Maybe Workers Just Aren’t That into You, Unions

Photo Credit: Getty

Labor unions are second only to Donald Trump when it comes to crying foul over election outcomes they don’t like. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was still counting the ballots for the organizing election at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, facility last week, when the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) announced it would file an unfair practices complaint against Amazon. It couldn’t possibly be that the workers just weren’t interested in joining, the union claimed.

The high-profile loss is likely to accelerate the efforts by unions and their allies in Washington to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would bolster unions’ ability to win workplace elections.

“We can’t allow this societal failure to deprive one more worker of the freedom to organize,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka tweeted Friday shortly after news of the Amazon vote broke. “This is the fight of our time, and it starts with passing the #PROAct.”

Lawmakers should think twice, though. The PRO Act aids unions not by expanding individual workers’ rights, but by making it easier for unions to force workers to fall in line. The legislation would eliminate state right to work laws, which means that workers who don’t want to join a union could be forced into supporting one.

The PRO Act would require employers to give out their employees’ private contract information to unions trying to organize a workplace, with the workers having no say in the matter. It also would prohibit companies from holding mandatory meetings with workers about unionization. Organizers blamed the loss on this.

RWSDU President Stuart Appelbaum claimed that Amazon “required all their employees to attend lecture after lecture, filled with mistruths and lies.” Which is another way of saying the company talked to its workers and made the case against them joining the union. Amazon disputed that it intimidated employees. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us,” the company said on its blog.

The numbers tell the tale. The union’s loss was lopsided, with an estimated 59 percent of the workers voting no. And those are just the workers who bothered to weigh in, with many abstaining.

The Bessemer election used mail-in ballots due to the COVID-19 crisis, which should have helped the union drive, because unions don’t need majority support from all workers to win, just a majority of votes cast. The Amazon worksite had 5,876 workers eligible to vote, but only 3,041 mailed in their ballots, according to the NLRB. Therefore, it only needed the support of 1,521 Amazon workers— about a quarter—to win under the NLRB’s rules. It couldn’t manage even that. Only 738 voted for the union, about 13 percent of the Amazon workers.

Calling election results that don’t go their way fraudulent or otherwise tainted has been labor movement’s go-to move for a while. California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 22 last year, rolling back key provisions of the state’s union-backed AB5 law, which had undermined the ability of freelancers and so-called gig economy workers to make a living. Art Pulaski, executive secretary treasurer of the California Labor Federation, blamed the loss on the “obscene amount of money these multi-billion dollar corporations spent misleading the public.” The PRO Act would also redefine the term “contract worker,” which would limit the ability of people to freelance work or do side gigs for extra money.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) lost a high-profile bid to organize Volkswagen workers at a Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant in 2014, despite the company remaining officially neutral. The union blamed the loss on outside interference from lawmakers like then-Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. Factory worker Sean Moss told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, “We felt like we were already being treated very well by Volkswagen in terms of pay and benefits and bonuses. We also looked at the track record of the UAW. Why buy a ticket on the Titanic?” A second organizing bid by UAW in 2019 also failed.

Melissa Charlton Myers, a Bessemer, Alabama, worker echoed Moss’s point after last week’s Amazon vote. “I work hard for my money, and I don’t want any of it going to a union that maybe can get us more pay, or maybe can get us longer breaks,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s not worth the risk.”

Rather than passing legislation like PRO Act to make it easier for unions to win elections, perhaps lawmakers should listen to workers like Moss and Myers. If they say they don’t see an advantage to joining union and consistently vote against having one, maybe lawmakers should respect that.