Prime Time To Unionize
Bloomberg Businessweek|April 13, 2020
Prime Time To Unionize
The virus could give workers something that’s been elusive for years: leverage
Jeff Muskus and Molly Schuetz

There are many reasons Tonya Ramsay might have just kept working. The 29-year-old, who works in the shipping department of an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse outside Detroit, pays the mortgage at the house where she lives with her boyfriend and 11-year-old son. But she was scared. Managers at the 855,000-square-foot facility where Ramsay works said two of her co-workers had been diagnosed with Covid-19. Ramsay suspected—correctly, it turns out—there were more cases to be identified.

Worried about their safety, Ramsay and a few dozen colleagues walked off the job on April 1. With some carrying signs, they stood—6 feet apart—on a sidewalk outside the warehouse and appealed to Amazon Chief Executive Officer JeffBezos to shut down the facility and authorize paid leave for workers so they wouldn’t risk exposure to the respiratory virus. Drivers in passing cars honked in support.

Historically, Michigan is union territory. Amazon isn’t. The walkout at Ramsay’s warehouse capped a remarkable 72 hours in the online retailer’s occasionally tense relationship with its workforce. Employees at depots in three states staged walkouts or strikes, and workers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market called a sickout.

The retail giant has fended off organized labor in its U.S. warehouses over the years through a mix of well-worn, corporate anti-union tactics and perks aimed at reassuring the workforce—and the shopping public—that Amazon is a generous employer. But the new coronavirus threatens to do what unions have failed to do for years: Arm its workers with leverage. Still, observers say Bezos & Co. are betting that even in a national emergency, occasional hardball tactics in dealing with their own employees won’t do lasting damage to the goodwill the company has amassed with shoppers, especially when they need Amazon more than ever.

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April 13, 2020