Earlier this month, employees at an Amazon warehouse in New York formed the company’s first official trade union in the US. This news hit headlines around the world, with activists, journalists, and business leaders all describing it as a significant event! But why? What is a trade union? What do unions do? Why did Amazon employees decide to form a union? And why did Amazon try so hard to stop them? Let’s talk about it on today’s episode of Thinking in English!
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Private sector (n) – businesses and industries that are not owned or controlled by the government
60 percent of recent graduates are employed in the private sector
Public Sector (n) – businesses and industries that are owned or controlled by the government
Most doctors work in the public sector
To unionise (v) – to organise workers to become members of a trade union
They are about to try to unionise workers at major supermarkets
Interest (n) – something that brings advantages to or affects someone or something
A union looks after the interests of its members
working conditions (n) – the environment in which someone works, including cleanliness, equipment, breaks, overtime pay, etc
That company is infamous for terrible working conditions
on behalf of (phrase) – in the interests of (person, group, etc); as a representative of
I attended a meeting on behalf of my friends
Negotiate (v) – to have formal discussions with someone in order to reach an agreement with them
I managed to negotiate a pay increase with my boss
profit margin (n) – the difference between the total cost of making and selling something and the price it is sold for
Many small companies operate on narrow profit margins
Contagious (adj) – if something is contagious it spreads quickly among people
Fear is contagious
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Earlier this month, a group of employees at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York successfully formed the company’s first official trade union in the US. This was not an easy thing to do. Unions are incredibly rare in the American private sector, and Amazon has been actively fighting against all employee attempts to unionise.
To many casual observers, this might not seem like a big deal. A union in one warehouse in a small corner of the United States doesn’t seem significant compared to the immense power and size of Amazon – one of the world’s largest and most valuable companies. But it is a big deal – not least because Amazon sees it as a big deal!
So, today I want to talk about unions and labour movements in a little more detail. Unions exist all around the world in different forms and with varied levels of success (I even wrote a research paper about Japanese community unions last year), so it is a useful and relevant topic to think about. Unions are also a highly controversial and political issue that can sometimes come up as a topic in different types of English proficiency exams!
What is a Trade Union? What do they do? Are unions important or a nuisance? Why did the Amazon workers decide to form a union? And why does Amazon oppose unions so fiercely? Could other groups of workers follow in their paths and unionise as well? Hopefully by the end of this episode, you will have a clearer idea about the answers to these questions!
As always, I will try to approach this controversial issue without bias and through the framework of critical thinking. If you don’t agree with what I’m saying – that is fine! Let me know why, I’d love to hear different perspectives! But make sure you also think critically and avoid any logical fallacies in your arguments (you can listen to my episodes on critical thinking and logical fallacies if you’d like)!
I also put this topic on Instagram to see if people were interested in it – and the majority of people responded that they are interested in an episode on unions! Make sure you are following thinkinginenglishpodcast so you can also vote or comment on future episodes!
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What is a Trade Union?
What is a trade union? In a nutshell, a trade or labour union is an organisation made up of members, and these members are mainly workers. While unions usually have a few different purposes or aims, the main goal of a trade union is to protect the interests of its members in the workplace or industry. In fact, not only do they seek to protect their members interests, but also to advance or improve their members’ situations and working conditions.
How does this work in practice? What do trade unions actually do? Let me tell you a few ways that unions aim to protect and advance the interests of their members. A union might negotiate with employers over issues like pay or conditions. They can discuss major changes to the workplace and worker’s concerns on behalf of their members.
Unions can also help their members with legal and financial advice, as well as send representatives to join members in meetings with their employer. Some trade unions also provide limited amounts of education and other benefits. The purpose of all of these actions is to make sure that the members of the trade union are not exploited and are treated fairly.
Perhaps the most important concept to understand when discussing trade unions is collective bargaining. You might be thinking, why does a union need to represent their members and negotiate on their behalf? Why don’t individuals just ask for a raise or other benefits by themselves? I guess one way to understand collective bargaining is through the old English saying – “there is power in numbers.”
Collective bargaining is when a union will negotiate employment terms on behalf of their members. It is a process that takes place between the management of a company and the labour or trade union. It is also considered a “fundamental” right for all workers by the International Labour Organisation. The aim of collective bargaining is to reach an agreement that will establish employment rules for a set amount of time – and if the two sides cannot agree with each other union members may go on strike.
By using collective bargaining, workers are able to have a larger voice and more power than if they were just negotiating by themselves. While a company can usually ignore the voice of one or two employees, there is no way they can ignore the voices of a much larger number.
History of Trade Unions
The terms trade unionism and labour movement are interchangeable, and refer to the movement of organised workers. Although smaller workers associations could be found in 18th century England, the first real trade unions developed in Great Britain, Europe, and the US in the 19th century.
At first, unions and their leaders were regularly prosecuted, persecuted, and arrested as they were seen as an obstacle to industry and growth. While unions in both the UK and US encountered similar obstacles, they became quite different in approach. UK unions focused on political activism which eventually developed into the founding of the Labour party; US unions instead focused on collective bargaining.
Over time, unions became recognised by law in much of Europe and North America. The UK Trade-Union Act of 1871 gave legal standing to British Unions, while the US slowly followed years later. The small craft unions that emerged at the beginning of the labour movement (usually representing skilled craftsmen) eventually were overtaken by larger mass industrial unions. Especially in the UK and parts of Europe, industrial unions can represent large numbers of unskilled or semiskilled workers and have become powerful negotiators.
Trade Unions in the US
Although unions were formed early on in the United States, American trade unionism is very different and much less significant than that of Europe. The United States has implemented a series of laws known as the right-to-work laws: and one of the consequences of said laws was that workers could not be required or forced to join a union.
In effect, this weakened collective bargaining and reduced the amount of money available for unions to spend on legal or political activities. Other laws in certain US states have limited or even prohibited collective bargaining and made it illegal for public-sector unions to organise strikes.
Overall, US union membership is far lower than in many other developed countries. Currently only around 11% of American workers are members of a union and states vary widely in the amount of union members (from 24% in Hawaii to just 3% in South Carolina). And the figures are even lower for private-sector workers: currently only 6% are unionised.
Comparing the US with other OECD member countries reveals how low US union membership actually is. Over 50% of Belgian workers are members of a union, almost 35% in Italy, and 25% in the US’ neighbour Canada. In Iceland, over 90% of the country’s workforce is unionised.
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Why Did Amazon Employees Unionise?
Now you understand the context and history of trade unionism, let’s think about why the worker’s in the Amazon warehouse decided to form their own union. And, also, why did Amazon try so hard to stop them succeeding?
First, the Staten Island warehouse workers were not the first Amazon employees to try to form a union. A very publicised effort to form a union last year in Alabama failed overwhelmingly. In both Alabama and New York, Amazon invested a lot of time, money, and resources in trying to prevent the formation of a union. According to Amazon, “having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.”
All employees were forced to attend anti-union company meetings and Amazon management placed posters and leaflets all around the warehouse encouraging workers to vote against the union. Across the entire US, Amazon actually spent $4m just on consultants who would talk to employees about unions.
Why did the employees choose to form a union? Amazon has been highly criticised over working conditions for warehouse employees and drivers in recent years. Let’s think about it this way – Have you ever ordered anything from Amazon? Yesterday at 8am, I ordered a COVID-19 test and a few board games on Amazon for a trip I’m taking at the weekend. After going to central Tokyo for some meetings and a Japanese class, I returned home at 6pm and my order was already delivered. It took less than 12 hours for my order to be processed, found and packaged in the warehouse, dispatched, and delivered.
In order to achieve this incredible speed of delivery, Amazon has very strict and tough working conditions. Workers regularly complain about too few bathroom breaks (which are timed to make sure you don’t take too long), difficult work goals, and unsafe conditions. The New York workers complained about similar issues. In particular, the pain caused by long hours constantly walking and standing seems to have caused a lot of frustration among employees.
The Amazon warehouse workers hope that by forming a union they will be able to negotiate better working conditions and benefits with Amazon. As other unions have done throughout history, the idea is that through the process of collective bargaining employees can put their voices together and be more powerful.
As I already mentioned, Amazon tried incredibly hard to prevent the formation of a union. Amazon operates at a very tight profit margin and with a fast and flexible business model: management believes that a union would slow down the company and cost more money. Some analysts have also pointed out that Amazon rarely gives salary raises to employees and instead has actually encourages people to quit instead of paying them a higher wage: a union would also make this more difficult.
Of course, Amazon does not tell employees this when talking about unions. Instead, a spokesperson for the company stated this: “Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry-leading pay, comprehensive benefits from the first day on the job, opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern and inclusive work environment. At Amazon, these benefits and opportunities come with the job, as does the ability to communicate directly with the leadership of the company.”
Does it Matter?
A union in a single warehouse is not necessarily that significant. So why did Amazon try so hard to prevent its formation? Does it actually matter?
Amazon fears a much wider adoption of unions in its facilities. Throughout the US approval of labour unions has increased in recent years, and President Joe Biden has tried to position himself as the most pro-union president in US history.
Unions are also contagious: when one union is formed, other employees notice. Other workers can be encouraged and guided by a successful unionisation effort. The first Starbucks union formed in December last year, and since then 8 other cafes have also unionised. Amazon is worried the same thing will happen. Another warehouse in New York will vote on forming a union this month, and one of America’s largest unions called the Teamsters have announced they will try to include Amazon drivers and delivery workers.
On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to introduce the idea of trade unions, talked about why Amazon employees formed the first union in the company’s history, and explained some useful “union” based vocabulary! Hopefully, after listening to this episode you have both learned something about the labour movements, learned a few new words, and practised listening. If you ever plan to work or live in an English speaking country, learning a little about unions could be very useful.
Are you a member of a trade union? How does your country treat unions and their members? Do you support unions? Or do you think they get in the way of company efficiency?
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