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Opinion | Amazon’s First Union Is a False Dawn: The Rules Are Still Stacked Against Workers

“I heard from a lot of business owners,” Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona, one of the three Democrats, told Politico by way of justification for his opposition.

Tellingly, the share of workers who would like to be in unions is much higher than the share of unionized workers. The government has cooperated with employers to frustrate that desire. Almost as soon as it had legalized collective bargaining in the 1930s, Congress began to backtrack, constraining American unions more tightly than unions in other democracies.

The government has gradually granted employers wide-ranging powers to frustrate unionization campaigns through propaganda, via threatened and actual mistreatment of workers and by closing operations if workers vote to unionize. To the extent that some tactics remain illegal, companies rarely suffer anything more than token penalties.

The House passed legislation last year, backed by Mr. Biden, that would address some of these abuses, but it died in the Senate. Bolder reforms, such as allowing workers in a given industry to negotiate wages and salaries collectively, rather than requiring individual contracts in each workplace, remain the stuff of campaign speeches.

The workers at JFK8, that Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, overcame the obstacles.

The campaign was fueled by anger about working conditions and a sense that they were not reaping a fair share of Amazon’s success. It also was personal. After Mr. Smalls was fired for raising concerns about workers’ safety during the early months of the Covid pandemic, a top Amazon executive described him as “not smart or articulate.” Some of his former colleagues figured that was roughly how the company felt about them, too.

During the unionization campaign, Amazon insisted that the police arrest Mr. Smalls and two current workers who brought food to the warehouse. Before the vote, the union projected the words “They arrested your co-workers” on one of the outside walls.

The circumstances were extraordinary, which is what it takes to win under the current rules. A parallel organizing campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama mounted by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union appears headed for defeat.

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