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Amazon Faces the Labor Movement: Trade Unions and Big Business During the Covid-19 Pandemic

As the Covid-19 outbreak swept across Europe in March 2020, the safety of workers unable to perform their jobs from home could not be so easily guaranteed. French workers at Amazon—who have long criticized the strenuous demands the company places on workers—sued the company over the inadequate health and safety measures it implemented in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. The legal contest was initiated by the Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques, a prominent group of French trade unions, representing an unlikely challenge against a company known for its rigid opposition toward unionization. Yet in April, a French court ruled in favor of the Solidaires, ordering the online retailer to suspend the delivery of nonessential items, removing some of the burden off of warehouse workers at risk of exposure to Covid-19. While Amazon temporarily suspended all operations in France, service resumed after the company struck a deal with the Solidaires, introducing additional health and safety measures. 

         Such a tale of organized labor’s triumph over Amazon might seem foreign to workers in the United States, who enjoy comparatively few collective bargaining protections to their counterparts in the European Union. In the same weeks that French unions launched their legal battle against Amazon, the retailer fired a worker leading a protest against Amazon’s health practices outside of a Staten Island, NY warehouse, ostensibly under the pretenses of preserving worker safety. Regardless of whether or not Amazon was acting in good faith, it’s at least clear that the pandemic more broadly highlights the degree to which frontline workers, who are especially vulnerable to coronavirus exposure, bear so little recourse in advocating for more thorough safety measures. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on working populations, particularly at Amazon, has served as a stark reminder of the incredibly weak position of collective bargaining in the post-industrial United States. However, the pandemic and Amazon’s relationship with its workers during this time has raised possibilities for labor unions to assume more assertive roles in advocating for greater health and safety protections. 

         The steady decline of labor unions in the post-industrial era began long before Amazon was established as a near-ubiquitous force in American enterprise. In the United States, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, alongside other New Deal legislation, cemented the dominant role of unions in the American business hierarchy for several decades. But beginning with the high-unemployment periods of the 1970s and 1980s, increased global competition in manufacturing and ever-advancing automation have steadily chipped away at workers’ bargaining power. More recently, states that were once industrial powerhouses have passed so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws, which prohibit unions from mandating that all workers covered under a collective bargaining arrangement pay union dues. The result is the lowest level of union participation in the United States in decades—10.3 percent in 2019, about half the rate it was forty years ago. And the direct impact on workers is even more jarring: the real hourly wage for the average American worker is lower now than it was in the early 1970s. 

         Exploiting the weak position of organized labor in the United States, Amazon has for years taken strict measures to ward off even the slightest hint of unionization amongst its workers. The retailer explicitly discourages its workers from unionizing and has even more recently, per a leaked memo, begun developing software to track potential unionization efforts. The result of these measures is clear: not a single Amazon facility in the United States has successfully unionized. It’s the retailer’s fraught relationship with even the very idea of its workers joining unions that may help explain why a Staten Island strike for greater health and safety measures could be so swiftly dismissed.

         The Solidaires’ successful legal campaign against Amazon reveals a different state of collective bargaining which exists across the Atlantic—the very fact that there are any Amazon workers covered by a union is perhaps the most telling distinction of all. And while Europe’s trade unions have also suffered from the macroeconomic trends that have helped wreck their US counterparts, the percentage of workers covered by collective bargaining arrangements far outstrips that of the US. This disparity can in large part be explained by the practice of industry-level bargaining, a system common in Europe under which collective bargaining arrangements cover all workers in an entire industry. Those agreements negotiated in the US are instead formed at the enterprise level, which, labor relations expert David Madland argues, creates, “perverse incentives for employers to oppose workers trying to join the union.” France’s union membership rate, for instance, barely edges out that of the United States, but the number of French workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement is astronomically higher.  

         The more active role of labor unions in European industry has facilitated greater advocacy for strict health and safety measures during the Covid-19 pandemic, not just in France but across the European Union. Over the summer, Verdi, one of Germany’s largest trade unions, endorsed a strike involving around 2,000 Amazon workers at a fulfillment center. The German union, which has long struggled to force Amazon to compensate its workers in accordance with collective bargaining agreements in the retail sector, demanded that the company negotiate more stringent health and safety measures for frontline workers. And outside of Amazon alone, Italian trade unions in the early days of the pandemic reached a deal with the government to expand the number of businesses that would temporarily close to protect workers. 

         To avoid going the way of the United States, unions representing 12 million workers across a handful of European countries joined hands in October to pressure the European Union into investigating Amazon’s alleged efforts to track workers suspected of participating in union activity. Amazon has long taken an oppositional stance toward organized labor, yet the Covid-19 pandemic—itself presenting an unprecedented threat to the immediate wellbeing of workers both within and outside of Amazon—has turned the spotlight back onto labor unions, who tend to be among the strongest advocates for enhanced health and safety measures. 

Critics of organized labor often invoke unions as a hindrance to the global competitiveness of business, observing the dissolution of industry-level bargaining arrangements amid the effects of globalization. While there exists plenty of empirical data to challenge this criticism, it also assumes that organized labor, in practice, acts as solely an encumbrance for business, advocating for only marginal improvements to wages and benefits. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that organized labor, when deployed properly, is not tantamount to an ineffectual regulatory burden on business. Low-level workers, particularly in a large corporate setting, too often lack recourse in addressing general matters of working conditions and wage disputes. And at the moment a global pandemic arrives, the lack of influence over managerial decisions can be especially consequential, and even dangerous. Unions’ interventions on behalf of workers in Europe underscore the role constructive role unions can play amid a crisis that puts the physical security of workers at risk 

Amid the hollowed-out state of collective bargaining in the United States, labor unions may seem to be a relic of a bygone era. Yet the fervor with which many unions have campaigned for greater safety measures for workers throughout the pandemic should nonetheless serve as a helpful reminder of the indispensable role organized labor plays in not only bargaining for higher wages but ensuring reasonable health standards are met during a pandemic. There should be little doubt Amazon’s internal health and safety measures—alongside the generally sparse privileges the retail giant affords its workers—will continue to be the subject of strict public scrutiny long after the Covid-19 pandemic is over.

Image via Flickr (Mark Hunter)