There are many reasons Tonya Ramsay might have just kept working. The 29-year-old, who works in the shipping department of an
Worried about their safety, Ramsay and a few dozen colleagues walked off the job on April 1. With some carrying signs, they stood—6 feet apart—on a sidewalk outside the warehouse and appealed to Amazon Chief Executive Officer
Historically, Michigan is union territory. Amazon isn’t. The walkout at Ramsay’s warehouse capped a remarkable 72 hours in the online retailer’s occasionally tense relationship with its workforce. Employees at depots in three states staged
The retail giant has fended off organized labor in its U.S. warehouses over the years through a mix of well-worn, corporate anti-union tactics and perks aimed at reassuring the workforce—and the shopping public—that Amazon is a generous employer. But the new coronavirus threatens to do what unions have failed to do for years:
The company was on track to account for about 39% of online purchases in the U.S. this year, according to
The company has
“Like every other business that’s open and trying to meet huge demand, they’re just trying to manage and keep as many people working as they can,” says
Amazon gets high marks in surveys of corporate reputations, the fruits of years of sterling customer service and innovative products. But executives at its headquarters in Seattle are aware that its heavy-handed tactics with workers could deal lasting damage to that stature and potentially make customers less likely to shop on its sites. Some consumers are already showing an appreciation for the work that keeps essential goods moving during a crisis, as they tip grocery clerks or continue to write checks to the day care providers or dog walkers they’re unable to use during the pandemic.
Amazon’s opposition to unions brings a risk of public-relations headaches, such as when it tried to build a massive corporate campus in Queens, N.Y. Its position on unions played a big role in turning local elected officials against the planned 25,000-person campus, which was scuttled in February 2019 in part because of the opposition.
Helping to lead that campaign against Amazon was the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has offered aid to workers trying to organize at Whole Foods and has its sights on a massive Amazon warehouse in Staten Island.
Recently, that voice was embodied by Chris Smalls, a manager in the outbound department of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse who was
Amazon called its employees “heroes” and said it’s taking measures to support each one. It’s said a small number of workers have participated in the walkouts and called their critiques unfounded.
Still, workers face steep odds should they pursue formal union recognition. Turnover at Amazon warehouses is high, leaving few workers with the expertise and institutional memory to seek concessions from management. And, eventually, the crisis will end. Meanwhile, the economic damage has added millions of people to the ranks of the unemployed, some of whom would likely be content with whatever labor conditions Amazon would demand, as long as it meant a paycheck. “The increase in unemployment will be so large, it’s going to change the dynamic of the job market from a worker’s market to an employer’s market,” says Julia Pollak, an economist with ZipRecruiter.
(Updates with Amazon comment in 13th paragraph.)
To contact the author of this story:
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.