Why Amazon’s Union Vote Matters

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Why did this particular warehouse become the focus of a unionization campaign? And why now?

The Birmingham region has been described as more like the industrial areas of the Midwest than the South. It has a long history of strong steel and mining unions, and unions were particularly involved in the civil rights movement. About 85 percent of the employees in the Bessemer warehouse are Black, and union organizers have focused on issues of racial empowerment and equality.

And recently, workers’ fears about the health risks of the pandemic and the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement have made some employees feel emboldened to demand more from Amazon.

Part of Amazon’s position is that it’s doing what people and politicians want companies to do: It’s creating a lot of jobs and paying more than many of its retail competitors. Is Amazon held to an unreasonable standard to do far more?

Amazon certainly believes that, and it points to Walmart as a competitor with lower pay and benefits. But at the peak of Walmart’s growth, it was also scrutinized for changing how we shop and for its pay and treatment of workers. Companies that are growing fast are naturally going to feel a lot of attention and pressure.

What do Amazon’s critics want it to do?

Amazon’s retail business is more profitable than many people realize, but it reinvests a lot of its profits in new technologies like drones, Alexa or other innovations that we don’t know about yet. Some workers are asking whether Amazon workers, the economy and maybe the company itself would be better off if Amazon spent more on them.

They point to examples of companies with different priorities. Costco, which employs almost 200,000 people in the United States, said recently that its average wage was $24 an hour and it planned to increase starting pay to $16 an hour.

(Amazon has said that a typical full-time employee in the United States had total compensation that equated to about $18 an hour in 2019. That’s not a direct comparison to Costco’s figure because it includes well-paid tech and corporate employees, which Costco’s disclosure does not.)

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