Amazon Workers vs. Amazon: What Can We Learn? 1 of 2

 In December 2021, I posted an article on the great resignation, the emboldened labor movement, and the instructions of the Catholic church in this regard. This was on the heels of Starbucks employees organizing in Buffalo, N.Y. I feel moved to post again after an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., just voted to organize against Amazon. I’ve listened to the voice of the primary organizer, Chris Smalls, who allegedly was fired after participating in an employee walk-out to protest a COVID-19 protocol issue. An Amazon corporate executive was reported as labeling Mr. Smalls as “not smart or articulate.” Well, apparently Mr. Small’s defied that label!

There are lessons for everyone here; many to which I alluded in my first post entitled, “Work Shortages: Labor Movement Momentum or Misunderstanding?”

Apparently, few listened. One new lesson for employers is that the method and face of organizing is changing. No longer can employers anticipate that the Teamsters or other international brotherhoods are their primary threats to unionization. The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) was the product of a few disheartened employees in Staten Island and their effort was funded using common crowd-funding portals. This indicates that organizing is no longer dependent on dues-paying members. The ALU expects to be at the negotiation table for as long as it takes BEFORE collecting and soliciting dues from its members. Win contract concessions first, then solicit for dues. Now that’s leverage! If concessions are achieved, the value proposition for the union is hard to debate. This will bring more efforts to organize using the same model. Employers beware.

What else can employers learn from this?

I don’t know what the COVID-19 protocol walk-out was about, but my guess is that there were lots of options that were preferable to the $4.3 million supposedly Amazon spent last year on anti-union consultants, and to the threat of unionization across their vast empire of sorting and warehouse facilities they now face. CNN Business reports that the ALU is seeking increased wages, improved job security, returning warehouse workers to employee-shareholders, company-funded subsidies for transportation (perhaps unique to the NYC region and other northeast regions), and improvements in general working conditions. Amazon’s emphasis on productivity and efficiency is widely reported to be the manifestation of inhumane treatment of employees, from constant monitoring, infrequent bathroom breaks, short lunches, and a work pace that is unforgiving with very tight standards for determining disciplinary actions.

One can’t help but wonder if Amazon uses discipline when employees “can’t do the job.” That’s a recipe for disaster and a sure path for disheartened employees and the impetus behind an organizing effort.

Justice, the virtue that underlies a business enterprise’s responsibility to the persons it employs, dictates that work is not structured in a way that is inappropriate for the capabilities of the work force, and that each person’s gifts, skills, passions, and learned capabilities should be considered in scheduling and assigning the work to be done. How does an enterprise the size and scope of Amazon do this? Perhaps instead of spending millions on anti-union consultants, they need to train and develop the unit-team managers to know and understand each worker, giving him or her their due through expectations and rewards. This creates inconsistencies in treatment that will drive the Human Resources Department and company attorneys crazy, but retention, engagement, and overall satisfaction is the salve that remedies much bigger problems. Leadership of people is hard! Quit trying to make it easy by holding consistent application of standards on a pedestal higher than the unique souls of the people entrusted to you as an employer.

Look for Part II of this post about the lessons employees can learn from organizing against a company like Amazon.

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Dave Geenens

Dave Geenens is an Associate Professor and is the Assistant Director of the Thompson Center for Integrity in Finance and Economics in the School of Business at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. His over 30-years of executive experience in addition to his Bachelor’s Degree, MBA, and CPA license (inactive) add a realism to his research and teaching. Dave has written four books and speaks often on the integration of faith and work and the critical role Christian virtue plays in protecting free markets and liberty. Since Dave writes on multiple topics including investing and philanthropy, nothing in this article is to be construed as investment advice and any investment of any kind includes a risk of loss.