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Teamsters launch campaign to organize Amazon workers

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, approved on Thursday an ambitious effort to unionize employees at e-commerce giant Amazon (AMZN), the union told Yahoo Finance.

The Teamsters, which represents more than a million U.S. workers in logistics, trucking, and other related occupations, voted overwhelmingly at a virtual convention on a resolution that makes organizing Amazon the union's top priority, kicking off a labor campaign that will likely take years, cost millions, and span multiple workplaces.

The new initiative, dubbed the "Amazon Project," will create a special department within the Teamsters devoted to Amazon organizing that will be "fully funded" by the union to address the "existential threat" to union members posed by the company, the resolution says.

So far, the union has declined to offer specific details about the cost or duration of its commitment to the organizing drive, saying in a statement to Yahoo Finance that such disclosure "would be irresponsible to the efforts and to the workers."

Due to its size and experience organizing in the sector, the Teamsters pose a formidable threat to carry out a well-resourced organizing drive that would draw on its base of support from membership in the sector, labor experts told Yahoo Finance. But the experts also acknowledged the immense organizing challenge posed by Amazon's vast warehouse network and the sheer size of its workforce, the second-largest in the country.

BESSEMER, AL - MARCH 29: An RWDSU union rep holds a sign outside the Amazon fulfillment warehouse at the center of a unionization drive on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama. Employees at the fulfillment center are currently voting on whether to form a union, a decision that could have national repercussions. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
An RWDSU union rep holds a sign outside the Amazon fulfillment warehouse at the center of a unionization drive on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images) (Elijah Nouvelage via Getty Images)

"Individuals just like them doing very similar jobs in America are making two to three times what workers are making at Amazon with great benefits, and most importantly, great worker protections on the job," Randy Korgan, the Teamster's National Amazon Director, told Yahoo Finance.

"They're not getting injured as much, not getting in an accident as much," he adds. "Because those issues have been dealt with, primarily through a collective bargaining agreement or through some legislative action."

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the campaign launched by the Teamsters.

'Our greatest resource is our membership'

The new campaign comes less than three months after workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama voted overwhelmingly against a union, though the National Labor Relations Board held a hearing last month over claims that Amazon illegally interfered with the organizing campaign.

The unsuccessful organizing drive in Bessemer, conducted by the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union (RWDSU), followed a traditional approach in which the union signed up workers in support of the effort, triggered a union election, and sought a majority vote that would have legally required Amazon to recognize RWDSU as the representative of the facility's workers in collective bargaining.

But federal labor law permits employers wide latitude in dissuading workers from supporting a labor drive. Amazon made its anti-union position known in an aggressive campaign carried out through multiple avenues, including mandatory meetings and a website that warned of onerous dues payments. Ultimately, the union vote fell well short of majority support.

The Teamsters have opted for a different strategy that circumvents a vote at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), instead focusing on a confrontational campaign that will draw attention to Amazon and pressure the company to voluntarily recognize the union, Vice reported.

The campaign will draw on the wide network of Teamsters members, and could include a push for local laws that regulate a nearby Amazon workplace, Korgan told Yahoo Finance.

"Our greatest resource is our membership," he says. "We have more than one million members across the country that obviously have family members and are intertwined in the community every single day."

"Protections can be done at the local level, city officials, board of supervisors, everybody that's around," he adds. "They have the ability to hold the industry, companies like Amazon, accountable, right at the local level."

'A big mountain to climb'

Joshua Freeman, a professor emeritus of labor history at Queens College at the City University of New York, said the Teamsters "need to gird themselves for a substantial commitment of resources."

"It's a very big union — one of the few unions in America that can actually do that," he adds.

Last year, the Teamsters brought in more than $200 million in revenue, according to Labor Department filings analyzed by the New York Times. Freeman said he couldn't predict whether the union's strategy will succeed but that a potential victory would carry significant implications for the labor movement.

"It’s a big mountain to climb, no matter how you try to do it. So far the NLRB election route has not succeeded. This is a different approach."

"If they do have success — and that’s a big 'if' — it will have tremendous ripple effects," he adds.

For years, Amazon has withstood persistent criticism over the conditions at its warehouse network, which has grown to at least 110 fulfillment centers in North America. In recent years, criticism of the working conditions focused on demanding quotas and digital surveillance that employees say penalized them for taking breaks.

The company instituted a $15 wage floor three years ago, and in January backed legislation that would gradually raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour. But national interest in the Bessemer union drive spurred more than 1,000 Amazon employees across the U.S. to contact RWDSU about potential labor organizing efforts, the union said in March.

The novel coronavirus fueled record e-commerce revenue for Amazon as hundreds of millions of Americans were forced into their homes, prompting the hiring of hundreds of thousands of workers and plans to expand its warehouse network. Last month, the company announced it would hire 75,000 workers at an average starting wage of over $17 per hour.

Michelle Kaminski, an associate professor in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University, said the recent union defeat at the Amazaon warehouse in Bessemer will likely deter some workers from supporting the union. But the endurance of those aftereffects will depend on the strength and duration of organizing undertaken by the Teamsters, she noted.

“I think it will cast a shadow, but how long a shadow depends on how strong the sense of solidarity within a particular workplace is,” she says.

“The Teamsters have the resources to be in this fight and stay in it for the long run," she adds. "Because it’s going to take a long time.”

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