Amazon workers in Alabama have a few hours left to vote on whether to join a union. Here's how unions work and why many companies oppose labor organizers.

Amazon workers Alabama unionErik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty ImagesMembers of the Workers Assembly Against Racism gathered across from Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market in New York City for a nation-wide solidarity event with the unionizing Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama.
  • Amazon workers in Alabama will finish voting Monday on whether or not to join a union.
  • Unions represent the interests of workers and can help push for better pay and benefits.
  • Businesses often oppose unions because they can interfere with their autonomy or affect them economically.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Roughly 6,000 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, will finish voting Monday on forming the company’s first ever union.

The campaign has been contentious from the start: Amazon opposes the union and has aired anti-union ads, placed signs in bathrooms, and had traffic signals changed outside the fulfillment center where workers had canvassed. (An Amazon spokesperson told Insider the stoplights were changed to reduce traffic congestion near the site during its busy season.)

Proponents of the union say the push is driven by difficult working conditions, long hours, and a lack of job security. A recent Insider survey found that four out of 10 Amazon employees support the idea of organizing.

“Amazon brags it pays workers above the minimum wage,” Jennifer Bates, a Bessemer warehouse employee, said during her testimony at a recent Senate hearing. “What they don’t tell you is what those jobs are really like. And they certainly don’t tell you what they can afford.”

Here’s how unions work and why many businesses are so opposed to them forming.

What is a union?

Put simply, a union is group of workers that comes together to represent the interests of workers and guarantee certain conditions like hours, wages, and working conditions. Unions are formed either through an NLRB-sanctioned employee vote or by a company voluntarily recognizing the union.

Unionizing is a federally protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act, a law passed in 1935 that grants employees the right to form or join a union. The law, also known as the Wagner Act, protects employees’ right to discuss their working conditions with coworkers and to join together in attempting to improve those conditions. The law also guarantees workers’ right to organize and to collectively bargain, as well as the right to strike under certain conditions.

The Wagner Act also makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers who attempt to organize.

According to a 2020 report by the Economic Policy Institute, union members earn an average of 11.2% more than their non-unionized peers.

Those who oppose unions highlight that members are required to pay dues, either as a percentage of their pay or a fixed rate. The United Auto Workers union, for example, charges as little as .805% of an employee’s gross monthly wages and up to 1.44% depending on a things like the level of a particular union’s strike and defense fund, used to provide worker pay during work stoppages.

By comparison, a union like the Teamsters, which is best known for representing freight drivers and warehouse workers, charges the equivalent of 2.5 times a worker’s base hourly wage every month.

Experts also point out that unions could lead to less collaborative relationships between employees and their supervisors, and could favor employees with seniority over newer employees.

Read more: 
Joe Biden’s statement on unions is a warning for Amazon and other employers to take labor laws seriously

Why aren’t unions more common?

Unionization efforts in the US have steadily fallen out of favor since the mid-1900s. In 1983, 20.1% of employees belonged to a union. But as of 2020, that number has fallen to 10.8%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unionization is higher among public-sector workers, like teachers, police officers, and firefighters, than private-sector workers – 34.8% of public-sector employees are members of a union, versus 6.3% of those in the private sector.

The decades-long decline is due to a combination of factors. Opposition from government leaders and businesses has weakened the power of unions, and a higher level of manufacturing jobs has moved overseas where labor is cheaper.

The popularity of unions also declined following the Vietnam War, according to an article published in the American Journal of Public Health. The AFL-CIO, a federation of unions that represents millions of workers, backed the US intervention in Vietnam, angering anti-Vietnam activists.

And in many states, “right-to-work” laws have hindered unions’ ability to organize. These regulations mean that not only can employees opt out of a union, but require the union to still cover those employees even when don’t pay dues. The rise of right-to-work laws began in 1947 with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which allowed individual states to pass these types of restrictions.

Right-to-work states are more common the South, resulting in stronger anti-union sentiment. According to the Economic Policy Institute, Southern states make up four out of the five states with the smallest share of union workers.

A bill known as the PRO Act, introduced in 2020, would create more protections for unions than the Taft-Hartley Act and would allow for harsher penalties on companies that violate labor law.

Why do businesses typically oppose unions?

The business community has typically had a “total allergy to unionization,” Wilma Liebman, who served on the National Labor Relations Board under Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton, told Insider last year.

Union critics warn that companies could take an economic hit if their employees unionize, forcing those businesses to outsource jobs or force layoffs.

Companies also don’t want an outside organization interfering with their autonomy or their ability to act unilaterally, Liebman said, adding that businesses are fearful that unions will “cost them more than they can afford.” Organizers often counter with the fact that a union is a group of the company’s own employees, and therefore not the threat companies perceive them to be.

Businesses argue that a union may not have employees’ best interests at heart, which has been Amazon’s argument for opposing unionization in Alabama: Amazon workers would be represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, a labor union that acts on behalf of thousands of workers worldwide.

“We don’t believe the RDWSU represents the majority of our employees’ views,” an Amazon spokesperson told Insider earlier this year. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”

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