Amazon Workers Opt Out of a Union

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Last month I wrote about an attempt by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to unionize technical workers at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Delaware. This was my take back then: "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that if unions manage to make substantial inroads at Amazon, it will be the greatest advance that the labor movement has experienced in decades."

Well, on Wednesday night, workers voted to reject the union. So far, the citadel of the new economy remains unbreached. The vote wasn't even close: 21 to 6, according to the Seattle Times:

Machinists spokesman John Carr said Amazon's campaign to discourage unionization with meetings at the warehouse worked. "The pressure that these workers faced was intense and was more than they could overcome," Carr said.

Workers initially sought union representation over grievances about arbitrary job classifications, promotion and vacation policies. Carr said the Machinists will continue to try to persuade warehouse workers to support the union. But labor laws require a one-year wait before holding another vote on representation.

This is not the last time that the labor movement will try to unionize Amazon. It's an obvious target. Amazon's workers are more productive than, say, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. , and compared with a major retail company, it has only a handful of locations -- and employees -- where unions can focus their organizing efforts.

That said, 21 to 6 is a very bad sign. The union says it lost because the employer put too much pressure on employees, but the union always says that; this description is notably short of specific allegations of illegal union-busting. The union's definition of "intense pressure" may include firing people who supported the union, but it tends also to include things such as calling meetings on company time (the union campaign has to meet outside of work) and pointing out that the union cannot guarantee you a raise -- or indeed a job. Obviously, unions would rather that employers weren't allowed to say anything at all, but I'm not sure this really qualifies as "intense pressure."

Just as a success would have been a major advance for the union, this is a blow. They failed to organize a small group of workers by a wide margin. It's a good sign of just how difficult a comeback will be for organized labor -- and why progressives may need to look elsewhere for a 21st-century labor movement.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net