4 min read.Updated: 29 Dec 2021, 06:45 PM ISTSebastian Herrera, The Wall Street Journal
High churn rate limits the union’s ability to gain a foothold with employees
As organizers prepare for a second unionization election at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Alabama, one of the most significant challenges they face is the possibility that many people employed at the facility now may not be there when the vote is held.
Amazon has recorded turnover above 100% across many of its facilities before and during the pandemic, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.
During the first election in Bessemer, union officials estimated that at least 1,000 workers left around the time voting took place during two months concluding at the end of March. The facility had roughly 6,000 eligible voters at the time and about half voted. Several of the Bessemer workers the Journal contacted during the first vote no longer work there.
Amazon has said that many employees who leave come back to reapply. An Amazon spokeswoman said some employees “stay with us throughout the year and others choose to only work with us for a few months to make some extra income when they need it."
While federal officials have yet to set a vote date, Amazon and union organizers have begun preparations for the second one, holding local meetings and negotiating over procedures for an election that is likely to be held in 2022 in Bessemer.
Roughly 71% of Amazon workers who submitted ballots in the first contest voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The company said at the time that the victory indicated that employees recognize its work trying to listen to them and make improvements. It also pointed to its $15-an-hour minimum wage, double the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, which is also the federal minimum.
The union accused Amazon of intimidating employees, which the company denied. A federal labor official in November ordered a second election at the facility after finding Amazon violated labor law during the first vote. Amazon recently reached a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board that makes it easier for its employees to organize at work. Under the agreement, the company will notify past and current warehouse staff of their rights to organize in its buildings, and it will allow the NLRB to more quickly hold Amazon accountable should it violate terms.
High employee turnover has long been an issue at Amazon. While workers are initially attracted to the company because of its name recognition, pay and benefits, some don’t stay long, according to interviews with current and former employees. Some workers have said that Amazon’s high-paced performance quotas can lead to burn out. Also, the company has recorded higher injury rates than the national average, according to federal workplace data. The company introduced some safety measures such as body mechanics training during the past year.
A union could potentially push Amazon to adjust break times, performance goals and other policies, but high turnover among Amazon’s hourly workforce threatens any success the RWDSU hopes to achieve during a second vote, according to labor experts and organizers. Amazon has said it opposes unions because it prefers to negotiate directly with workers.
Some employees who initially didn’t support the union are reconsidering their position. Melissa Charlton Myers, a worker who said she voted against the union in April, said she is leaning toward favoring it because it could be “a good change that we need here."
Other employees aren’t so sure. Samantha Stewart, who voted against the union in the first election, said she doesn’t believe unionizing would bring added benefits. Ms. Stewart is paid $21.80 an hour and has taken part in Amazon’s paid college tuition program.
“I don’t see what a union could help with," she said. “I’ve never had it better anywhere else I’ve worked."
Amazon’s high turnover could benefit the company when it comes to union votes, said Catherine Fisk, a law professor who specializes in labor at the University of California, Berkeley. Turnover makes it more difficult for unions to gain and keep support from employees, Ms Fisk said. In New York, a separate union push was slowed partly because, organizers said, many of the workers who initially supported it stopped working at the facilities.
“If it’s a constantly changing group of people who work there for a relatively short term, they don’t have the opportunity to hear from the union enough on why it would be in their best interest to support them," Ms. Fisk said.
In November, an NLRB official ruled that Amazon’s installation of a mail collection box outside its Bessemer facility during the vote could have made employees believe Amazon played a role in collecting and counting ballots. Amazon wasn’t found to have accessed ballots submitted through the mailbox, and the company has said it set up the box for the convenience of employees.
The RWDSU has been organizing workers in Bessemer since April, and union sympathizers have said they are fixated on bringing better work standards to Amazon. While many at the warehouse have left, the lead organizers are still there, according to the union.
RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum has said that Amazon workers should have more power in their workplace “which can only come from a union."
Since the last vote, Amazon has introduced sign-on bonuses of up to $3,000 and raised its starting pay, now averaging more than $18 an hour, while adding paid college tuition for workers who are with the company for at least 90 days