The future of work depends on stopping Amazon’s union busting: Shareholders and policymakers must all play a role in protecting Amazon workers’ rights
This week’s Amazon shareholder meeting provides an important opportunity to consider urgent steps shareholders and policymakers can take to protect the threatened rights of unionizing Amazon workers and counter the company’s growing impact on income inequality, racial and gender disparities, and the degradation of work across the labor market.
The agenda for the May 25th annual meeting includes the election of company directors, approval of executive compensation, and several shareholder resolutions concerning Amazon’s employment practices and labor law violations. While Amazon opposes all these resolutions, shareholders should take the opportunity to reject excessive pay for Amazon’s CEO and support resolutions calling for audits of worker health and safety, racial equity and racial and gender pay gaps, employee turnover, and Amazon policies and practices affecting workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Meanwhile, state and federal policymakers should take note of the policy priorities the resolutions suggest for ensuring that Amazon’s anti-union, high-risk, high-turnover business model isn’t allowed to dictate the future of work in the United States and across the globe.
Amazon’s use of a wide range of legal and illegal tactics to prevent workers from unionizing has been well documented. Amazon engaged in months of coercion, intimidation, vote gerrymandering, and retaliation against Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse workers in the lead-up to their 2021 union election. Aggressive company surveillance led many workers to believe the company was monitoring their secret ballot votes—an offense so egregious it led the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to order a brand-new election (the 2022 outcome of which remains too close to call).
In April, Amazon workers at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island overcame similar obstacles, including numerous Amazon labor law violations, to win a decisive union election victory. In response, Amazon has refused to recognize the new Amazon Labor Union, instead dragging out legal challenges and refusing to meet with workers to start bargaining a contract. A new report published last week further documents the failure of Amazon’s corporate policies and practices to meet international human rights standards for respecting workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
In recent weeks, Amazon appears to be escalating its corporate-wide union-busting campaign with a string of retaliatory firings targeting workers who supported past or current union organizing in both Bessemer and Staten Island, as well as several managers who failed to block union elections.
Meanwhile, 75% of Americans support Amazon workers’ unionizing, and pressure on Amazon has been mounting from customers, regulators, and shareholders ahead of this week’s annual meeting. Shareholder resolutions under consideration reflect growing public concern with Amazon’s crisis-level injury rates, racial and gender pay gaps, lack of benefits like paid sick leave, and consistent disregard for workers’ rights.
New York City Comptroller Brad Lander is urging shareholders to vote against reelection of two Amazon board members, Daniel Huttenlocher and Judith McGrath, for failing to address high worker turnover and labor rights violations while granting excessive compensation to CEO Andrew Jassy and other top executives. Major investor advisory firms Glass Lewis and ISS are likewise recommending shareholders reject Amazon’s excessive executive pay packages.
How “excessive” is Amazon’s executive compensation? In 2021, Amazon CEO Andrew Jassy received $212 million in total compensation compared with Amazon’s median employee pay of $32,855, a CEO-to-median worker pay ratio of 6,474-to-1. To put this ratio in context, EPI analysis shows CEOs at the top 350 firms in 2020 were paid 351 times the average worker—a still remarkably high number. In tandem with active suppression of workers’ collective bargaining rights, Amazon’s extreme escalation of executive compensation threatens to create a new leading edge in the long-standing corporate trend of widening the gap between the top 1% and the bottom 90%.
As the second-largest private employer in the United States (where one out of every 153 Americans worked as of 2021), Amazon’s business practices have consequences across the economy. Amazon’s estimated employee turnover rate of 150% is so high that its own executives have expressed concern about running out of hirable employees in the United States. Injury rates at Amazon have long outpaced industry averages, and new data show Amazon warehouse injuries increased an additional 64% from 2020 to 2021 as the company expanded in New York.
Unionizing Amazon workers are doing their part to build the collective power necessary to reverse these damaging trends, often at great risk to their own livelihoods. Shareholders and policymakers should follow their lead.
For its part, Congress must adopt labor law reforms to better protect workers’ right to organize, like those proposed in the widely popular Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Along with serious monetary penalties for Amazon and other companies that retaliate against workers for unionizing, the PRO Act includes a process for using mediation and binding arbitration to ensure that new unions and employers can reach a first contract agreement in a timely manner. This is critical, because existing weak laws don’t deter employers like Amazon from refusing to bargain with newly formed unions—sometimes stalling the process and denying workers a contract for years.
The NLRB is using the tools at its disposal to step in and order Amazon to comply with federal labor law, and Congress must also commit adequate funding for the NLRB. Flat funding since 2014 has translated to an effective 20% funding cut when inflation is factored in, and the resulting 30% staff reductions are challenging the agency’s ability to keep up with violations resulting from any widespread, sustained anti-union retaliation campaign waged by a major employer like Amazon.
State lawmakers also have crucial roles to play. A new California law passed in 2021 represents a breakthrough in prohibiting warehouse production quotas that jeopardize worker safety, and Connecticut, Minnesota, and New York are now considering similar legislation. This is also the moment for states to rein in excessive tax subsidy packages (often with few or no job quantity or quality requirements) that Amazon often profits from when expanding its warehouse operations. Despite millions in such public assistance, new Amazon warehouses consistently fail to generate job growth—and in some cases are even correlated with reductions in local employment levels.
Amazon workers are up against a corporation committed to doing everything in its power to prevent them from organizing unions and gaining a voice in setting company policies. Because Amazon’s employment model is bad for workers, bad for the economy, and ultimately unsustainable, shareholders, customers, and policymakers must all play a role in making sure Amazon’s union busting does not succeed. Recent Amazon worker organizing breakthroughs are significant but fragile, and at this moment in particular, it’s critical that every worker exercising their right to unionize knows they are not alone and knows that if they are illegally fired by union busters, the whole country will demand justice for them.
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