Employers see unions as bad for business but workers across the country are utilizing collective organization efforts to fight for better working conditions.
I worked at Amazon for three months, and I don’t even know how I lasted that long. My shift was from 5 AM to 1 PM, with an unpaid half-hour break sometime in between. During the seven-and-a-half hours I spent on my feet, my job was to speed-walk around a warehouse picking up heavy boxes at one location and putting them down someplace else. I never got a second to rest because my productivity was constantly being monitored, and my superiors were quick to remind me when I was falling behind. Eventually, the work became untenable for me, and I quit.
I had so many concerns about the working conditions at Amazon, but I never had any agency to express them. Whether it was the rushed bathroom breaks, lack of personal protective equipment, or the aggressive attitudes of some managers, there was a lot that needed to be addressed. But the working conditions never improved while I was there, and there’s no reason they would; my superiors didn’t gain anything from listening to me. I was just another easily replaceable cog in a behemoth of a machine. I didn’t have the voice to stand up for myself, but maybe if I had had someone to stand up for me, things would have been different.
In the United States, union membership has never been weaker than it is today. Businesses have invested in union-busting firms to keep wages down and benefits scarce. These firms employ bullying tactics and misinformation campaigns to kill any potentiality of allyship within their clients' workspaces. Today, just 10% of American workers are part of a labor union. That's half what union membership was in the 1980s, and a third of membership when it was at its peak in the 1950s.
Though union membership is a fraction of what it was in the 1950s, unions remain overwhelmingly popular in the United States—71% of Americans said they supported labor unions in 2022. Yet, businesses don’t want their workplaces to unionize. Not only would they have to share control of their workplaces with their union, but they also likely have to offer better working conditions and wages. Businesses argue that unions get in the way, and without them, they're able to keep their profits and productivity as high as possible. But without a union, it’s also easier for employers to ignore workplace complaints, suppress wages, deny benefits, avoid pay equity, and fire employees.
If businesses had kept their employees' wages in line with economic growth, it wouldn’t be as reprehensible as it is that so many are trying to keep their workforces from unionizing. But that didn't happen. While businesses continue to make more and more money over the past fifty years, workers’ wages stagnated. Today, workers only make about half of what they would’ve if their earnings had grown at the same rate as the economy did. Instead, businesses (and those at the top of the economic food chain) take home more and more of the profits. Workers today are earning less than they should and struggle to improve their working conditions because businesses have no incentive to listen to them.
Anti-union advocates would say that the competitive economy protects workers because if a business isn’t listening to its employees, those employees are free to leave. But the problem is that workers are finding mistreatment wherever they go; there aren’t companies who are proactively providing their workers with higher wages, benefits, and working conditions. It’s not a surprise that so many American workers took part in “The Great Resignation” in the last year or so, rejecting their job’s poor wages and working conditions. Workers should be able to change their workplace rather than be told to leave it. Collective action gives workers the opportunity to leverage their power and negotiate with their employers for a say in their workplace.
The ubiquity of technology today has given businesses more opportunities to track their workplace’s interest in unionization. Instead of companies having to rely on Pinkertons to disrupt bubbling unionization, they can now rely on a wealth of data-tracking software to keep tabs on employees. Whole Foods has used heat tracking to monitor if employees are congregating while they’re in the store. Additionally, employers no longer have to be kept in the dark about employees' potential pro-union sentiments. They can now keep tabs on their employee's social media posts, like Tesla did when workers tried unionizing in 2017. These tactics help monitor any potential organizational efforts before anti-union propaganda is spread amongst the workforce.
These Goliath-sized businesses are more than willing to shell out millions in union-busting consulting fees so they can retain sole control over their workspaces. And they have the edge. Companies like Amazon will send mass texts telling employees to “Vote No” on a union election. Misinformation posters about unions can be posted around the workplace, and flyers are dispersed to discourage union interest. They’ll bombard employees with anti-union propaganda and try to sow distrust of unions throughout their workforce. Employees can be mandated to attend anti-union captive audience meetings where employees are made to watch propaganda created to slant their ideas of unions.
Anti-union propaganda is rife with misinformation. It tells employees that unions only work for themselves and not their members, or says workers wouldn’t benefit from a union. It tries to paint unions as bad for productivity. The propaganda tries to convince workers that they are likely to lose their benefits if a union forms, they will be forced to pay union dues, or that a union will force a strike and workers will lose their jobs, among other things.
Upping the anti-union ante
If the propaganda fails and enough interest is garnered within the workplace, an election can be called for with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). When that happens, the anti-union tactics get even more aggressive. Employers can threaten to close stores if workers consider unionizing. This tactic happens all the time (both the threats and actually closing stores) and is illegal, but it's illegal specifically as a threat to prevent workers from unionizing.
Many workers interested in unionization are also financially living on the edge, and these firms use scare tactics to pressure their workers into compliance. If there’s even a whisper of unionizing hurting the money they make, most workers will vote down unionization. In the face of potential gains for all workers, individuals vote for themselves and their pockets.
Managers can target employees with pro-union sympathies and isolate them so they can’t encourage other workers to join a union. In Chris Smalls’ case—the current president of the Amazon Labor Union—employees with pro-union sympathies can be targeted with reprimanding or fired for the slightest offenses. This is another practice that often happens but is illegal. A judge recently forced Starbucks to rehire some of the workers it fired at a Memphis, Tennessee, store for attempting to unionize.
Darryl Richardson, who is a picker at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, facility, told Daily Kos that managers would try to increase turnover to attempt to quell the influence the Retail, Wholesale, Department Stores Union (RWDSU) has over the workplace. High turnover rates make it a lot harder for a union to form.
“They’re targeting people who know what Amazon is like and trying to get rid of them,” Richardson said. “The people who’ve been here and want to change things. They want people like me gone.” People who’ve spent at least a year at the facility are likely to vote in favor of a union, given they’ve had to deal with the working conditions at Amazon longer. The company will look for the slightest infractions, like missing a clock-in punch or time spent away from a task, and write an employee up. If that doesn’t work, they can pester employees about their productivity numbers, change an employee’s work schedule without warning, or even relitigate years-old infractions. After two write-ups, an employee can be fired for just cause, and they’ll have no say in a union election.
Out with the old and in with the unknowledgeable new
Firing old employees is effective at dampening union interest, but it’s only half the battle. Waves of new hires are often made and served a platter of anti-union propaganda when they’re trained. Starbucks has flooded workplaces with anti-union hires before an election to try and effect votes in their favor. Newer employees are less likely to speak their minds or understand what the union is fighting for. They either fear losing what they already have or don’t see why they need things to change. Ultimately they choose the devil they know rather than the one they don’t.
Leette Former, who was recently fired from the Amazon Bessemer, Alabama, facility, told Daily Kos that new employees are brought in and treated great before an election. (Former voted no to a union in 2020.) But after an election, things go back to normal, and new employees begin to see what workers are fighting for.
Former said she tried speaking with managers about the things she thought needed to be improved to make her work easier, but her complaints fell on deaf ears. “I talked to the managers, general manager, HR, and they weren’t listening or changing any of the things we were asking for,” she said. “They had already won the election, so they didn’t have any reason to listen to us anymore.” There couldn’t be another union election for 12 months, and it was likely, given Amazon’s high turnover rates, that Former wasn’t going to be there for it.
Businesses without unions say they value having a direct connection with their employees, but there are no structures in place to make them accountable to their workforce. If their employees complain, management can make their workdays a living hell or push them out of the job completely. The fact remains that the deck is stacked in the corporation’s favor. If a workplace builds enough interest to call for an NLRB election, many union initiatives still lose those elections. Employers can cheat and try rigging election results. And in the rare case unions do win, corporations can force unions into prolonged negotiations where they’ll drag their feet and make every word of a union contract a battle.
There’s a growing fervor for unionization at workplaces across the country, including here at Daily Kos. But it’s still an uphill battle; corporations have deep pockets and quarterly earning projections to meet. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. With commitment, allyship, and a little faith, unionization is possible. The successes of unionization at Starbucks and of JFK8 have shown that.
This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows (DKEF) Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet the author, and other Emerging Fellows) here.