that Mr. Biden, for all his outspokenness on behalf of unions, will be in a position to deliver.“The proof is in the pudding,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “We know where his heart is. It doesn’t mean anything will change.” More

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    Organizing Gravediggers, Cereal Makers and, Maybe, Amazon Employees

    A group of gravediggers in Columbus, Ohio, who just negotiated a 3 percent raise. The poultry plant that processes chicken nuggets for McDonald’s. The workers who make Cap’n Crunch in Iowa. The women’s shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is not the largest labor union in the United States, but it may be one of the most eclectic. Its membership, totaling about 100,000 workers, seems to reach into every conceivable corner of the American economy, stretching from the cradle (they make Gerber baby food) to the grave (those cemetery workers in Columbus).And now it is potentially on the cusp of breaking into Amazon, one of the world’s most dominant companies, which since its founding has beaten back every attempt to organize any part of its massive work force in the United States.This month, a group of 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., are voting whether to join the R.W.D.S.U. It is the first large-scale union vote in Amazon’s history, and a decision by the workers to organize would have implications for the labor movement across the country, especially as retail giants like Amazon and Walmart have gained power — and added workers — during the pandemic.The Amazon campaign, said Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, “is about the future of work and how working people are going to be treated in the new economy.”For some labor activists, the union and its early success at the Bessemer warehouse represent the vanguard of the modern organizing campaigns. It is outspoken on social issues and savvy on social media — posting a TikTok video of support from the rapper Killer Mike and tweeting an endorsement from the National Football League Players Association during the Super Bowl.“It’s a bit of an odd-duck union,” said Joshua Freeman, a professor emeritus of labor history at Queens College at the City University of New York. “They keep morphing over the years and have been very inventive in their tactics.”The union is also racially, geographically and politically diverse. Founded during a heyday of organized labor in New York City in 1937 — and perhaps best known for representing workers at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s — most of its members are now employed in right-to-work states, across the South and rural Midwest.Workers lowering a lid onto a vault at Union Cemetery in Columbus. Their organization is known as “a bit of an odd-duck union” for the variety of industries it covers.Brian Kaiser for The New York TimesLou Willis, operating a backhoe at the cemetery.Brian Kaiser for The New York TimesBrian Kaiser for The New York TimesWhile the union’s overall membership has stagnated over the past decade, the number of members in its Mid-South office, which includes Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana, has nearly doubled, to about 9,000 from 4,700 in 2011, driven by aggressive recruitment efforts in the poultry, warehouse and health care industries. More than half of its members across the country are workers of color.In the Mid-South office, which is leading the organizing at Amazon, local officials begin almost every meeting with a prayer, lean in favor of gun rights and say about half their members supported Donald J. Trump’s re-election bid. (Unlike the national union, which publicly backed President Biden, the southern office did not issue an endorsement of either candidate.)“We are known as the church union,” said Randy Hadley, president of the Mid-South Council. “We put God first, family second and then our jobs.”The retail and wholesale workers union is run nationally by Mr. Appelbaum, a Harvard Law School graduate and former Democratic Party operative from Hartford, Conn., who has written about his identity as a gay, Jewish labor leader.Since becoming union president in 1998, Mr. Appelbaum has created a niche by organizing workers from a wide variety of professions: airline caterers, employees in fast fashion stores and gardeners at a cannabis grow house. “When you buy a joint, look for the union label,” Mr. Appelbaum said jokingly.Stuart Appelbaum, the union president, in 2016. The Amazon effort, he said, “is about the future of work and how working people are going to be treated in the new economy.”Christian Hansen for The New York TimesThe strategy has helped the union to keep flourishing, even as its core work force in brick-and-mortar retail stores continues to shrink as shopping moves online.The union often ties its organizing campaigns to the broader struggle to advance the rights of vulnerable workers, such as the predominately gay, lesbian, trans and nonbinary employees in sex toy shops in New York and undocumented immigrants working in the city’s carwashes.After World War II, the union advocated for Black servicemen who were being shut out of jobs at Macy’s, which paid the highest commissions. “It has a history of being a militant, feisty, left-wing crowd,” Professor Freeman said.Even the Alabama office, which leans further to the right on some issues, has stood up for workers in ways that are locally unpopular.Mr. Hadley said one of his biggest accomplishments was negotiating a paid holiday on Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, at a Tyson poultry plant in Tennessee, where a large number of Somali immigrants work.“We had Muslims in the facility, they said, ‘We look at that day like Christmas,’ and I thought, ‘Who am I to judge?’” recalled Mr. Hadley, a former meat cutter. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”The president of the union’s Mid-South Council, Randy Hadley, back row, center right, with other leaders and staff in Birmingham, Ala. The Mid-South office is leading the organizing at Amazon.Retail, Wholesale and Department Store UnionRatified in 2008, the Muslim holiday took the place of Labor Day as one of the paid holidays that workers were allowed at the facility, and was criticized by some as being un-American.Over the years, the union has faced some powerful enemies. In the 1960s, its Black organizers were threatened — one was even shot at — while trying to sign up food industry workers across the South.Johnny Whitaker, a former dairy worker who started as a union organizer in the 1970s, said he had grown up in a white family in Hanceville, Ala., without much money. Still, he was shocked by the working conditions and racism he witnessed when he started organizing in the poultry plants years ago.Black workers were classified differently from their white counterparts and paid much less. Women were expected to engage in sexual acts with managers in exchange for more hours, he said. Many workers could not read or write.Despite threats that they would lose their jobs if they organized, thousands of poultry workers have joined the R.W.D.S.U. over the past three decades, though the industry still is predominantly nonunion.Roberto Cuellar, a union member and flight coordinator at Flying Food Group, an airline caterer whose workers are represented by the R.W.D.S.U.Meghan Marin for The New York TimesMr. Cuellar checked meals at Kennedy International Airport before a flight.Meghan Marin for The New York TimesMeghan Marin for The New York TimesWhen a small group of Amazon workers contacted the union in late August about their interest in organizing the Bessemer warehouse, Mr. Whitaker acknowledged, “there was a lot of doubt” internally about the idea.The R.W.D.S.U. had tried to lay the groundwork for organizing Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island in 2019, but the effort failed when the company pulled the plug on its plans to build a second headquarters in New York, known as HQ2, partly because of political pressure to allow organizing at its facilities.“What we learned from HQ2 was that Amazon was going to do anything it possibly could to avoid having a union at any of its workplaces,” Mr. Appelbaum said.At the time, Amazon said it canceled its plans after “a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project.”But the more the workers in Alabama kept talking to the union about their working conditions, the more Mr. Appelbaum and others believed the warehouse was fertile ground for organizing.The employee cafeteria at Flying Food Group.Meghan Marin for The New York TimesThe workers described the control that Amazon exerts over their work lives, including tracking their time in the restroom or other time spent away from their primary task in the warehouse. Some workers have said they can be penalized for taking too much time away from their specific assignments.“We are talking about bathroom breaks,” said Mr. Whitaker, an executive vice president at the union. “It’s the year 2021 and workers are being penalized for taking a pee.”In an email, an Amazon spokeswoman said the company does not penalize workers for taking bathroom breaks. “Those are not our policies,” she said. “People can take bathroom breaks.”The campaign in Bessemer has created some strange political bedfellows. Mr. Biden expressed his support for the Alabama workers to vote freely in the mail-in election, which ends later this month. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida went even further, encouraging the Bessemer workers to unionize in order to protect themselves against the “woke culture” at Amazon.A greenhouse in the PharmaCann facility near Montgomery, N.Y. The company grows cannabis for medical use in several states; the R.W.D.S.U. has organized workers there.David Steinberg for The New York TimesMark Etri Jr. assembling cartridges.David Steinberg for The New York TimesLiz Ferran tending to plants.David Steinberg for The New York TimesIf the union wins the election in Bessemer, the effort to court workers will continue. In a right-to-work state, workers are not required to pay union dues even if they are represented by a union.At a Quaker Oats plant in Iowa, which is also a right-to-work state, the R.W.D.S.U. finds ways to motivate workers to join the union by posting the names of workers who have not yet joined on a bulletin board.“In a right-to-work state, you are always organizing,” Mr. Hadley said.Early in the afternoon of Oct. 20, Mr. Hadley met with about 20 organizers before they headed out to the Bessemer warehouse to begin their campaign to sign up workers. The plan was for the organizers to stand at the warehouse gates talking to workers early in the morning and in the evening when their shift changes. In a pep talk with the group, Mr. Hadley invoked the story of David and Goliath.“We are going to hit Goliath in the nose every day, twice a day,” he told the group, referring to Amazon. “He’s going to see our union every morning when he comes to work, and I want him thinking about us when he closes his eyes at night.” More

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    Amazon Labor Fight: Wages May Not Ward Off Union

    Recent organizing campaigns in the South suggest the company’s wage scale may have left it vulnerable to a union.In making the case against a union at its warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., Amazon has touted its compensation package. The company notes that base pay at the facility, around $15.50 an hour for most rank-and-file workers, is more than twice the local minimum wage, and that it offers comprehensive health insurance and retirement benefits.But to many of Amazon’s Bessemer employees, who are voting this month on whether to unionize, the claims to generosity can ring hollow alongside the demands of the job and local wage rates. The most recent figure for the median wage in greater Birmingham, a metropolitan area of roughly one million people that includes Bessemer, was nearly $3 above Amazon’s pay there, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.“If you go into certain rural areas in the South, where wages are suppressed and there’s no industry, that may seem attractive,” said Joshua Brewer of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, who is the campaign’s lead organizer. “For our folks here in Bessemer and Birmingham, it’s barely enough to keep the lights on. To tote it in front of them like it’s something to be prized is mildly offensive.”It is common for employers facing a union vote to emphasize the generosity of their wages and to suggest that workers could be worse off if they unionize. But the message takes on added resonance in the South, where incomes are lower and jobs with good pay can be harder to find. As a result, organizers say, employers and their surrogates in the region often use such tactics more aggressively.A commercial during a 2017 union campaign at a Boeing plant in South Carolina showed a casino boss urging workers to roll dice at a craps table to make the point that joining a union could put their livelihood at risk. Union campaigns at a Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., and a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., featured similar appeals.The catch is that wages at these plants tended to be substantially higher than the typical wage in their areas, reinforcing workers’ sense that they had something valuable to lose.Veteran production workers made $23.50 an hour at the Volkswagen plant in 2019, the year of the most recent campaign there. The comparable figure was $23 at Boeing’s South Carolina facility when workers voted on a union and $26 at Nissan’s Mississippi plant during the vote there, also in 2017. The union lost in all three cases.“The global manufacturing companies took more steps to pre-empt unionization by offering better pay,” Richard Bensinger, a former organizing director for the United Automobile Workers and the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said in an email.Mr. Bensinger, who was involved in the Nissan and Volkswagen campaigns and is helping workers organize at other Amazon facilities, held up Mercedes-Benz as a telling example. The U.A.W. tried to organize the company’s plant in Vance, Ala., about 25 miles from Bessemer, for several years during the last decade. But it could never quite get a majority of workers to sign cards, Mr. Bensinger said, partly because wages at the plant were so high — $28 an hour for veteran workers, and even more today.“They paid U.A.W. scale to try to keep the U.A.W. out,” Mr. Bensinger said. (Mercedes, like other automakers, also used temporary workers whom it paid far less.)By contrast, unions have been successful when companies have held down wages. During the first half the 2010s, workers unionized at several auto parts suppliers in Alabama and elsewhere in the South, often citing low pay and benefits as the impetus.In 2015, employees at Commercial Vehicle Group in Piedmont, Ala., which made seats for trucks, voted to join the U.A.W. by a roughly two-to-one ratio. Workers at the plant complained of wages that started as low as $9.70 an hour for temporary workers and topped out at $15.80 for full-time employees. The company laid off many of the workers when it later consolidated its operations.“Workers always say this: It’s about respect, recognition,” said Gary Casteel, the U.A.W.’s former second-ranking official, who helped oversee much of its organizing in the South. “That’s not the case. It is about the money. Everybody wants to get paid more.”Darryl Richardson, an Amazon worker in Alabama, has seen the power of a union to raise wages.Lynsey Weatherspoon for The New York TimesDarryl Richardson, an Amazon employee in Alabama, knows firsthand the catalyzing effect of low wages. In 2012, he was part of a group of workers that voted overwhelmingly to unionize at Faurecia Interior Systems in Cottondale, Ala., which made seats for the nearby Mercedes plant.Mr. Richardson said that he had made around $12.50 an hour when he started at the plant but that, thanks to the union, his hourly pay had nearly doubled by the time he left in 2019, after the plant lost its contract with Mercedes. He said several of his co-workers at Faurecia were now working at Amazon and had seen the power of a union to raise wages.“From Faurecia to Amazon, it’s a big pay difference,” said Mr. Richardson, who now makes $15.55.Heather Knox, an Amazon spokeswoman, said that workers in Bessemer were eligible for raises every six months and that they had received a $2-an-hour bonus during much of last spring. Full-time rank-and-file employees received $300 bonuses during the holiday season and $500 last June. The company also provides significant tuition reimbursement for employees who take classes in certain fields.Some workers at the Bessemer facility, which opened just as Covid-19 was bearing down last March, regard the pay as more than adequate, especially younger employees.“I feel like it is fair,” said Roderick Crocton, 24, who previously made $11.25 as an overnight stocker at a local retailer. “In my old job, I lived in my apartment, never got to go anywhere, paid my bills. Today I’m able to go out and experience being in the city.”But other workers emphasize that pay at Amazon isn’t particularly high for the Birmingham area, even if the pandemic has reduced their job options. An Amazon employee named Clint, a union backer who declined to give his last name for fear of retaliation, said he had stood to make about $40,000 a year installing satellite dishes before the pandemic left him unemployed. He said he made his finances work partly by living with his mother.The retail workers’ union said it represented employees at nearby warehouses where pay is $18 to $21 an hour, including an ice cream facility and a grocery warehouse not far from Amazon.At a plant owned by NFI Group, a Canadian bus manufacturer, about an hour east of Birmingham, hourly pay for rank-and-file workers ranges from $14.79 to $23.31, according to the company.A survey of about 100 workers at the NFI plant by Emily Erickson, a professor at Alabama A&M University, found that white workers earned about $3 an hour more than Black workers on average. One former employee who currently works for a labor group in the area, Charles Crooms, said this made it more difficult to persuade white workers to join a union organizing effort. (The company said all employees with the same job grade and tenure were paid the same.)Workers and organizers said the dissatisfaction over wages at the Amazon warehouse was heightened by the vast wealth of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder.The Amazon warehouse in Bessemer opened just as Covid-19 was bearing down last March.Bob Miller for The New York Times“He’s one of the richest men in the world, yet you treat employees like scavengers,” said Jennifer Bates, an Amazon employee who earned more in her previous job at a pipe factory but joined Amazon hoping it would provide an opportunity to grow.Ms. Bates was mystified that the company was urging Congress to match its pay efforts by raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. “It looks to me like Amazon is admitting it’s only paying a minimum wage, and this is not a minimum-wage job,” she said. Amazon has said its starting wage is higher than $15 an hour in most of the country.Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the retail workers’ union, noted that Mr. Bezos could have given each of Amazon’s more than one million global employees last year a bonus larger than the annual pay of a warehouse worker just from the wealth he accumulated during the pandemic.All of which raises a question: Why didn’t Amazon, which regards unions as a threat, follow the example of Nissan and Mercedes and pay its Alabama employees more as a way to pre-empt a union?The company did not respond to a request to address that question.Mr. Appelbaum, the union president, said the company had underestimated its workers.“I think they took it for granted that we’d be out there for a few days leafleting, then go away,” he said. “They didn’t believe there was any possibility that we’d be able to get enough cards from employees to get to an election.” More

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    How Amazon Crushes Unions

    Amazon’s warehouse in Chester, Va., where a union effort tried to organize about 30 facilities technicians in 2014 and 2015.Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesHow Amazon Crushes UnionsIn a secret settlement in Virginia, Amazon swore off threatening and intimidating workers. As the company confronts increased labor unrest, its tactics are under scrutiny.Amazon’s warehouse in Chester, Va., where a union effort tried to organize about 30 facilities technicians in 2014 and 2015.Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesSupported byContinue reading the main storyMarch 16, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ETRICHMOND, Va. — Five years ago, Amazon was compelled to post a “notice to employees” on the break-room walls of a warehouse in east-central Virginia.The notice was printed simply, in just two colors, and crammed with words. But for any worker who bothered to look closely, it was a remarkable declaration. Amazon listed 22 forms of behavior it said it would disavow, each beginning in capital letters: “WE WILL NOT.”“We will not threaten you with the loss of your job” if you are a union supporter, Amazon wrote, according to a photo of the notice reviewed by The New York Times. “We will not interrogate you” about the union or “engage in surveillance of you” while you participate in union activities. “We will not threaten you with unspecified reprisals” because you are a union supporter. We will not threaten to “get” union supporters.Amazon posted the list after the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers accused it of doing those very things during a two-year-long push to unionize 30 facilities technicians at the warehouse in Chester, just south of Richmond. While Amazon did not admit to violations of labor laws, the company promised in a settlement with federal regulators to tell workers that it would rigorously obey the rules in the future.The employee notice and failed union effort, which have not previously been reported, are suddenly relevant as Amazon confronts increasing labor unrest in the United States. Over two decades, as the internet retailer mushroomed from a virtual bookstore into a $1.5 trillion behemoth, it forcefully — and successfully — resisted employee efforts to organize. Some workers in recent years agitated for change in Staten Island, Chicago, Sacramento and Minnesota, but the impact was negligible.Bill Hough Jr., a machinist at the Chester warehouse who led the union drive. Amazon fired him in 2016.Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesIn an employee notice, Amazon listed behavior it said it would disavow.The arrival of the coronavirus last year changed that. It turned Amazon into an essential resource for millions stuck at home and redefined the company’s relationship with its warehouse workers. Like many service industry employees, they were vulnerable to the virus. As society locked down, they were also less able to simply move on if they had issues with the job.Now Amazon faces a union vote at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. — the largest and most viable U.S. labor challenge in its history. Nearly 6,000 workers have until March 29 to decide whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. A labor victory could energize workers in other U.S. communities, where Amazon has more than 800 warehouses employing more than 500,000 people.“This is happening in the toughest state, with the toughest company, at the toughest moment,” said Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “If the union can prevail given those three facts, it will send a message that Amazon is organizable everywhere.”Even if the union does not prevail, “the history of unions is always about failing forward,” she said. “Workers trying, workers losing, workers trying again.”The effort in Chester, which The Times reconstructed with documents from regulators and the machinists’ union, as well as interviews with former facilities technicians at the warehouse and union officials, offers one of the fullest pictures of what encourages Amazon workers to open the door to a union — and what techniques the company uses to slam the door and nail it shut.The employee notice was a hollow victory for workers. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that negotiated the settlement with Amazon, has no power to impose monetary penalties. Its enforcement remedies are few and weak, which means its ability to restrain anti-union employers from breaking the law is limited. The settlement was not publicized, so there were not even any public relations benefits.Amazon was the real winner. There have been no further attempts at a union in Chester.The tactics that Amazon used in Chester are surfacing elsewhere. The retail workers union said Amazon was trying to surveil employees in Bessemer and even changed a traffic signal to prevent organizers from approaching warehouse workers as they left the site. Last month, the New York attorney general said in a lawsuit that Amazon had retaliated against employees who tried to protest its pandemic safety measures as inadequate.Amazon declined to say whether it had complied with labor laws during the union drive in Chester in 2014 and 2015. In a statement, it said it was “compliant with the National Labor Relations Act in 2016” when it issued the employee notice, and “we continue to be compliant today.” It added in a different statement that it didn’t believe the union push in Alabama “represents the majority of our employees’ views.”The labor board declined to comment.The Chester settlement notice mentions one worker by name: Bill Hough Jr., a machinist who led the union drive. The notice said Amazon had issued a warning to Mr. Hough that he was on the verge of being fired. Amazon said it would rescind the warning.Six months later, in August 2016, Amazon fired him anyway.Mr. Hough (pronounced Huff) was in a hospital having knee surgery when Amazon called and said he had used up his medical leave. Since he couldn’t do his job, he said he was told, this was the end of the line.“There was no mercy, even after what they had done to me,” Mr. Hough, now 56, said. “That’s Amazon. If you can’t give 110 percent, you’re done.”Amazon declined to comment on Mr. Hough.No ConstraintsA truck at the warehouse in Chester. Amazon has been fending off attempts to unionize since at least 1999. Credit…Carlos Bernate for The New York TimesAmazon was founded on notions of speed, efficiency and hard work — lots of hard work. Placing his first help wanted ad in 1994, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, said he wanted engineers who could do their job “in about one-third the time that most competent people think possible.”Amazon managers openly warned recruits that if they liked things comfortable, this would be a difficult, perhaps impossible, job. For customer service representatives, it was difficult to keep up, according to media accounts and labor organizers. Overtime was mandatory. Supervisors sent emails with subject headings like “YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.”In 1999, the reps, who numbered about 400, were targeted by a grass-roots group affiliated with the Communications Workers of America. Amazon mounted an all-out defense.If workers became anything less than docile, managers were told, it was a sign there could be union activity. Tipoffs included “hushed conversations” and “small group huddles breaking up in silence on the approach of the supervisor,” as well as increased complaints, growing aggressiveness and dawdling in the bathroom.Amazon was in sync with the larger culture. Unions were considered relics of the industrial past. Disruption was a virtue.“Twenty years ago, if you asked whether the government or workers should be able to put any constraints on companies, the answer always was ‘No constraints,’” said Marcus Courtney, a labor organizer on the 1999 Amazon campaign. “If companies wanted to push people 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, hats off to them.”When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Amazon lost some of its glow. For a time, its very existence was in question.This caused problems for the activists as well. The company reorganized and closed the customer service center, though Amazon said there was no connection with the union drive. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the Prewitt Organizing Fund, an independent group, made no inroads organizing Amazon’s 5,000 warehouse workers.A decade later, in 2011, came a low point in Amazon’s labor history. The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pa., revealed that Amazon was hiring paramedics and ambulances during summer heat waves at a local warehouse. Workers who collapsed were removed with stretchers and wheelchairs and taken to hospitals.Amazon installed air conditioning but otherwise was undaunted. After the Great Recession in 2008, there was no lack of demand for its jobs — and no united protest about working conditions. In Europe, where unions are stronger, there were sporadic strikes. In the United States, isolated warehouse walkouts drew no more than a handful of workers.The MachinistMr. Hough said he had felt pressured to cut corners to keep conveyor belts running.Credit…Ruth Fremson for The New York TimesMr. Hough worked as an industrial machinist at a Reynolds aluminum mill in Richmond for 24 years. He once saw a worker lose four fingers when a steel roller fell unexpectedly. Incidents like that made a deep impression on him: Never approach equipment casually.Reynolds closed the plant in the Great Recession, when Mr. Hough was in his mid-40s. Being in the machinists guild cushioned the blow, but he needed another job. After a long spell of unemployment, he joined Amazon in 2013.The Chester warehouse, the size of several aircraft carriers, had opened a year earlier, part of Amazon’s multibillion-dollar push to put fulfillment centers everywhere. Mr. Hough worked on the conveyor belts bringing in the goods.At first, he received generally good marks. “He has a great attitude and does not participate in negative comments or situations,” Amazon said in a March 2014 performance review. “He gets along with all the other technicians.”But Mr. Hough said he had felt pressured to cut corners to keep the belts running. Amazon prided itself on getting purchases to customers quickly, and when conveyor belts were down that mission was in jeopardy. He once protested restarting a belt while he was still working on it.“Quit your bitching,” Mr. Hough said his manager, Bryon Frye, had told him, twice.“That sent me down the wrong road,” Mr. Hough said.Bryon Frye’s tweet about Amazon union campaigns.Credit…TwitterMr. Frye, who declined to comment, no longer works for Amazon. On Twitter last month, he responded to a news story that said Amazon was hiring former F.B.I. agents to deal with worker activism, counterfeiting and antitrust issues.“This doesn’t shock me,” he wrote. “They do some wild things.”The Union DriveMembers of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union distributed literature outside the Alabama warehouse where Amazon workers are voting on whether to join the union.Credit…Bob Miller for The New York TimesIn 2014, Mr. Hough and five other technicians approached the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. A unionization effort was already taking place with the technicians at an Amazon warehouse in Middletown, Del. If either succeeded, it would be the first for Amazon.The elections for a union would be conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. The first step was to measure interest. At least 18 of the 30 technicians in Chester returned cards indicating their willingness to be represented by the union.“It was not too difficult to sign people up,” said Russell Wade, a union organizer there. “But once the word leaked out to Amazon, they put the afterburners on, as employers do. Then the workers started losing interest. Amazon spent oodles of money to scare the hell out of employees.”The board scheduled an election for March 4, 2015. A simple majority of votes cast would establish union representation.Amazon brought in an Employee Resource Center team — basically, its human resources department — to reverse any momentum. A former technician at the warehouse, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, said the reps on the team followed workers around, pretending to be friendly but only seeking to know their position on the union drive.If safety was the biggest issue for the technicians, there were also concerns over pay equity — machinists said they were paid different amounts for doing the same job — and about their lack of control over their fate. Part of Mr. Hough’s pitch was that a union would make management less arbitrary.“One guy, all I remember is his name was Bob,” he said. “They paged Bob to the control room, and the next thing I saw was Bob coming down the steps. He had taken off his work vest. I said, ‘Bob, where are you going?’ He said, ‘They terminated me.’ I didn’t ask why. That’s the way it was.”Several technicians said they recalled being told at a meeting, “You vote for a union, every one of you will be looking for a job tomorrow.” At another, the most outspoken union supporters were described as “a cancer and a disease to Amazon and the facility,” according to Mr. Hough and a union memo. (In a filing to the labor board, Amazon said it had investigated the incident and “concluded that it could not be substantiated.”)Mr. Hough, a cancer survivor, said the reference had offended him. He declined to attend another meeting run by that manager. He said he had known in any case what she was going to say: that the union was canceling the election because it thought it would lose. Amazon had triumphed.On March 30, 2015, Mr. Hough received a written warning from Mr. Frye, his manager.“Your behavior has been called out by peers/leaders as having a negative impact,” it said. Included under “insubordination” was a refusal to attend the Amazon victory announcement. Another incident, Amazon said, could result in termination.The machinists union filed a complaint with the labor board in July 2015 alleging unfair labor practices by Amazon, including surveilling, threatening and “informing employees that it would be futile to vote for union representation.” Mr. Hough spent eight hours that summer giving his testimony. While labor activists and unions generally consider the board to be heavily tilted in favor of employers, union officials said a formal protest would at least show Chester technicians that someone was fighting for them.In early 2016, Amazon settled with the board. The main thrust of the two-page settlement was that Amazon would post an employee notice promising good behavior while admitting nothing.Wilma Liebman, a member of the labor board from 1997 to 2011, examined the employee notice at the request of The Times. “What is unusual to my eye is how extensive Amazon’s pledges were, and how specific,” she said. “While the company did not have to admit guilt, this list offers a picture of what likely was going on.”Amazon was required to post the notice “in all places where notices to employees are customarily posted” in Chester for 60 days, the labor board said.From the machinists union’s point of view, it wasn’t much of a punishment.“This posting was basically a slap on the wrist for the violations that Amazon committed, which included lies, coercion, threats and intimidation,” said Vinny Addeo, the union’s director of organizing.Another reason for filing an unfair labor practices claim was that the union hoped to restart its efforts with a potentially chastened company. But most of the employees who supported the Chester drive quit.“They were intimidated,” Mr. Wade, the union organizer, said.Mr. Hough was beset by ill health during his years at Amazon. Radiation treatment for his cancer prompted several strokes. His wife, Susan, had health problems, too. Mr. Hough said he wondered how much the unionization struggle contributed to their problems. He added that he didn’t know whom to trust.After leaving Amazon, Mr. Hough began driving trucks, at first long haul and later a dump truck. It paid less, but he said he was at peace.Maximum Green TimesNearly 6,000 workers in Bessemer have until March 29 to decide whether to join the union.Credit…Wes Frazer for The New York TimesWhen Amazon vanquished the 2014 union drive in Delaware, the retailer said it was a victory for “open lines of direct communication between managers and associates.”One place Amazon developed that direct communication was in its warehouse bathrooms under what it called its “inSTALLments” program. The inSTALLments were informational sheets that offered, for instance, factoids about Mr. Bezos, the timing of meetings and random warnings, such as this one about unpaid time off: “If you go negative, your employment status will be reviewed for termination.”Amazon’s “inSTALLments” program used postings in warehouse bathrooms to communicate with workers.Credit…The New York TimesAs the union drive heated up in Bessemer, the direct communication naturally was about that. “Where will your dues go?” Amazon asked in one stall posting, which circulated on social media. Another proclaimed: “Unions can’t. We can.”Amazon also set up a website to tell workers that they would have to skip dinner and school supplies to pay their union dues.In December, a pro-union group discovered, Amazon asked county officials to increase “maximum green times” on the warehouse stoplight to clear the parking lot faster. This made it difficult for union canvassers to approach potential voters as they left work. Amazon declined to comment.Last month, President Biden weighed in.“There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” he said in a video that never mentioned Amazon but referred to “workers in Alabama” deciding whether to organize a union. “You know, every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice.”Owning 25 HatsMr. Hough, in an interview before the pandemic, said part of him wanted to forget what had happened at Amazon. Why dwell on defeat? He threw away all the papers from the union drive. He never saw the employee notice because he was recovering from a stroke.But he has not forgiven the retailer.“You’re only going to step on me one time,” he said, sitting in his home in the outskirts of Richmond.Amazon’s customers just don’t know how miserable a job there can be, he suggested.“I guarantee you, if their child had to work there, they’d think twice before purchasing things,” he said.Ms. Hough, sitting next to him, had a bleaker view.“The customers don’t care about unions. They don’t care about the workers. They just want their packages,” she said.As if on cue, their son, Brody, came in. He was 20, an appliance technician. His mother told him there was a package for him on his bed. It was from Amazon, a fishing hat. It cost $25, Brody said, half the price on the manufacturer’s website.“I order from Amazon anything I can find that is cheaper,” Brody said. That adds up to a lot of hats, about 25. “I’ve never worked for Amazon. I can’t hate them,” he said.Ms. Hough looked at her husband. “If your own son doesn’t care,” she asked, not unkindly, “how are you going to get the American public to care?”The pandemic helped change that, bringing safety issues at Amazon to the forefront. In a Feb. 16 suit against Amazon, the New York attorney general, Letitia James, said the company continued last year to track and discipline employees based on their productivity rates. That meant workers had limited time to protect themselves from the virus. The suit said Amazon retaliated against those who complained, sending a “chilling message” to all its workers. Amazon has denied the allegations.Last week, regional Canadian authorities also ordered thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse near Toronto to quarantine themselves, effectively closing the facility. Some 240 workers recently tested positive for the virus there, a government spokeswoman said, even as the rate of infection in the area fell. Amazon said it was appealing the decision.Alabama is now the big test. Mr. Hough worries the union supporters will be crushed.“They will fall to threats or think, ‘I won’t have a job, Amazon will replace me,’” he said by phone this month. “When a company can do things to you in secret, it’s real hard to withstand.”Still, he added, “I’m hoping for the best. More power to them.”AdvertisementContinue reading the main story More