When it comes to Amazon's efforts to crush unionization efforts at its warehouses, the score stands 1-1 of late. The e-commerce giant twice defeated a campaign at its Bessemer, Alabama facility only to see workers vote to join a union at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York.
Given Amazon's size and market dominance, the stakes couldn’t be higher for the American labor movement. So everyone is watching and wondering what the outcome of these two campaigns mean for the future of unionizing Amazon workers.
It’s worth keeping in mind that elections are mostly local affairs, determined by the facts on the ground rather than echo chamber of social media or cable television. This means the locations where the unions lost and won were hardly surprising. Red Alabama is one of the most vehemently anti-union states in the country while blue New York City is a place where labor support is crucial to holding office.
Of course, mobilizing workers is not as simple as whether you live in a Democratic or Republican-led state. Unionization levels have been on the decline for decades, even in blue states. And campaigns, such as the ones in Bessemer and Staten Island, were nasty affairs, with Amazon deploying its considerable financial and legal might against the unions' efforts.
Amazon and union activists face a long slog ahead. The company operates 1,119 fulfillment centers and warehouses in the United States, according to supply chain consulting firm MWPVL International. The company also plans to open another 294 facilities.
Though Amazon does operate numerous fulfillment centers in the south, especially in Texas, many of these facilities sit in states with a union membership of at least 12%, the highest levels in the country. This includes California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey, each of which have at least 10 facilities.
No wiggle room on location
Here's where it gets especially tricky for Amazon. In the past, companies have suggested they could close facilities, whether stores or manufacturing plants, if workers voted to unionize (even though the tactic is illegal under U.S. labor law). Walmart, for example, has been accused of using such tactics to thwart labor activism.
Amazon really doesn't have the luxury of deciding where to locate its hubs. The boom of e-commerce, along with one hour to one day delivery services, requires warehouses and distribution facilities close to customers. And since more than 80% of Americans live in urban areas, that means cities.
"Amazon has got to be where the center of gravity is to deliver on time and in full," said Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group consulting firm in New York.
Unfortunately for e-commerce companies like Amazon, industrial space for warehouses in large metropolitan areas have become increasingly sparse and expensive.
With the necessary real estate in short supply, each fulfillment center takes on greater importance to Amazon's operations, Flickinger said. Amazon's rapid growth means it has been struggling to deliver packages on time during that last mile to customers, so it needs all of its warehouse space, he said.
For the newly victorious Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island, the next logical step is to organize a string of warehouses in the dense and union-friendly Mid-Atlantic corridor of the country, from New Jersey to Baltimore and Washington D.C., Flickinger said.
The particular problem of New York
As for Amazon, the company seems to lack good insight into New York City’s political landscape. In 2019, Amazon pulled out of plans to open its second headquarters in Queens amid opposition from Progressive Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
And although Staten Island is the most Republican borough in New York, anyone familiar with the location of the Amazon warehouse would know that the community has strong roots to organized labor, Flickinger said.
The area was home to a Proctor & Gamble plant, which for years paid its unionized workforce generous salaries and benefits, he said. People from multiple generations of families worked at the facility and attended the same schools and churches.
With all of its financial success, Flickinger believes that Amazon is getting too cocky.
"Amazon assumed the world would just welcome it,'' he said. "But when it comes to unionization, common sense seems to be uncommon at the company."