Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, have deeply transformed a generation of consumer behavior and the U.S. economy. The corporate giant continues to pioneer sales and supply chain processes, efficiently delivering goods to homes and businesses in unprecedented ways. Consumers rely on Amazon’s speed of delivery and astounding array of products.
That success and customer convenience have come at a high price for employees and labor organizers, however. For years, Amazon’s workers have complained of a difficult work environment with long hours, low pay, unsafe conditions, unrealistic production targets, inadequate break times, and a culture that treats them as disposable.
Amazon’s pattern of response to these complaints may serve as a guide for management tactics to avoid at other companies.
Unions no longer represent the American workforce in large numbers as they once did. They are downright unpopular among employers and have declined in numbers as U.S. manufacturing has contracted. Most U.S. workers don’t belong to a union. But in some industries, unions are still present: media and entertainment, steelworking, public service, trucking, and auto manufacturing.
Labor organizations typically offer some wage protection and bargaining power for workers like those who populate Amazon’s warehouses and distribution centers. And in some industries, labor union organizers might occupy a seat at the boardroom table. The Teamsters, for example, are still one of the largest unions in the U.S. and have tried to make inroads among Amazon’s non-union truckers and delivery drivers.
Union representatives negotiate salary schedules, working hours, and safety practices with company executives on a regular basis, creating a ripple effect on how companies hire, fire, and manage all their employees. They also find strength in numbers, allying with unions at similar companies in their regions.
Labor unions today often have a tense co-existence with corporate executives, who often view them as a threat and inconvenience. Amazon has been no exception. The company has consistently resisted employee efforts to organize through a variety of union-busting schemes.
Reports continue to surface about top-down pressure against union drives and layoffs of the more vocal activists. The company has reportedly used other tactics such as strongly worded memos, bulletin board postings, mandatory informational meetings, union election surveillance, and negative performance reviews to dissuade labor assembly.
Workers have complained of being called to one-on-one sessions and receiving warnings. And there were even reports that Amazon tampered with mailboxes used for voting in an unsuccessful union election, after delivering conflicting messages encouraging workers to vote, and installing mailboxes to be used for elections.
Amazon’s cutthroat reputation has created a bitter culture at some locations. Disillusion has even seeped into Whole Foods Market’s operations, where employees speak of eroded benefits and being treated as expendable since the company was purchased by Amazon.
Companies can learn some hard management lessons from Amazon’s controversial labor practices. There is of course the toxic workplace culture that develops when coercion seeps down from upper management. Companies can also take heed from unpopular labor practices that inspired Amazon’s union organizers in the first place.
Anti-union coercion, in addition to being technically illegal, creates some bad press for companies. Union busting can also deliver a strong hit to the bottom line. Labor union avoidance is an expensive business, with hefty legal and consulting fees. Large law firms advise Amazon and other companies on how to tamp down activism without violating labor laws, despite the National Labor Relations Act’s prohibition of coercion in the workplace. The 1935 Act established employees’ rights to protest and organize, giving them a single place to file grievances about workplace violations.
The National Labor Relations Board is charged with interpreting and enforcing this law. The federal agency has implemented funding to educate employees on their right to self-organize and address workplace grievances. With this in mind, companies should be aware of what pro-labor federal programs are in place any given year and try to anticipate their effect.
Such initiatives increase general awareness of workplace issues and could foster more union activity. Such funding could also increase federal enforcement against unfair labor practices, and the number of cases filed by employees and their representatives.
Federal pro-labor education programs also form alliances through their field offices with small-business associations and immigrant groups to inform workers of their self-organizing rights. If this trend continues, corporate behemoths like Amazon might not be as successful in the future at busting unions.
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