From Amazon to REI, the return of unions may be one lasting legacy of Covid.
On Friday, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, made history. (“Uh-Oh, Amazon: Warehouse Workers Vote to Unionize in NY.”)
By voting to unionize, Amazon employees have officially ushered in a new age of accountability.
From Amazon and beyond, companies desperate to fill thinned staff rosters may soon be faced with employees determined to unite and use this opportunity for force a little more of that trickle from trickle down economics.
After all, the world’s 10 wealthiest individuals, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, managed to double their wealth during Covid-19. Add that to the fact that the wealth gap was already astronomical, and the fact that a wealth transfer just occurred from small businesses- which are closing- to Amazon- which has never been richer- and you have a recipe for vocational discontent.
Clearly, more wealth needs to be trickling down to the working class. It shouldn’t surprise corporate execs at Amazon that after the crushing pressures and gauntlet of life during Covid19, workers are anxious to get in on the largesse produced by their efforts.
“We’d like to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space,” joked the successful labor organizer after the vote to unionize. “While he was up there, we were signing people up.”
Back here on earth, the movement to unionize Amazon workers is bound to spread now that the first U.S. union has successfully formed. And Amazon isn’t the only company suffering the pangs of employment pressures.
When employees of the quirky campaign retailer REI decided to try for unionization, the executives of REI took it somewhat personally.
They tried to dissuade labor-organizing REI workers with all the usual lines of reasoning, plus a few warm and fuzzy new ones.
“We are, at our core, a cooperative,” read an impassioned REI statement published to the company’s website. “You are the heart of our co-op, and your expertise, enthusiasm, and joy in helping members get outside make us who we are.”
Whatever REI corporate executives, marketing directors and content managers were feeling, REI employees weren’t feeling the love during the worst of the pandemic.
“The team in SoHo are REI employees, first and foremost,” REI wrote in an email to progressive news outlet Mother Jones. “They are a part of the co-op and that won’t change. However, the presence of union representation will impact our ability to communicate directly with those employees and resolve concerns as they arise.”
“Emphasizing the word ‘co-op’ is a clever rhetorical move on REI’s part: For many of us, the term evokes farmer’s markets and stands run by barefoot hippies,” wrote Emily Hofstaedter mercilessly for Mother Jones in “REI Calls Itself a Co-op: But That Doesn’t Mean It’s Worker-Friendly.”
“We’re probably thinking of worker co-ops, which are slowly becoming more popular throughout America- and REI probably knows the phrase has an appealing ring for outdoorsy, left-leaning consumers,” Hofstaedter accused.
“Call it rainbow-washing, pink-washing, or greenwashing- many corporations will support social justice causes when it helps the bottom line, but not when it forces them to relinquish power,” Hofstaedter concluded on the subject of REI and employee unionization.
Mother Jones is hardly alone on the left in turning against REI.
“REI’s union-busting podcast shows how diversity programs can be abused,” declared MSNBC’s Zeeshan Aleem in February. “REI is trying to quash a union by weaponizing its diversity, equity and inclusion resources.”
For REI’s part, it seems to have taken the usual corporate line that unions exist to make a profit for union organizers and cause trouble.
While unions appeared to be on the wane over the past few decades, something seems to have changed during the time of Covid19.
With so many individual rights and protections under current employment laws, unions heretofore were become almost passe. If a U.S. employee encounters an unsafe working environment, is subjected to harassment, injury, or abuse, or endures some other illegal privations, they can sue and sue. A few employees can even organize together to form a class-action of the variety almost guaranteed to leave corporate lawyers trembling in their designer shoes.
Covid19 laid bare many dysfunctions in the corporate-employee relationship. Well enough was well enough and could have been left alone. Employees would always like to be paid more; employers would always like to pay less and never the twain shall meet. All of human civilization comes down to that age-old give and take dynamic.
But Covid19 had the effect, as stressful periods in relationships often do, of forcing both parties to consider the cost-benefit ratio of sticking together. Problems that seemed minor, during periods of tribulation and trial, become magnified, impossible to ignore.
So it proved with Covid19. From a corporate perspective, executives were left examining their obligation to pay workers who weren’t working during a time of national crisis when the company was losing money.
Companies were left in legal limbo of wondering what their potential liability might be should an employee or customer contract Covid19 at their establishment. Was it like a slip and fall?
Could companies possibly prevent employees or customers from contracting a highly contagious virus? What about retail establishments with frequent contact between workers and clients?
Employees, on the other hand, were left wondering many of the same things. That these two groups have found themselves taking opposed moral positions on these questions isn’t much of a surprise.
Many businesses, even plenty of businesses with progressive bona fides like REI, have found that their moral values systems includes very limited responsibility to provide for an adult employee who is not in any way a dependent. Many business owners have also found that they A.) cannot possibly prevent a communicable disease from spreading between employees and customers and that B.) the idea of keeping everyone “safe” is well outside the purview of pretty much everyone.
States like Georgia have already moved to address this question of legal limbo.
“Warning,” proclaims a sign on nearly every business in a popular tourist location like Savanah. “Under Georgia law there is no liability for an injury or death of an individual entering these premises if such injury or death results from the inherent risks of contracting COVID-19. You are assuming this risk by entering these premises.”
Some employees have found a different set of expectations with regards to the employee-employer relationship.
Many feel their boss does indeed have a responsibility to offer reasonable protections during a deadly pandemic and that the company which employs them in good times should pay them during the bad- when they are sick with Covid19, exposed to Covid19, in contact with someone who tested positive for Covid19, being quarantined due to Covid19, caring for someone with Covid19, etc.
It’s a lot; finding a new balance between what employers and employees have a right to expect from each other is bound to be an ugly process, full of unpleasant surprises for everyone, including the ones who think the other side is comprised of a bunch of whiny, entitled babies and the ones who think the other side is comprised of heartless, greedy, money-grubbers.
Whatever the motivation, whatever the underlying social contracts we are only now becoming aware of, this period of growing pains for American companies is bound to launch a few new trends, one of which might well be a resurgence in organized labor movements.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)