Last week Amazon workers at the Bessemer, Alabama facility overwhelmingly voted against unionization. Implicitly, the workers registered more faith in their employer to continue raising wages and improving benefits and Amazon’s much criticized work environment. The lopsided 70/30 result coincided with ongoing reports about just how well Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, Costco, Target and major supermarket chains have fared during the pandemic. They have profited enormously because of our dependence on them and the essential workers who staff them. These companies and many other essential merchandisers and service providers have prospered in explicit profits and even larger increases in market capitalizations.
Why should anyone be surprised that Alabama workers voted to stick, at least for now, with a company that raised its minimum hourly wage to $15 in 2018 and provides full and decent medical coverage from the first day of employment. This while House bills that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 years from now and expand ObamaCare are dead on arrival in the Senate.
Competition among the aforementioned retail giants is fierce and recently they’ve also vigorously competed in the market for labor, by offering a variety of pandemic related payments and other incentives. All that constitutes the teachable moment for these companies, government and unions, that in our life represented upwards of a third of U.S. workers but now less than seven percent.
Workers like those in Bessemer are less concerned with the size of Jeff Bezos’ bank account than their own paycheck and benefits. A first day $15 minimum and full medical coverage in Alabama overwhelmed union claims that Amazon workers would do better after collective bargaining, payment of dues and solidarity with workers in other parts of the country and the world.
Now the actionable moment. While a starting $15 is ok and more than double Alabama’s mandated $7.25, the resulting $31,000 annual salary is not enough to buy very much of the stuff available on the e-commerce giant’s website. This is the perfect moment for Amazon and the aforementioned others to move towards a living wage for all those workers who demonstrated their essentiality so powerfully during the last 13 months. They have the cash and the self-interested motivation to do that now. Their millions of workers also are their customers. We see signs that many of the merchandising giants understand this. In addition to various temporary Covid bonus and hazard payments, Home Depot, Target and Best Buy have raised their permanent hourlies by more than $2.50 during the last year. The nation’s two largest employers, Walmart and Amazon, have raised their hourlies less during the same period, but with Amazon that is up from an already significantly higher minimum. And both Walmart and Amazon have heavily invested in creating real middle-class employment. Driving for Walmart starts at roughly $87,000 a year with full medical coverage.
And as we’ve grieved and written about, Amazon had guaranteed Long Island City, a working-class community in Queens, New York (where we once worked as a union construction laborer) 25,000 jobs with annual average salary of $150,000. AOC and New York’s zero mayor de Blasio have yet to explain why they caused those jobs to go elsewhere (see HL 67 – Pat Won’t be Moving to Long Island City). That was a bad moment, but this is another filled with possibilities, teachable and actionable.