Today ends a seven-week union election voting period for workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. If workers win a union, the results of the election will further energize the labor movement. If Amazon’s efforts at union avoidance prove successful, the election will serve as the most recent example of employers thwarting workers’ efforts to organize a union. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the coercion, intimidation, and retaliation workers at Amazon’s Bessemer facility have endured reveal a broken union election system.
Unfortunately, their experiences are far from unique—employers are charged with violating the law in 41.5% of all union elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The numbers are worse for large employers, like Amazon, where more than half (54.4%) of employers are charged with violating the law.
We have only to look to the recovery from the Great Recession to know that reforming this system is critical to an equitable recovery now. Even though the unemployment rate ultimately got down to 3.5% in the recovery from the Great Recession, low- and middle-wage workers did not get a fair share of that economic growth. If policymakers do not address our nation’s broken labor law system, then they will be the architects of an economy marked by continued inequality and injustice. This moment is an opportunity to prioritize policies that enable working people to have agency over their working lives and win both economic and democratic reforms for themselves and their co-workers.
The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act addresses many of the major shortcomings with our current law. Specifically, it would institute meaningful penalties for private-sector employers that coerce and intimidate workers seeking to unionize—as has been clearly documented in the Amazon organizing campaign in Bessemer.
Under the PRO Act, employers and corporate executives are penalized for illegally retaliating against workers trying to organize, and workers get monetary damages or other remedies if they are illegally fired or harmed. Fired workers must also be reinstated while their cases are pending. Further, when workers are able to win a union in spite of this coercion, the PRO Act provides a road map for workers to win a first contract. Under the PRO Act, employers and workers have a set process to follow to negotiate a first union contract, and if they can’t reach an agreement they go to binding arbitration. This reform in particular will be essential for Amazon workers if they win a union. Given the company’s conduct during the election, it is reasonable to presume that it will continue to exploit loopholes in the law to avoid bargaining in good faith with its workers.
The PRO Act includes many other critical reforms and would also promote greater racial economic justice because unions and collective bargaining help shrink the Black–white wage gap and bring greater fairness to the workplace. The legislation recently passed the House with bipartisan support. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has reportedly stated that the legislation will get a Senate vote if advocates are able to get 50 co-sponsors. However, without filibuster reform, a Senate vote would likely fail to pass this important legislation. It is incumbent upon the Biden administration and congressional leadership to provide a legislative process that serves this nation’s workers.
The workers at Amazon’s Bessemer fulfillment center have performed essential services during the pandemic. At the very least, policymakers owe them a union election system that is fair and free of employer coercion and intimidation. As the votes are tallied in the Amazon election, it is too late for policymakers to remedy the intimidation and coercion those workers experienced, but they can recognize the courage the Bessemer workers have demonstrated in this election campaign and honor that by demonstrating the political courage to finally prioritize labor law reform. Ensuring that U.S. workers have the right to a union is worth the political fight to end the filibuster. If policymakers fail to act, U.S. workers will continue to face a rigged system that encourages employers to frustrate workers’ rights and promotes economic inequality.