Prime Time for Unionisation: Amazon workers vote to unionise

April 20, 2022

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

Amazon workers in the US have successfully voted to unionise, a first for the company in the US.

What does this mean?

On 1 April 2022, Amazon workers in a New York warehouse successfully voted in favour of joining the Amazon Labour Union. The vote was led by a former Amazon employee, Chris Smalls, who had protested against safety conditions at the company during the pandemic and was subsequently let go. The outcome of the vote is significant because the retail giant Amazon has actively fought against unionisation. A union is an association of workers, usually in the same sector or profession, that aims to protect their rights and interests. Officially, the company states that it prefers employees to have a direct relationship with the company. In practice, a union means higher costs for the company, though it could ensure better pay and benefits for Amazon employees.

The unionisation can be seen as part of a broader wave of labour activism in the US, spurred by the pandemic, which has both stirred up concern around safety and led to a tighter labour market. The latter has put employees in a better position to negotiate for better benefits and pay. But unionisation is something some employees fear, partly due to misunderstandings around the role of a union, and partly due to active intimidation efforts on behalf of the firms that employ them.

What's the big picture effect?

Law firms have played a key role in preventing the employees of companies from unionising. This includes Amazon, which is known to have worked with a US law firm, Morgan Lewis, to resist unionisation. The firm is one of many that have a history of opposing unionisation. Other such firms include US firms Littler Mendelson, Ogletree Deakins, and Jackson Lewis.

Such firms might support companies looking to fight unionisation by providing a range of services including data-based analysis of a workforce to determine which parts might be likely to organise, advising companies on how to treat unions, or in some cases supporting anti-union staff meetings. The latter, being the most controversial, is more likely to be carried out by specialised consulting firms than law firms, however.

This development could drive workers in other tech companies to follow suit and try to unionise. This is not an easy task due to different labour laws in different jurisdictions, as well as diverging traditions of unionisation. But with the growing wave of labour activism, law firms have plenty to advise on: whether that be helping firms push back on unions or simply advising them on labour relations and how to handle their workforce. Despite fast growth, the tech sector has so far been one of the least unionised sectors due to fierce pushback from tech firms, but perhaps this will slowly begin to change.

In terms of immediate next steps, Amazon is likely to object to the union, or at the least try to delay the process. However, the momentum of the pandemic-driven labour activism wave might make it difficult for Silicon Valley to push back any longer.

Report written by Selena Falcone

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