Amazon Playbook Defeats Union Push in Alabama : The Indicator from Planet Money The results are in: Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama will not unionize, for now. We discuss the tactics companies use to keep organized labor at bay.
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How Amazon Defeated The Union

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How Amazon Defeated The Union

How Amazon Defeated The Union

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DAVID GURA, HOST:

Seven hundred thirty-eight workers in favor, 1,798 against - that was the tally after a union vote of workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala. It is a huge win for the company.

SALLY HERSHIPS, HOST:

And it's a huge loss for the union behind the campaign and for unions in general.

GURA: Eligible workers voted against a union by a margin of more than 2-1. Now, back in November, at least 30% of eligible workers had to sign cards saying they wanted to vote.

HERSHIPS: As the campaign went on, workers who were open to a vote on unionizing somehow decided to go the other way. William Stokes and his wife Lavonette both work at the warehouse. And they say, sure, Amazon has problems, but a union is not the answer.

WILLIAM STOKES: You know, the union can't promise you 25- to $26 an hour. If they're doing that, that's a lie. You know...

LAVONETTE STOKES: They can't make Amazon do anything.

W STOKES: There are problems within Amazon, but those problems are problems that can be fixed. And they're not as bad as the media and some disgruntled employees have said.

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GURA: I'm David Gura, in for Stacey Vanek Smith.

HERSHIPS: And I'm Sally Herships. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. And today on the show - the playbook that beat back the union from one of the guys who wrote it, not for Amazon specifically but for more than a hundred other companies that have been in the same position.

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GURA: So you were the guy the company would call when they didn't want to have a union?

JOHN DENHOLM: Yes.

GURA: John Denholm (ph) is a labor and employment lawyer who has spent a lot of his career fielding phone calls from companies worried about organized labor.

DENHOLM: Sometimes, it's different. It could be more of a panicked phone call in the sense that they've learned that their employees are talking about unionization.

GURA: So John's specialty is union avoidance. He worked at a big law firm on dozens of cases like this. And when he'd get the call, he had a PowerPoint presentation ready to go. He'd give it to managers at companies in towns and cities across the country.

HERSHIPS: So this particular playbook isn't so much a book. Also, I checked Amazon. He has not...

GURA: (Laughter).

HERSHIPS: ...Written a book for sale on Amazon. It's really a PowerPoint is what you're saying.

GURA: It is. It's a slide deck, fair point. And the first thing a company should do, John says, before there's even a campaign, is to work on prevention to pay more or generally improve conditions.

HERSHIPS: Which Amazon did - that whole $15 an hour wage, that is more than double the federal minimum wage.

GURA: But if that doesn't work and there is a campaign to unionize, the first step in John's playbook, in his PowerPoint (laughter), is to gather intelligence. And the first thing he would do when he was working on union avoidance was to find the night manager.

DENHOLM: People just seem to open up more at night for whatever reason. And a lot of times, the night manager will have a wealth of information about what's going on in the workforce. What are they happy about? What are they upset about? And they also may have some very specific information about unionization.

HERSHIPS: Then a company can use that information to tailor its message to workers who maybe are on the fence.

DENHOLM: And then we're going to put together a series of handouts, lectures, videos, all of the above for the workforce.

GURA: So you can call that the second part of the playbook, and it's something that Amazon did do. A company's workers are a captive audience, and management is free to talk about a lot of stuff that might make workers worried - maybe strikes or picketing or how much they'd have to pay in dues or fines.

HERSHIPS: And third, a company can hire other people to make its case. John says managers want to conduct an aggressive pro-company campaign, and that often involves a consultant.

GURA: A consultant will approach workers. He'll basically whip votes like they do in Congress. He's going to try to figure out how things are going to go when that vote takes place.

HERSHIPS: And it's also not unheard of for this consultant to go to a worker's house to talk to their partner, their kids, maybe their husband or wife about everything that's at stake.

DENHOLM: You know, what Amazon did does not seem that different than what a lot of companies do.

GURA: Union advocates say, yeah, but this is Amazon we're talking about. They allege there were some suspicious innovations on the old playbook. For example, one longstanding goal of union avoidance is to put the union on defense to make counterarguments. If it's making headway on one point or if it's gaining traction in one location, target that. Like the parking lot - it can take a little while to leave that Amazon facility in Bessemer. Cars have to wait at the red light for a while, so union organizers would make their case to the drivers at the light, until, the union says, Amazon made a few calls.

HERSHIPS: Amazon reportedly got the timer on a stoplight changed so it would turn green faster, and that gave union organizers less time to actually walk up and talk to and approach workers.

GURA: And then there's the mailbox.

DENHOLM: This issue about the mailbox, of course, is getting a lot of play. And, you know, we can maybe talk about that if you like. But...

GURA: Let's talk a bit about it.

DENHOLM: Sure.

GURA: The mailbox at the center of this installed by the Postal Service on-site.

Amazon really wanted this vote to be held in person. But because of where we're at, because of the pandemic, they couldn't do that.

HERSHIPS: So the company asked the National Labor Relations Board to put a drop box at its fulfillment center.

GURA: The NLRB said no, the vote had to be by mail. So Amazon reportedly asked the U.S. Postal Service to install a mailbox on-site where it would be pretty public who went up and used it, where they would put their votes in.

HERSHIPS: The union says the mailbox was a flex. It was a way of intimidating workers. Maybe if you were voting, you were worried your vote wouldn't be secret. And anyway, big picture, it showed Amazon could get what it wanted. It could ask the USPS for its own private mailbox.

GURA: We asked Amazon about the union's claims about the stoplight and the mailbox. And in a statement, Amazon said, quote, "this mailbox, which only the USPS had access to, was a simple, secure and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less." The stoplight change, a spokesperson told us, is something Amazon does at many of its facilities to improve efficiency. A part of the union avoidance playbook is knowing what you're allowed to do by law, and companies have gotten good at going right up to the limit of that and sometimes beyond it.

HERSHIPS: The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the RWDSU, says Amazon went too far.

GURA: And that complaint signals this is the beginning of a longer fight. And when there's another campaign, companies are going to dust off that playbook again. Before I let John go, I wanted to ask him how he felt about being one of the guys corporations turn to to fight unions because for people who are pro-union, that makes him one of the bad guys.

I just wonder sort of how you look back on your career doing this. Do you think that workers are better off because of the work that you did to stop unionization at these companies?

DENHOLM: I want to - I would say yes. And I also would like to point out something, though. I would say only half of what I did was doing that kind of work, meaning, quote-unquote, "stopping unionization."

HERSHIPS: John points out that he also worked with management, and he worked with the unions on how they could improve the way they communicate. It wasn't all just about avoiding unions.

GURA: Amazon is happy with how things turned out at that facility in Alabama. And so for the time being, its playbook, which probably includes a lot of what's in John's playbook, is going to go back up on the shelf until next time.

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GURA: This episode was produced by Jamila Huxtable, and it was fact checked by Sam Cai. Alex Goldmark edited it. Special thanks to Stephan Bisaha of WBHM. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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