President Biden appears to back broadening union push at Amazon

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President Biden on Wednesday appeared to back efforts by some Amazon workers to unionize following a stunning labor victory at a Staten Island warehouse last week, as the president pushed his broader agenda to help more workers to join a union.

The president did not directly call on Amazon workers to form a union, but gave his most explicit endorsement to date of the attempts to unionize the company’s massive workforce. Biden had previously called on Amazon to respect workers’ choice during a union vote in Alabama, and White House officials had spoken positively of the result of the vote in Staten Island.

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“Unions are about providing dignity and respect … That’s why I created the White House task force to make sure the choice belongs to workers alone,” the president said in a speech to the North America’s Building Trades Unions. Biden then lowered his voice and said: “By the way, Amazon here we come. … Watch. Watch.”

Biden added: “Workers who join a union gain power — the power over decisions that affect their lives. When you’ve got a union, workers’ voices are heard and heeded.”

Biden’s speech to the trades union outlined the administration’s extensive efforts to promote union membership in the U.S., including labor requirements for infrastructure projects and other steps to require federal projects to be awarded to unionized workforces. He also emphasized that the building trades and groups such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were responsible for his election to the White House, both during the 2020 Democratic primary and as a candidate in the general election.

Still, it remains unclear how successful the administration will prove at reviving America’s long-flagging labor movement. Union membership rates declined in 2021, the first year of Biden’s presidency, falling to its 2019 rate. (Government data show that trend was due in large part because nonunion workers were the most likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic in 2020, and then recover them in 2021.)

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An Amazon spokesman declined to comment. Amazon previously said it was considering filing objections to the Staten Island vote, citing “inappropriate and undue influence” by the National Labor Relations Board. Biden has appointed leadership to the NLRB widely seen as pro-labor. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The obstacles to unionizing Amazon and other big firms remain large. Rapid turnover at Amazon’s warehouses complicates union organizing efforts, and efforts to unionize in Alabama were defeated last year. But after the NLRB found that Amazon improperly interfered in the election, it ordered a redo vote. That vote remains too close to call. Amazon has roughly 1.1 million employees in the U.S.

Amazon has strongly opposed unionization at its warehouses, hiring consultants and making posters and websites to urge workers not to join unions. The company has argued that it doesn’t think “unions are the best answer for our employees.”

“Those are all good signs but I have yet to see real national indicators confirming there is an actual direct increase in labor strength, which I think is reflective that this is going to be a lengthy process,” said Will Raderman, employment policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank. “The most recent data nationally does not reflect increased labor power.”

Still, labor advocates were quick to cheer the president’s remarks. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters Teamsters and AFL-CIO are among the unions that have said they will try to help Amazon union efforts.

“It was a clear call of support to the multi-union campaign to unionize Amazon,” said Faiz Shakir, who served as the campaign manager of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) 2020 presidential campaign and has been lobbying the administration to be more outspoken in support of union efforts. “It’s exactly what working class people need to hear.”

Rachel Lerman contributed to this report.

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