Warehouse Labor is Front Page News: But what’s below the fold?
Warehouse labor has been in the news quite a bit lately. Of course, virtually everyone relied upon direct-to-consumer fulfillment at some point during the COVID-19 lockdowns, placing widespread reliance on warehousing capabilities. In the longer term, warehouse labor has been increasingly in high demand as retail shifts more and more from stores to e-commerce fulfillment. Most recently, attempts at unionization at a number of Amazon warehouses have been in general news and business publications.
The vote on unionization at the Bessemer, Alabama facility was rejected this winter. It was quickly followed by a vote at what is known as the JFK8 facility in Staten Island, NY. This vote came through as in favor of a union – the first such result for an Amazon facility. As an analyst with a focus on warehouse processes and technologies – my interest lies in understanding the negotiating points – or points of contention between the warehouse workers and the employers. In particular, I am interested in labor as a critical resource at these facilities and ways of improving productivity, with the understanding that workers are people. Nonetheless, I am not focused on labor agreements or labor law. I assumed that (with a little digging) I would find out interesting details about warehouse tasks, workloads, methods, organizing of activities, reliance on technology, and incentives. I was mostly wrong.
It is difficult to overstate how much the unionization, negotiation, posturing, media coverage, and broader implications have taken on a life of their own. In many ways, I wonder if both sides have lost sight of the original motives and goals. It seems like the worker-employer relationships at these facilities are being utilized by both sides as a tool for furthering interests with broader implications.
Starting with the most recent development, Amazon filed an objection to the election results to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). It appears that unionization at this facility is not a done deal. But that hasn’t stopped the Amazon Labor Union from communicating the changes it demands from Amazon. It published a list of 8 immediate changes it demands from Amazon. These changes include both compensation and work environment improvements. I was unable to find an official Amazon response to these demands – possibly because the Amazon Labor Union does not currently officially represent these workers – and an Amazon response to the union’s demands could implicitly lend credibility to the union’s status.
I conducted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) search to obtain greater color into the background of this dispute. And this is when I realized that this negotiation is likely a focal point for both sides (Amazon and other employers as well as labor unions) to obtain greater leverage over the future of warehouse labor terms. There is a forest of legal documents addressing procedural hurdles. As a telling example, one document was titled, “Employer’s Fourth Motion to Extend Time for Filing of Statement of Position.” Yes, fourth motion. And it appears that it is not just Amazon that is engaged in some long-ball. Did you know that an Amazon shareholder filed a proposal requesting that “Amazon commission an independent audit and report of the working conditions and treatment that Amazon warehouse workers face, including the impact of its policies, management, performance metrics, and targets.” As I read this statement I thought “finally I will obtain some relevant details into the work structure at Amazon warehouses.” Then I continued reading the letter from this activist shareholder, “As of the date of this letter, I own 13 shares of Amazon common stock…” Granted, that is approximately $40,000 worth of stock – a nice chunk of change. But in the larger scheme of things, it is only 0.000003% of shares outstanding. It makes me wonder if this investor purchased the shares for the express purpose of using the ownership stake to push this agenda. Maybe, maybe not. But it made me wonder.
I find warehouse operations incredibly interesting, and I see validity in the points of negotiation from both sides. However, my biggest takeaway from this short research effort is that both sides have interests beyond the outcome of working conditions at these two facilities. I will search elsewhere for insights on how warehouses can become more productive and share these gains between the employer, workers, and customers.
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