- Democratic Rep. Andy Levin co-sponsored the PRO Act, which would give workers more power on the job.
- The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act passed the House and faces steep odds in the Senate.
- Levin said supporting the bill would show companies are invested in workers and communities.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
One by one, officials from the National Labor Relations Board last week read out the results of thousands of ballots cast by Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, in a historic vote over whether to unionize.
Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat from Michigan and former union organizer who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, was glued to the Zoom call.
“I’m watching the vote count LIVE in the NLRB election among Amazon workers in Bessemer, AL. The crush of congressional business is great, but I’m so nervous I can’t tear myself away,” Levin tweeted.
The call came as Democrats in Congress try to muster votes in the Senate for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, a landmark piece of legislation that would make it easier for workers to form unions, which Levin co-sponsored.
In an 18-tweet thread, Levin detailed the strategies he says companies use to defeat unionization efforts by their employees.
“The company’s goal is to create so much pressure, anxiety, and fear-and to make workers feel that the pressure will never go away as long as the union is around,” he tweeted, adding: “The pressure a company like Amazon builds up against you can feel like a 454kg. weight on your chest.”
Amazon ultimately defeated the union drive. Workers voted against the union 1,798 to 738, while 505 ballots were contested and 76 were voided.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, under which Bessemer employees would have organized, challenged the results to the NLRB, citing what it described as “egregious and blatantly illegal actions” by Amazon during the campaign. One of the accusations include pressing the United States Postal Service to install a ballot drop box outside the warehouse despite the NLRB rejecting multiple requests by Amazon to hold an in-person vote.
Amazon called the allegations it intimidated workers into voting against the union “not true.”
But Levin, as well as some labor experts who previously spoke to Insider, say they believe the highly publicized battle in Bessemer put a spotlight on how heavily the odds are stacked against workers looking to unionize and advocate for better pay and working conditions, and how much power corporations and executives wield over rank-and-file workers in America.
This, Levin says, is where the PRO Act comes in. The bill passed the House last month by a margin of 225-206, largely along party lines, and is now headed to the Senate, where it faces steep odds due to opposition from Republicans and some key Democrats.
The PRO Act has several key components:
- It would require employees in unionized workplaces to pay dues – overriding the current situation in 27 states, including Alabama, that have “right-to-work” laws allowing employees to opt-out of paying dues while still benefiting from union representation.
- It would ban many of the union-busting tactics used by some companies that may dissuade employees from voting to unionize.
- It would make it easier for contractors and “gig” workers to unionize by expanding the definition of an employee for the purposes of labor rules (though it would not automatically reclassify contractors as employees).
- It would create a mediation and binding arbitration process that newly formed unions, as well as employers, could turn to if the two parties aren’t able to negotiate a contract.
- It would give the government, specifically the NLRB, more tools to punish companies that violate labor laws.
Corporate America has also come out strongly against the PRO Act.
The US Chamber of Commerce claimed the bill would “destabilize America’s workplaces.” The Chamber of Progress – a new lobbying group representing many of the largest US companies that rely in part on cheap contract labor, including Amazon, Uber, DoorDash, Grubhub, Instacart, Facebook, Twitter – falsely characterized it as a “federal ban on gig work.”
Levin believes there are plenty of reasons for businesses to get on board with the PRO Act, as well as proposals – such as raising the minimum wage and increasing the corporate tax rate – aimed at closing the gap between the wealthy and the working-class.
‘Making money the old-fashioned way’
“My pitch is: get excited about making money the old-fashioned way again,” Levin told Insider in an interview.
“Get excited about including stakeholders in your thinking, including workers and communities. Get excited about investing in America again,” he said, not just rewarding those at the top.
In 2019, the Business Roundtable, a group of 181 CEOs from major American corporations, endorsed “stakeholder capitalism,” writing that their companies exist to “benefit all stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.”
But since the 1970s, American corporations have chipped away at workers’ rights, kept wages low while increasing executive pay, and rewarded investors through increasingly large stock buybacks, often funded by taxpayers. In that time, wealth and income inequality in America have soared.
Levin believes that trajectory isn’t sustainable for America’s economy.
“I see a very hopeful future for business, but you can only take inequality so far and still have a democracy, and we are near a breaking point,” Levin said.
“One person got $68 billion richer during the pandemic and bragged about paying warehouse workers $15 an hour,” he said – a reference to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose net worth has grown by $81 billion, to $194 billion, since April 2020, according to Forbes. Amazon has frequently touted its $15 hourly starting wage as evidence that it provides good jobs (the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the median hourly wage for warehouse jobs in the US last year was $17.77, according to The Wall Street Journal).
Levin said Amazon employees’ uphill battle to form a union showed that “forming a union is tightly tied to the broader issue of income and wealth equality in our country.”
With President Joe Biden now in the White House, many companies have already started toeing a more liberal line on some social issues, such as voting rights, but they continue to lobby hard against increased taxes and regulations.
Asked about statements from groups like the Chamber of Progress, which praised the union’s defeat while also saying it wants to “fight income inequality,” Levin said: “Whatever the equivalent of greenwashing is in terms of workers, that’s a very outrageous version of it.”