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In its most recent issue, the New Yorker gloated that in “one of the biggest labor victories since the nineteen-thirties,” the Amazon workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted—2,654 for and 2,131 against—to form a union. The union victory was organized by the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a grass-roots, home-grown operation that operated outside the traditional channels of organized labor, but with substantial material support and strategic advice from old-line unions. The vigorous union campaign highlighted worker grievances that included a demand for improved safety conditions in light of the COVID virus, higher wages, longer work breaks, better grievance procedures, and a shuttle bus connection to the Staten Island ferry. In the run-up to the election, two key union organizers were fired and one warned. All were black. Amazon claimed it was for violating social distancing rules. The workers claimed that it was an illegal effort to fire them for their organizing efforts. Because of the ALU’s success, further union-organizing campaigns at Amazon are now in the offing.
Union optimism about the ALU election should be tempered by the long litigation struggle that lies ahead. It is an open secret that many businesses that are generally liberal on social issues—think Howard Schultz, who has just returned as the head of Starbucks—are widely and correctly regarded as anti-union. This posture is taken for the simple reason that unions are bad for business—period. To the progressive mind, that anti-union posture is a high political sin. President Joe Biden has already cheered on the Amazon workers, saying, “Amazon, here we come.” But there are at least two major reasons to question the merit of his position.
At a theoretical level, the purpose of any sound system of labor law is to improve the overall productivity of the employment relationship, which includes the welfare of firm workers as one part of that calculation. But union elections are, at best, an imperfect way to achieve that objective. About 45 percent of the Amazon employees voted against the union, which means that the net overall gain for current workers is small indeed: the dissenting workers certainly have legitimate concerns. Why pay union dues, typically at 3 percent, that will eat into any future wage increases? Why encourage management-labor confrontations that will sever direct worker-employer relationships, which could price the Staten Island facility out of the market or could lead Amazon to divert some of its business to nonunion warehouses where costs are lower and profits are higher?