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Amazon Employees (BHM1) Crush Union - 10 Things You Need to Know...

I’ll start this post with what should be obvious. Twitter’s not the real world, and neither is today’s version of the news. There are extremes on both sides of the news industry and what you read is likely to be more Op/Ed than true reporting. It takes real work to find true reporting these days.

A related issue is the unwillingness of normal people to share their thoughts and beliefs on any news topic of relevance in the world for fear of one side—generally the left these days—looking to shame the source for any thought not believed to be progressive enough.

It starts with dialog on race (hard topic coming off of 2020) but has spread like wildfire to other areas.

Simply put, the world needs all of us to be vocal when we can add value.

Which brings me to the topic of this post. Amazon

For months now, we’ve heard about organized labor (known as unions to the layperson) bringing justice and representation to Amazon workers at an Amazon Distribution Facility in Bessemer (Birmingham), AL. (In the case of the Amazon vote, the union in question was the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which I’ll simply refer to as the “union” from this point forward.)

 Last week, employees at that Amazon Distribution Facility voted “no” to that union representing them. 

But they didn’t just say “no”. Based on the numbers and the circumstances, the employees actually said, “HELL NO” (all caps to express the sentiment).

What’s been represented by the mainstream media over the past 4-5 months related to this union campaign is very different than the outcome. Due to that, I wanted to share some things that I want my HR, Recruiting, Talent and Business leader friends, who haven’t had much experience with organized labor, to know about the Amazon union drive in Bessemer/Birmingham and about organizing activity in general.

Before we get it into it, let me say this: every employee deserves an opportunity to earn a great living based on their performance. They deserve a safe environment that respects all people and provides maximum opportunity to all, regardless of race, gender, orientation and any other identifier.

If a union is the best option for a group of employees (because the company has failed), so be it. 

But a union wasn’t the best option for workers at the Amazon DC in Bessemer, AL, regardless of the pounding on the topic that happened from politicians and the media.

Let’s dig in and understand why something we were told was great (employees saying “yes” to a union at Amazon) was met with such strong opposition by an incredibly diverse set of Amazon employees in the Birmingham area. 

Buckle up, friends—this is a long one but an important one.

HERE ARE THE 10 THINGS I WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT THE UNION ORGANIZING PROCESS AT AMAZON (BESSEMER DISTIRUBTION CENTER):

1—Let’s start with the basic of how union organizing works, shall we?

The process of organizing generally works like this: a limited number of employees at any company are dissatisfied and reach out to a union organization wondering about representation. A process is followed, and if there’s enough interest, an election is held asking employees at the location/unit inside the company if they want the union to represent them.

If employees vote no, things remain as is. If the employees vote yes (simple majority is all that is needed), collective bargaining (negotiation) starts between the company and the union to create an agreement on all employment stipulations. There are 100 more things experts could tell you about this process, but let’s keep this high-level to make sure you’ve got the base.

Got it? Great.

2—The Union Organizing process at the Amazon DC had a lot of friends on the left, including POTUS, most mainstream media, Hollywood and more. 

Most of the people listed above assumed what they wanted to happen (employees vote “yes” to bring in the union) would happen based on the narrative they were building. It didn’t.

Article after article has covered the Amazon union vote as a watershed moment for workers, the left, and for organized labor. Most coverage cited hard working conditions in an Amazon DC as being unfair to workers. Is that true? You’ll have to dig in to the results to understand what the workers thought. But the media coverage was unrelenting over the past couple of months and was easily a 90/10 split—90% of articles talking in glowing terms about the union movement, etc. and only 10% actually doing reporting.

To increase the pressure, the POTUS was active, making the following statement.

"Today and over the next few days and weeks workers in Alabama - and all across America - are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is vitally important - a vitally important choice," he said.

"There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their preferences."

More to come on that statement, because, as it turns out, unions and the employees who are pro-union have all the opportunity in the world to do exactly what Biden is talking about—pressure and coerce employees—as part of the process. We never hear about that.

And, of course, others weighed in. Bernie Sanders came to Birmingham (Bessemer is in the Birmingham, AL metro) to show solidarity with the workers and apply pressure. Entertainment stars piped in with their support, and some even came to Birmingham to support the union.

3—It’s probably warranted to talk a bit more about the organizing process that a union follows to get to an employee vote to give you more context.

I told you earlier that a union organizing process starts with a limited number of employees at any company being dissatisfied and reaching out to a union organization to ask about representation. Let’s keep adding to those notes.

My experience—and I hold it to be true—is that it’s never the high performers in any company who initiate inquiries about unions. High performers are almost always comfortable with a meritocracy and aren’t open to paying a % of their compensation in union dues. To be fair though, inquiries about unions can begin from departments inside companies with horrific managers. In addition, companies with high performance quotas like Amazon can sometimes incite some normal to high performers to consider union representation as well.

Once the call comes into the union, meetings are held away from work between that small group of employees and union organizers to discuss the issues. If the union sees opportunity, they will seek to invite more people to meetings to continue the evaluation process.

Once the union decides the opportunity is strong enough to warrant the additional effort, something called authorization cards are introduced, which ask employees to sign saying that they are interested in the union representing them. In order for a union to have enough cards to present to the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and get a union election inside the company, they have to have at least 30% of employees within the “unit” in question sign the card.

4—Most unions want 50-70% of employees to sign authorization cards before presenting to the NLRB, because they understand many of the cards will be signed under duress and employees will flip back to the company side.

Here’s how asking for a card works in many circumstances. A pro-union employee will approach their colleagues and friends, give a little elevator speech about the unfairness on the company side and ask the person in front of them to sign the card as a signal that “you’re with us/me.”

At that point, the person being solicited has a choice: they can sign the card or not. As you might expect, many sign the card to avoid conflict with the pro-union person in front of them. Sounds awesome, right? When Joe Biden said workers should be able to make their decision about union representation without interference from the company, he fails to mention this form of coercion on the union side. That’s really weak.

5—The reason most organizing campaigns never get to a vote is because employees who don’t care for union representation get wind of the secret card signings going on and report it to the company in question.

Names for these employees reporting the presence of cards in the workplace range from “fink” to “hero” depending on your side of this. But once it’s reported that there are authorization cards in the workplace, most companies ramp up their training on what unions are and begin other union avoidance activities. More to follow on this in a bit.

6—Let’s talk about the result at this point.  The union got absolutely crushed in this thing. CRUSHED.

A union needs a simple majority of voting employees in order to win an election and earn the right to represent the employees unit. 50% plus one vote.

If you believed the media reports in the two months leading up to the Amazon DC union election, you either thought it was going to be a close election or it was a foregone conclusion the union would win.

The union got absolutely CRUSHED in this election by Amazon employees in the Bessemer DC.

Here are the results:

  • Total eligible voters – 5,876
  • Voided ballots – 76
  • Number of votes cast for the Union (RWDSU) – 738
  • Number of votes cast against Union – 1798
  • Number of challenged ballots – 505 (roughly 300 challenged by Amazon, 200 by the union)
  • Number of employees not casting a ballot – 2,759

Amazon’s statement on the vote pointed out that only 16% of employees at the Bessemer DC voted “yes” to the union. Amazon also correctly positioned the result: it wasn’t a win for Amazon (although it was); it was an overwhelming decision made by real employees with real jobs—and probably very few active Twitter accounts.

It should be noted that almost half of the employees in the defined unit (in this case, that’s the entire distribution center) did not vote in the election. Not voting in this election is in all practical purposes a “No” vote.

The union and organized labor got crushed by this outcome.

7—Amazon was helped by expanding the number of voters in the election. This is called defining and expanding the “unit” in any union election.

Here’s another thing to know about the Amazon outcome. When unions get the initial call from a disgruntled employee, they only want work units that maximize their chances of winning an election. This reality means that unions want to keep scope small. Better to keep the group small and win an election than expand the size and lose is the practical thinking.

A common employer strategy is to expand the size of the group voting on whether to be represented by the union. It’s counterintuitive to think employers would want to put more people at risk of being organized, but the bigger the group, the harder it is for pro-union pockets to have influence.

The NLRB hears arguments on this topic and provides rulings on the appropriate scope of a unit for any organizing process/election. For the most part, common locations or work units are the most frequent rationale in expanding the size of the unit that will vote yes/no on whether they want to be represented by the union in question.

One of the things I’ve read in the media was that when the union presented the authorization cards to the NLRB, they assumed the size of the workforce was 1,500 workers. Amazon responded that it was 5,000+, which meant the union had to go out and get more cards to get to 30%. It’s never a good sign when the union in question isn’t aware of the employee count at a facility.

A lot of workers are going to sign the cards under the “you’re with us, right?” peer pressure. Let’s assume the union needed 1,800 cards (30% of 5,876) to get to 30% (after they incorrectly assumed the facility size was 1,500 employees). They ended up with 738 votes in the election. Ponder that. Then add the fact that this whole union vote was conducted over a two- month period via mail-in ballot.

That means that 1,800 employees signed a card when someone rolled up on them and asked them to, but only 58% of them (I added the 300 votes Amazon challenged to the 738 for this math) followed through and mailed in their ballot.

Let all that that sink in. Then think about the pressure the union side puts on an employee to get an authorization card signed based on those numbers. But sure, employers are the only problem in this equation. LOL.

8—It’s obvious that the employees at the Amazon DC voted in a way that suggests for many that working for Amazon is one of the best jobs they’ve had related to pay, benefits, etc.

Only 16% of employees at the Amazon Distribution Center in Bessemer voted “yes” to union representation. The other 84% voted “No” or couldn’t be bothered to vote in such an election.

Why did 84% vote “No” or abstain in supporting a union? There are multiple reasons for this. First up, employees voting “No” or abstaining from voting indicates that they didn’t believe union representation to be in their best interest. They voted for a direct relationship with their supervision and Amazon over union representation.

Another reason for the blowout win is that the jobs in question are pretty good jobs. Consider the following rundown from Yellowhammer:

“On top of Amazon’s $15 minimum wage, the company offers industry-leading benefits to full-time employees, which include comprehensive health care from day one, 401(k) with 50% match, up to 20 weeks paid parental leave and Amazon’s innovative Career Choice program, which pre-pays 95% of tuition for courses in high-demand fields. Since the program’s launch four years ago, more than 25,000 employees have pursued degrees in game design and visual communications, nursing, IT programming and radiology, just to name a few.”

Add base wages, OT, benefits and more, and you’re suddenly looking at a job worth 45-50K+ that grows over time. Amazon is already one of the best-paying jobs a non-skilled laborer can get in Alabama.

A diverse employee base at the Amazon Distribution Center trusted that more than they trusted the union in question.

9—After this result, the Biden administration and the media will push the narrative that employees were influenced in an unethical way by Amazon and will use that as a narrative to push through new laws and NLRB rules. Don’t believe it, remember “FOE”

Scan the news and you already see this: complaints about interference from Amazon in the union election process are widespread. For the uninitiated, the law and NLRB rules and regulations protect the employer’s right to be proactive in telling their side of the story to employees during a time period known as the “campaign period.”

During this period, employers can hold mandatory/captive meetings where they can share their thoughts on why voting “Yes” for union representation is a bad thing. Simply put, employers can provide “FOE” (Facts, Opinions and Experiences) but cannot engage in “TIPS” activity (Threaten, Interrogate, Pressure or Surveil).

The Biden administration will use the Amazon outcome as a proxy for why employers should be limited in telling their FOE-based perspectives and will attempt to change the law and NLRB rules and regulations as a result.

Don’t believe it? Remember that unions conduct their initial activities in secret and routinely use pro-union employees to pressure peers to sign authorization cards (no secret ballot in that!) that lead to elections.

Amazon said in a statement that “the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true.”

“Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us,” the company said. “And Amazon didn’t win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”

The union got blown out in this one. Companies should be able to tell their story on such an important topic before the employee base votes.

10—To really blow your mind, consider the fact that this election was held 100% by mail-in voting due to COVID. Let’s dig in on what opportunity that provides for a union attempting to organize.

My friends, consider this. NLRB-sanctioned union votes are generally held in similar fashion to pre-COVID federal and state elections. Employees go to a polling place run by the NLRB and vote in secret-ballot fashion. It’s on lockdown.

The union vote for the Amazon Distribution Center in Bessemer was held over a two-month period via mail-in voting. Let that sink in—a distribution center where the work is 100% on site (no remote employees) was allowed to do 100% mail-in voting for a union vote. Amazon protested this (rightfully so) and lost its challenge.

What does mail-in voting mean? It means the union in question had the opportunity (if they opted to or asked pro-union employees to act as proxies) to approach employees, ask them to complete their mail in votes (pro-union of course) and offer to drop the ballots in the mail for the employee. It basically offered the same opportunity for influence, pressure and more in the voting process that I described earlier when pro-union employees approach their peers for a signed authorization card in the stage before a vote.

Still, only 16% of employees voted for the union. Crazy.

THE BIG FINISH

I know about 100 people who know more than I do about unions, organizing efforts by unions and strategies to remain union-free on the company side.

But none of those people feel like they can share their expertise publicly. Why?

Because all of them fear being attacked by the digital mob.

That’s where we’re at in America in 2021. Good people with great knowledge and a perspective the world needs to hear won’t share their expertise on a variety of topics for fear of being cancelled, shamed or—God forbid—being called a Republican.

The Amazon union vote is a great reminder that the vast majority of America isn’t aligned with the extremes—on either the right or the left. They’re simply looking for opportunity that they didn’t have last year, and when someone treats them fairly—even if the work is really hard—most Americans are going to be very skeptical of someone telling them it’s a bad thing.

As for me, I’m going to try to be less fearful of the digital mob moving forward. I’m going to try and write and have conversations that respect how the vast majority of America thinks.

To the Amazon employees in the Bessemer Distribution Center: congratulations on the outcome that left no doubt on what the vast majority of you value, and thanks for the reminder that at the end of the day, we all need to be less afraid of speaking the truth on a day-to-day basis.

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