Did Amazon dodge union bullet?


On Wednesday evening, a small group of Amazon.com (AMZN) technicians in Delaware rejected a proposal to unionize by a wide margin -- 21 to 6. Amazon wishes to remain union free, and so far they  have. This is no small feat as the unions would love to step in unionize the online retailer's workers. (Disclosure: I have worked in the past with a law firm hired by Amazon, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, to campaign against the union initiative. My work did not deal with union issues, and I have had no interaction with the company for five years.)

According to a Businessweek interview with an International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Worker spokesman, Amazon employees faced "intense pressure" to vote against the union. However, you can rest assured that the workers faced pressure from the union to join it.

Union membership in the U.S. has been falling for years. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 11.3 percent of the country's workforce belonged to unions in 2012, which is significantly lower than the peak in 1954, when union membership was almost 35 percent. In addition to a changing workforce where factory and manual labor less prominent, there are several reasons why unions aren't as popular with workers today:

Unions cost money. And where does that money come from? Member dues. Which means if you belong to a union, part of your paycheck is diverted to the union. Union employees must be paid, after all, and some are paid very well. For instance, John Carr, the IAMAW spokesman quoted above, has a base salary of $107,759, which is undoubtedly higher than what what most Amazon employees would make even if they were unionized.

Unions are political. Critics have long highlighted unions' participation in politics. While the courts have ruled that workers don't have to pay to support political activities they don't agree with, a study by the Federal Election Committee found that union Political Action Committees lacked the proper employee authorization in 93 percent of the cases.

Unions may limit personal success. Depending on how the contract is written, unionized employees may be judged completely on length of service rather than skill or hard work. If you're a go-getter, a union may prevent you from achieving what you could in a merit-based situation. Of course, if you're a bare minimum worker, this may be an advantage.

Unions can stifle growth. The idea behind unions is sounds -- employees with good jobs on good wages is a positive thing. However, there is evidence that union membership isn't a guarantee of either. In "right to work" states, which allow you to not join a union even if your workplace is unionized, wages increased faster and job growth was stronger between 2001 and 2011 than in states where union membership is obligatory once your workplace unionizes, according to Investors Business Daily. Companies tend to prefer right-to-work states, which means more jobs without unions.

Naturally, there are positive benefits to union membership. Such as more stability, a careful review process before termination or discipline, and union help with management problems. However, the Amazon employees were able to look at all of this and still come out against the union.

Amazon, managed to dodge the union bullet this time. Does this mean that the unions have lost Amazon forever? Doubtful. Amazon has numerous facilities filled with hourly employees who would be eligible for union membership. But, it's likely that it will be a tough battle to convince the employees that their lives would be better with a layer between themselves and the management. Today's workforce needs to be flexible in order to meet changing demand, something unions cannot offer.