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Changing Times and Picket Lines: Lessons & Insights from Amazon’s First U.S. Labor Union

In the words of Bob Dylan, “Times, they are a’changing.” In the past two years, the workplace has changed rapidly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and challenges faced by business leaders in regard to supply, demand, and labor shortages. Consider the headline of McKinsey & Co’s June 2021 article: “The future of the workplace: Embracing change and fostering connectivity.” Another article from Gallup states that “constant change is the new normal” (Hoogerhuis & Jillian, 2019).

One key example of these changing times is the recent unionization of Amazon’s fulfillment center employees in Staten Island. According to NBC News, this is the first Amazon Union created in the U.S. during its 27 years in business. Christian (or Chris) Smalls, a previous employee of Amazon and the leader of this unionization movement, stated in an interview with NBC that the creation of this union is “the catalyst of a revolution” (2022).

What insight can business leaders take from this event? What larger trends are at play in this event and in the general workforce that employers should be aware of? Is there a “revolution,” as stated by Christian Smalls, going on in the workplace? If so, why?

“An incident is just the tip of the iceberg, a sign of a much larger problem below the surface.” - Don Brown

The background

As we dig into the insights and lessons to be learned from the unionization of Staten Island’s Amazon, it is important to look into the “why” behind it all. Below we examine reasons that employees from Amazon and other major corporations are looking to unionize and what these trends indicate for the general workplace.

Why did Amazon employees Unionize?

Higher wages, better conditions, and more rights

Although Amazon is reported as offering salaries at fulfillment centers “above minimum wage in every U.S. state”—starting at $18 an hour—as well as “health insurance, paid parental leave, and educational opportunities,” Amazon fulfillment employees felt that they needed the representation of a union (Levy & Palmer, 2022).

NBC News cites the desire for “more rights, stricter safety protocols, and better benefits” as primary reasons for unionization movements in Amazon and other major corporations such as Starbucks and Google (2022). In a report from The Guardian, pro-union employees cite “higher wages” along with “better working conditions,” and “longer breaks” as reasons for their unionization (Sainato, 2022). Additionally, some employee unionization movements and actions have been spurred on by employers' reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, before starting the Union, Christian Smalls organized a “walk-out” due to “insufficient covid precautions” (NBC, 2022).

Amazon’s fulfillment center safety challenges

According to a report by the Strategic Organizing Center (SOC), a coalition of four labor unions, “workers at Amazon warehouses are not only injured more frequently than in non-Amazon warehouses they are also injured more severely” (2021). In their report, they state that they reviewed “data reported by Amazon and its competitors to OSHA” and “found that workers at Amazon experienced substantially higher rates of workplace injuries than non-Amazon workers in the same industries.” Consider the graphic from the Strategic Organizing Center below:

Other sources have also indicated hazardous conditions in Amazon fulfillment centers. In a January 2016 OSHA Regional News Brief - Region 3, Amazon received a proposed penalty of $7,000. According to their citation from the U.S Department of Labor and OSHA, “the employer did not record each work-related fatality, injury or illness case…” specifically citing cases where an employee “developed pain in the left shoulder and neck,” an employee “tripped over a cart and hit her head on the floor,” an employee getting “hit in the nose with a box weighing approximately 15-20 pounds” and various other developments of pain the neck, shoulders, back, and wrists.

While employees of Amazon cited increased wages as a reason for unionization, the increased rates of workplace hazards in Amazon Fulfillment centers could be considered an employee stressor and a reason as to why employees might request additional protection from a Labor Union intermediary.

What this tells us about today’s workforce

Both research and evidence from the Amazon Labor Unionization indicate that today’s employees not only want increased pay but also want employment that is empathetic and ethical.

“Leadership is about empathy…” - Oprah Winfrey

Employees want to work with employers who are empathetic to their needs. As previously discussed in another Arete Coach insight article, Empathy: The Key to Leadership, empathetic leaders “put themselves in others’ shoes, have an understanding of their emotions, and respond to others appropriately” (Sorensen, 2022). In a 2021 State of Workplace Empathy release, BusinesSolver found that 90% of Gen Z employees say “they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic employer.” They also found that only 68% of Gen Z employees believe their “employers are empathetic,” compared to 84% in 2020 (BusinessSolver, 2021). When compared to other generations of employees, the report states Gen Z employees are more focused on “individualizing services to employees” (BusinesSolver, 2021).

BusinessSolver also found in their 2020 State of Workplace Empathy release that 74% of employees report that they would “work longer hours for an empathetic employer,” “83% of Gen Z employees would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering a slightly higher salary versus 75% of employees on average,” and 83% of employees “would consider leaving their current organization for a similar role at a more empathetic organization.” They summarize that “year over year, empathy continues to play a key role for employees considering where they would take employment, their salary, their work effort, and whether they will stay at their current organization” (BusinessSolver, 2020). Furthermore, research from McKinsey and Company found that 35% of employees left their jobs because of “uncaring leaders” (Smet et al., 2022). This new generation of employees views empathy and the way employees are treated as a priority, sometimes preceding salary and benefits.

“Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching…” - Aldo Leopold

BusinesSolver points out in their 2021 State of Workplace Empathy release that today’s employees “feel strongly that diversity, equity, and inclusion programs foster a more empathetic workplace.” (2021). According to a survey by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 68% of people “see the pandemic as a moment for our society to make a positive change” in regards to access to healthcare across races and income levels (n.d.). Other research from Edelman has indicated that the percentage of employees who “expect the CEO to speak publicly about controversial social and political issues that [they] care about” has increased by 5% to a total of 60% (Edelman, 2022). Furthermore, an article from the Society of Human Resource Management explains that “more communication” about diversity, equity, and inclusion ethics “can lead to increased trust” between employees and employers (Gonzales, 2022).

Employees are increasingly concerned with the ethics and values of the places they work. According to an article from Bloomberg Law, “the social justice movement and the COVID-19 pandemic have had indelible impacts on the workplace that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is prepared to examine” (Smith, 2021).

It is important for employers and business leaders to examine these statistics and the broad changes in societal priorities and cares because they affect and broadly represent the priorities of employees and prospective employees. For example, could what Bloomberg Law calls “the social justice movement” have increased the chances that Amazon’s fulfillment center and other employees unionized? In examining why Amazon employees unionized, ethical causes such as workplace safety were identified (SOC, 2021). The increased societal attention to ethics and social justice should be considered by business leaders when creating and implementing policies and procedures in their workplace.

In previous insight articles, we have discussed the impact and insights surrounding the “Great Resignation” or, “the turning away from and turning to trend.” The Great Resignation combined with the increased desire for empathetic and ethical employment has changed the desires and, at times, demands of the modern workforce. Employees now have greater bargaining power when it comes to their relationships with their employers. Consider the title of a McKinsey & Company article: “How to play the new talent game and win back workers” (Smet et al., 2022). Today’s employers are now looking for ways to “win-back workers” and other companies like Amazon are navigating the changing demands of their employees.

The resurgence of the Free Agent glass

According to research from UpWork, in 2020 36% of the total US workforce engaged in freelance work, and 12% of the US workforce “started freelancing” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 54% of these individuals started freelancing out of necessity and 75% of them started for “financial stability during this recession.” In general, they experienced “positive financial results” and 96% reported that they were “likely to freelance in the future.” UpWork’s research also indicated that “58% of non-freelancers new to remote work are considering freelancing in the future” because working from home has “made them more productive workers” and because they “can earn extra income to help cope with the impact of the pandemic” (Upwork, 2020). Working from home as a freelancer has become a tangible option of employment for those that are questioning their current employment and workplace. No longer do employees need to depend on employers for employment. Now, employees can transition to freelancing websites such as Fiverr and UpWork for flexible employment that overrides their desire for empathetic employers and ethical workplaces.

The resurgence of organized labor

Amazon is not the only business facing unionization challenges. According to Peter Eavis from the New York Times, Starbucks employees have also started to unionize. Currently, there are 7 unionized company-owned U.S. stores out of the almost 9,000 stores in the United States. Unionization of Starbucks stores has been gaining momentum since December 2021 and currently, more than 100 Starbucks stores in over 25 states have “filed for union elections” (Eavis, 2022).

In response, Starbucks has launched a campaign encouraging employees to “say no” to unionizing called “We Are One Starbucks.” According to a recent flyer on the Starbucks Workers United Twitter page, Starbucks employees are looking to “put an end to corporate intimidation, firings, and union busing” and encourage Starbucks to “grind coffee not workers” (@SBWorkersUnited via Twitter post 04/05/2022). Their requests and goals align with the general increase in demand for workplaces that are ethical and empathetic to their employers' needs. Google is also facing increased demand for unionization. The Google Labor Union or “Alphabet Workers Union,” is considered a “minority union” and does not currently “have the power to force the company to collectively bargain over pay and benefits.” However, according to NPR writer, Bobby Allyn, leaders of the Alphabet Workers Union say the point of the union is not about pay and benefits but instead about examining “Google’s role in society and help reshape the company’s culture.” According to the Alphabet Workers Union webpage, they have over 900 members and state that they started their union to ensure “working conditions are inclusive and fair, and perpetrators of harassment, abuse, discrimination, and retaliation are held accountable…the freedom to decline to work on projects that don’t align with [an employee’s own] values” and that “all workers, regardless of employment status can enjoy the same benefits.” These claims also echo the general workforce’s increased desire for an empathetic and ethical workforce.

“There is nothing permanent except change.”- Heraclitus

What does this mean for employers?

The pandemic and its surrounding events have changed the way employees view work and the things they want out of employment. For employers, an understanding of these new desires, needs, and requests is key to implementing new strategies, policies, and procedures that best suit their workplace, the needs of their organization, and their workforce. Furthermore, understanding these changes in the workforce can assist in the recruitment and retainment of new and current employees.

What does this mean for executive coaches?

Executive coaches can expect that their clients will be learning to lead this new workforce. For the executive coach, it is vital to have insight into these changes and ask powerful questions regarding their clients' knowledge of the changes. When appropriate, executive coaches can share these insights, data, and survey results with their clients and start the process of discovering how this new information can influence how they lead their businesses.

Lessons in law to review with your Legal HR and Labor Law Advisors

When discussing and examining labor unions, it is important for executive coaches and business leaders to be versed in labor relations laws such as the Wagner Act. For this reason, we recommend that any business leader or coach handling any situation involving labor unions should consult with their own legal professional counsel. While we are not a legal service or organization, we do reference for educational purposes the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and its enforcing agency the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) (SHRM, 2019). A variety of laws and acts have been created regarding labor unions. For example, consider the following actions that “violates the National Labor Relations Act” outlined by the Society of Human Resource Management:

  • Interference, restraint, or coercion. An employer cannot interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights. Most violations of this section include supervisors who (a) make threatening statements, (b) question employees who assert their labor rights, or (c) make false statements to workers seeking unionization.

  • Employer domination or support of a labor organization. An employer may not try to dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization, or to contribute financial or other support to such an organization.

  • Discrimination on the basis of labor activity. An employer may not discriminate against an employee in hiring, or tenure of employment, or any term or condition of employment in order to encourage or to discourage membership in any labor organization.

  • Discrimination in retaliation for going to the NLRB. An employer may not discharge or otherwise discriminate against an employee in terms and conditions of employment because he or she has filed charges or given testimony.

  • Refusal to bargain. An employer will be in violation of the NLRA if the company (a) refuses to bargain collectively with the representatives of the employees, (b) refuses to recognize a majority union, (c) takes unilateral actions, (d) refuses to provide necessary information to union representatives, (e) refuses to sign a written contract once an agreement is reached, (e) or imposes conditions on its willingness to bargain. (SHRM, n.d.)

Again, we strongly suggesting consulting with your own professional legal counsel as we are offering this legal information only as an example of the many ways that employers can unknowingly violate federal law. Consider Starbucks who, according to an April 2022 article, is being sued by the National Labor Relations Board for “retaliating against 3 workers involved in unionizing” (Hernandez, 2022).

The main takeaway

Today’s workforce has an increased desire for empathetic and ethical leadership. This increased attention to ethics and empathy, combined with the increased bargaining power of employees, has also contributed to an increase in organized labor unions and freelance workers. It is important that executives and business leaders are aware of these changes so that they can create policies, procedures, and leadership strategies that best suit the needs of their business and the desires of their workforce. For executive coaches, knowing these challenges and changes in today’s workforce can help start meaningful conversations and inspire powerful questions between them and their clients.

“The times they are a’changing” - Bob Dylan


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