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April 13, 2021

Explainer: The role of unions and why Amazon workers lost the vote to unionize

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Directions: Read the summary, watch the video and answer the discussion questions. To read a transcript of the video, click here.

Summary: Amazon is the second largest private employer in the U.S. with nearly 800,000 workers. But none of its facilities are unionized and the push to unionize from workers in Alabama is over — for now. For almost two months, Amazon workers voted on whether to unionize at one of the company’s major warehouses in Alabama. On April 8, the National Labor Relations Board finished counting ballots and found union organizers did not have nearly enough votes.

  • More than 5,800 workers are employed at the warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The vote was considered a pivotal test of organized labor’s efforts to unionize a multi-billion dollar big tech company.
  • It is illegal for companies to forbid worker from organizing. However, Amazon launched a strong campaign against efforts to unionize, pointing out the strengths of working at the company.
  • Workers in various warehouses have pointed to harsh conditions including having to work in hot conditions on one’s feet all day with two breaks, but the distance to get to the break room (warehouses are vast facilities, sometimes the size of 40 footballs fields) takes up half of the break time.
  • Amazon says workers in Alabama are paid double the minimum wage and that working conditions are safe and benefits are good.

In order to understand more of the background of this story, we recommend you watch the video further down in the lesson, which offers a look into Amazon’s employee conditions as the company pushes back against unionization.

Key terms:

union: an organized group of employees in a trade or profession formed to protect workers’ rights

Discussion questions: 

Warm up questions: Have your students identify the 5Ws and an H:

  • Who were the people involved trying to form a union?
  • Why were some workers trying to unionize? Why was Amazon against the efforts?
  • What do unions provide to their workers?
  • How has Amazon reacted to efforts to unionize? 
  • Where is the Bessemer warehouse? Where are other Amazon warehouses located?

Focus questions:

  1. Why do you think Amazon workers in Alabama lost the vote to unionize?
  2. How do unions protect workers’ rights? What would have been the significance of a union victory in Bessemer, Alabama?
  3. Where else in U.S. history have you seen efforts to unionize? Why does management not support unions, historically speaking?

Media literacy: Whose voice is missing from this story? Why do you think NewsHour interviewed a historian for this piece? 

Extension activity: 

Learn more about the working conditions some Amazon employees labor under and why some Amazon workers disagree with efforts to unionize in this Making Sen$e story:

 

Additional resources:

Amazon secures enough votes to block labor union in Alabama

Labor board says Amazon illegally fired outspoken workers

Amazon opens online pharmacy, disrupting another industry


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