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The failed Amazon union drive

How Amazon workers in Alabama wound up rejecting the formation of a union

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Amazon's first serious union challenge in years wasn't even close, said Matt Day at Bloomberg. After months of buildup, the workers at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, rejected the formation of a union, with a lopsided count of 1,798 "no" votes to only 738 votes in support. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which organized the vote, plans to appeal after accusing Amazon of "election violations, including the installation of a mailbox outside the facility" so that managers could "watch employees submitting their ballots." The defeat deals a demoralizing blow to labor activists. The vote "attracted national attention," with backing from President Biden and a personal visit from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but workers said they weren't surprised by the outcome. "It's really not bad at Amazon," said one employee, who earned less money and received no benefits at his previous job at Walmart. A pro-union worker explained, "You can't tell these kids around here anything — $15 an hour is the most they have ever made."

That pay might sound good for Bessemer, said David Leonhardt at The New York Times, but it comes out to $31,000 a year, "less than half of U.S. median family income and low enough in many cases for a family to qualify for subsidized school lunches." Amazon jobs don't offer the upward mobility that factory jobs in Bessemer and elsewhere once did. Steel-industry jobs once paid the equivalent of $52 an hour. They were dangerous, but Amazon's warehouse jobs also carry risks of injury, as well as new risks, such as the isolation that comes from "interacting mostly with robots." These are not jobs that "help the country again build a growing, thriving middle class." This was never a fair fight, said Tyler Sonnemaker at Business​ Insider. Amazon "enlisted 'union avoidance' consultants" and peddled "anti-union messaging through websites, T-shirts, text messaging, and midnight 'education' meetings." But labor laws have been "chipped away" so much that unions have little recourse against such tactics.

Union leaders would have you believe they are "saving an exploited workforce from Jeff Bezos' sweatshops," said Kevin Williamson at the National Review. Please. Among dozens of similar labor-affiliated cases last year, not one but two former presidents of the United Auto Workers union were convicted of embezzlement. No need to wonder why Amazon workers weren't excited about "the union's proposal to dip into their pockets."

Amazon's size and dominance make it "an enticing target," said Megan McArdle at The Washington Post. But it's not the bogeyman critics make it out to be. Retail remains a fiercely competitive industry, with Walmart and others vying for the same customers, and Amazon can't easily raise prices to compensate for substantially higher labor costs. The union's defeat is a message to progressives, said Will Marshall at The Hill: Hostility to business won't win over working-class voters. Bessemer is one of the poorest cities in Alabama, and the people in Alabama saw Amazon "doing exactly what you'd expect good businesses to do — create new jobs with decent pay and benefits in places that badly need them." The Left needs to get beyond "nostalgic class-warfare tropes to the realities of the local economy."

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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