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Amazon workers’ push to unionize is over for now. Here’s what it means for the future

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. Stephanie Sy speaks to Margaret O'Mara, a professor at the University of Washington, about Friday's victory for the retail giant.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The push to unionize Amazon workers in Alabama is over, for now.

    Amazon is the second largest private employer in the U.S., with nearly 800,000 workers. But none of its facilities are unionized.

    Stephanie Sy reports on today's victory for the tech giant.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, more than 5,800 workers are employed at that warehouse, and it was considered a pivotal test of organized labor's efforts to unionize at big tech companies.

    But when the National Labor Relations Board finished counting ballots today, it was clear union organizers just did not have nearly enough votes.

    Margaret O'Mara is a historian who watches labor, capitalism and tech at the University of Washington. She joins me now.

    Professor O'Mara, thank you so much for being on the "NewsHour."

    This was quite a definitive vote in favor not to unionize, with 1,798 workers voting against, 738 voting in favor. And just over half the workers overall cast ballots. What do you think led to that outcome?

  • Margaret O’Mara:

    Well, it was a pretty decisive vote, and it was a — it was a win for Amazon, which had worked very hard to prevent this union drive from being successful.

    But it also was a loss for Amazon, too, in some ways, in that here we are talking about labor conditions at the Amazon fulfillment centers, same way it was a win-lose for the union. The union lost this drive, but, also, there's incredible momentum around what — where it might go next.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Did this, in this case, in Alabama, come down to the wages, to the money? Amazon pays somewhat — around $15 an hour for most workers at that fulfillment center. They offer health benefits.

    Fifteen dollars an hour there in Alabama is more than twice the minimum wage. Is that what led the fight here, as opposed to working conditions?

  • Margaret O’Mara:

    Well, you're right. It is twice the minimum wage.

    And I think that working conditions were really what the — what was the catalyst. And this is coming in the wake of our pandemic year, when — which was a blockbuster year for Amazon, but also a year when the demands on the fulfillment centers and their workers were pretty strong.

    And where this starts popping out into the public eye is the conditions that — the health conditions on the floor of the fulfillment centers that — and Amazon then launches a sort of comprehensive campaign to assure workers and the public that they are doing all these things to protect workers during COVID.

    But there is a — it's not just the money. And this is — the pay scale, as Amazon does not hesitate to remind us, is much higher than a lot of comparable jobs in these communities. Yet there are things that come with it. It's a tough — it's tough work, often.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Was this going to be an uphill battle? First of all, it's Alabama. It's a right-to-work state. Tough to unionize there in general.

    Secondly, Amazon, as you mentioned, was a bright spot when it came to hiring. It hired hundreds of thousands of additional workers, as many companies were shedding work during this time and workers.

  • Margaret O’Mara:

    Yes, that's right.

    You know, Amazon's been growing, building more and more fulfillment centers. And these are centers that the state and local leaders of these communities are eager to get. This has been know — so, I think that this — that growth is not going to slow.

    I think that is — indeed, what we saw in the vote was not all workers saw the union as the answer. And, in some ways, the characteristics of the work in these fulfillment centers that were the complaints and the reasons for the union drive in the first place, like turnover transience, the toughness of the job, the demand of the job, also worked against workers feeling like this is a job I want to invest in, and I want to stay here for a long time, so I'm willing to join a union to make those conditions better.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Why did this fight, Professor O'Mara, become so emblematic for other labor struggles around the country?

    And where do things go from here? Is this the end of the line for unionization for Amazon workers, or are there other struggles in the works?

  • Margaret O’Mara:

    Well, this is significant because Amazon is the iconic company our time, in the way that U.S. Steel or Standard Oil were of an — in an earlier era 120 years ago.

    It touches consumers and businesses across the country and the world. It is inescapable. It is a very important part and became an even more important part of American life during the pandemic year. So, I think, when you have this bigness, this market dominance, Amazon is now getting — facing political headwinds that it didn't have to face only a few years ago.

    And the bigger questions about regulation and antitrust and competition, protecting small businesses, protecting workers, they're all connected. And I don't think that that's going to go away. We don't know how this is going to play out.

    Obviously, had the vote gone a different way, we'd be drawing different conclusions. So, I think we should be careful about declaratively saying this is where it's going to go next. But this is a big deal.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, of course, we should say that the union says it does plan to challenge the outcome of this vote tally.

    Margaret O'Mara with the University of Washington, a historian that looks at labor issues, thank you so much for joining us with your perspective.

  • Margaret O’Mara:

    My pleasure. Thanks.

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