“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Despite the disappointment, Christian Smalls wants to keep his head held high. On Monday May 2, the emblematic leader of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) lost a battle in his fight for better working conditions and pay at the e-commerce giant. The Amazon LDJ5 warehouse in New York voted against union representation of ALU, with 618 votes against 380 for the “yes”. A rather clear defeat, therefore, with however a strong abstention, at 39%. However, this comes just a month after a resounding victory, not far away, in the JFK8 warehouse. A great first which then called for others…
What happened ? According to Amazon, the situation is very simple: there was simply no need for a union branch within its walls. “We strive to make every day better for our employees,” said a satisfied spokesperson. More likely, the characteristics of the different warehouses could have played a role in this result: LDJ5 is a structure nearly four times smaller than JFK8, made up of more part-time workers, reputedly less inclined to unionize. The context, too, is important: Christian Smalls, the leader of ALU, was himself a former worker at JFK8. He had succeeded in mobilizing during the Covid-19 pandemic, denouncing the risks incurred by him and his colleagues and minimized by his management. The same passive did not exist at LDJ5.
On Twitter on Tuesday, the Amazon Labor Union also pinpointed a big problem: “Mega-corporations are spending millions on union-busting tactics.” Amazon has indeed spent $ 4.3 million in 2021 to extinguish all union inclinations, according to the US Department of Labor. Behind this amount: ultra-aggressive practices, shared today by other major employers in the United States, including those in Tech like Google and Apple. Because these giants are more and more confronted with the emergence of trade unionism among their lowest paid workers, their technicians or their salespeople.
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“The big digital companies are currently the best ‘targets’ for the unions, in order to set new standards, as were those of steel in the 1930s, observes in this regard Paolo Santini, doctoral student at the Paris School of Economics, specializing in labor history and union formation. Plus, with the pandemic, these tech companies have seen their profits increase even more. Workers are asking to share those gains because they took the risk of working for them during this period; it is a matter of fairness.” The Gallup Institute also estimates that seven in ten Americans currently support unions, the highest percentage since 1965.
“Captive meetings”, text messages, traffic lights…
The largest American companies, in return, are therefore increasingly resorting to unionbusters, consultants or specialized lawyers, mobilized in workplaces or unions are trying to expand. Google, at the start of the year, had been forced to disclose documents from its “Vivian” plan, set up with the help of the firm IRI Consultants between 2018 and 2020 in order to discredit any attempt at union union. A plan, mainly focused on monitoring and communication (“the unions suck”), which nevertheless did not prevent the birth of the Alphabet Union Workers (AWU), bringing together 800 people to date.
More than a year ago, the investigative media The Intercept also told how Amazon paid a consultant $3,200 a day to prevent a union branch from setting up in a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. On the program: bombardment of anti-union text messages or the purchase of advertisements on Facebook urging workers to vote “no”. According to the media specialized in digital The Verge, a request to change the traffic lights near the site had even been made. The objective: to make the red lights shorter, and thus reduce the time that the unions could spend – prohibited within Amazon sites themselves – to tow from stopped motorists. Undermining work that worked: the Bessemer warehouse finally voted against union representation from the national distribution union (RWDSU).
But the most recommended technique of unionbusters remains that of “captive meetings”. These compulsory convocations, within the workplace, aiming to warn employees of the “dangers” of trade unionism: price of contributions, difficulty in obtaining a real collective agreement… while slipping a few threats, sometimes barely hidden.
At an Apple Store in New York, employees disappointed by low pay rises founded the Fruit Stand Workers United, and recently won the first union authorization cards, which materialize an employee’s desire to be represented by the syndicate. Immediately, employees were taken aside by officials, explaining to them that they could thus be deprived of visits to the imposing Apple headquarters in California, which is normally an unforgettable experience for them, reports the washington post.
Digitization of the struggle
The latest events at Amazon are finally a reminder of the extent to which anti-unionism has been greatly digitized. On the very ergonomic website “unpackldj5.com” – against the establishment of a union in the LDJ5 warehouse – Amazon is not content to recall the benefits it offers its employees on health, or even its holidays parental. “When a union supporter talks about the things a union will do for you, ask them how they can do it. And ask them how much will it cost you to be represented by them?” its authors. Criticisms of ALU, which has “no experience of representing employees anywhere”, multiply over the pages. The site, also translated into Spanish, even warns, in large print, of the risk that employees run of losing “hundreds of dollars each year” because of the payment of contributions.
Still on the digital side, Google was accused last year of monitoring its employees with a Chrome browser extension that flagged any room reservations that could accommodate more than 100 people. Facebook was also pinned, in 2020, for having presented a blacklist of words that can be banned from its Workplace collaborative platform, such as the expression “to unionize”.
If all these methods are not enough, the final step remains that of the dismissal of the so-called “disruptive” elements. Christian Smalls, at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse, experienced this in March 2020. The trade unionist still disputes the legality of the giant’s action. But no matter: as a general rule, the largest companies, with considerable resources, are not really encouraged to act in compliance with the law. A publication last year by MIT economist Anna Stansbury found that “a company may have an incentive to unlawfully dismiss a worker for union activity, even if such unlawful dismissal reduces the likelihood of the firm’s unionization by only 0.15 to 2%”. The price to pay is infinitely lower than that to be paid in the event of real social progress, particularly in terms of remuneration – the ALU, for example, is asking Amazon to raise its remuneration to 30 dollars per hour against 18 currently.
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These anti-union practices are, however, in the sights of the Biden administration. Jennifer Abruzzo, appointed head of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the body responsible for conducting and reporting the results of union elections, but also for investigating illegal practices in the world of work, expressed in a memo published in early April of his desire to end “captive meetings”. Abruzzo had previously allowed Amazon employees to be able to stay on their corporate premises for up to fifteen minutes after the end of their shift, a sufficient margin to be able to chat with other employees. A new era may be beginning in a country where the rate of unionized employees in the private sector is 6.1%. Democratic President Joe Biden, after the victory of JFK8, had himself allowed to celebrate by proclaiming: “Amazon, here we are!”. The Gafa know what to expect.