Amazon Union Vote: Labor Loss May Bring Shift in Strategy

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“Everywhere they tried, they were defeated,’’ Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said of the unions. “Walmart would send teams to swamp the stores to work against a union. They are good at it.”

As with Walmart, labor leaders believed it was critical to establish a foothold at Amazon, which influences pay and working conditions for millions of workers thanks to the competitive pressure it puts on rivals in industries like groceries and fashion.

But the labor movement’s failure to make inroads at Walmart despite investing millions of dollars has loomed over its thinking on Amazon. “They felt so burned by trying to organize Walmart and getting basically nowhere,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

It was only a relatively small, scrappy union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, that felt the election in Alabama was worth the large investment. As the votes were being tallied, Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president, attributed the one-sided result to a “broken” election system that favors employers.

Amazon saw things differently. “It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company said in a statement. “Our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union. Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them.”

Yet even as elections have often proven futile, labor has enjoyed some success over the years with an alternative model — what Dr. Milkman called the “air war plus ground war.”

The idea is to combine workplace actions like walkouts (the ground war) with pressure on company executives through public relations campaigns that highlight labor conditions and enlist the support of public figures (the air war). The Service Employees International Union used the strategy to organize janitors beginning in the 1980s, and to win gains for fast-food workers in the past few years, including wage increases across the industry.

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