What happens inside a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, could have major implications not just for the country’s second-largest employer but the labor movement at large.
Organizers are pushing for some 6,000 Amazon workers there to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union on the promise it will lead to better working conditions, better pay and more respect. Amazon is pushing back, arguing that it already offers more than twice the minimum wage in Alabama and workers get such benefits as health care, vision and dental insurance without paying union dues.
The two sides are fully aware that it’s not just the Bessemer warehouse on the line. Organizers hope what happens there will inspire thousands of workers nationwide — and not just at Amazon — to consider unionizing and revive a labor movement that has been waning for decades.
“This is lighting a fuse, which I believe is going to spark an explosion of union organizing across the country, regardless of the results,” says RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum.
The union push could spread to other parts of Amazon and threaten the company’s profits, which soared 84% last year to $21 billion. At a time when many companies were cutting jobs, Amazon was one of the few still hiring, bringing on board 500,000 people last year alone to keep up with a surge of online orders.
Bessemer workers finished casting their votes on Monday. The counting begins on Tuesday, which could take days or longer depending on how many votes are received and how much time it takes for each side to review. The process is being overseen by the National Labor Relations Board and a majority of the votes will decide the final outcome.
What that outcome will be is anyone’s guess. Appelbaum thinks workers who voted early likely rejected the union because Amazon’s messaging got to them first. He says momentum changed in March as organizers talked to more workers and heard from basketball players and high-profile elected officials, including President Joe Biden.
For Amazon, which employs more than 950,000 full- and part-time workers in the U.S. and nearly 1.3 million worldwide, a union could lead to higher wages that would eat into its profits. Higher wages would also mean higher costs to get packages to shoppers’ doorsteps, which may prompt Amazon to raise prices, says Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
In a statement, Amazon says it encouraged all its employees to vote and that “their voices will be heard in the days ahead.”
Any push to unionize is considered a long shot, since labor laws tend to favor employers. Alabama itself is a “right-to-work” state, which allows workers in unionized shops to opt out of paying union dues even as they retain the benefits and job protection negotiated by the union.
Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, says companies in the past have closed stores, warehouses or plants after workers have voted to unionize.
“There’s a history of companies going to great lengths to avoid recognizing the union,” he says.
Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and biggest private employer, has successfully fought off organizing efforts over the years. In 2000, it got rid of butchers in 180 of its stores after they voted to form a union. Walmart said it cut the jobs because people preferred pre-packaged meat. Five years later, it closed a store in Canada where some 200 workers were close to winning a union contract. At the time, Walmart said demands from union negotiators made it impossible for the store to sustain itself.
The only other time Amazon came up against a union vote was in 2014, when the majority of the 30 workers at a Delaware warehouse turned it down.
This time around, Amazon has been hanging anti-union signs throughout the Bessemer warehouse, including inside bathroom stalls, and holding mandatory meetings to convince workers why the union is a bad idea, according to one worker who recently testified at a Senate hearing. It has also created a website for employees that tells them they’ll have to pay $500 in union dues a month, taking away money that could go to dinners and school supplies.
Amazon’s hardball tactics extend beyond squashing union efforts. Last year, it fired a worker who organized a walkout at a New York warehouse to demand greater protection against coronavirus, saying the employee himself flouted distancing rules. When Seattle, the home of its headquarters, passed a new tax on big companies in 2018, Amazon protested by stopping construction of a new high-rise building in the city; the tax was repealed four weeks later. And in 2019, Amazon ditched plans to build a $2.5 billion headquarters for 25,000 workers in New York after pushback from progressive politicians and unions.
Beyond Amazon is an anti-union culture that dominates the South. And unions have lost ground nationally for decades since their peak in the decades following World War II. In 1970, almost a third of the U.S. workforce belonged to a union. In 2020, that figure was 10.8%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Private sector workers now account for less than half of the 14.3 million union members across the country.
Advocates say a victory would signal a shift in the narrative about unions, helping refute the typical arguments from companies, including Amazon, that workers can win adequate compensation and conditions by dealing with management directly.
“It is because of unions that we have a five-day work week. It is because of unions that we have safer conditions in our places of work. It is because of unions that we have benefits,” says Rep. Terri Sewell, whose congressional district includes the Amazon facility. “Workers should have the right to choose whether they organize or not.”
Union leaders are circumspect about specific organizing plans after the Bessemer vote, and Appelbaum says he doesn’t want to tip off Amazon to any future efforts. But there is broad consensus that a win would spur workers at some of the 230 other Amazon warehouses to mount a similar union campaign.
It’s less clear whether any ripple effects would reach other prime targets like Walmart and the expansive auto industry that has burgeoned across the South in recent decades. Both have largely succeeded at keeping unions at bay.
The auto workers union has had some of the largest union pushes of the last decade, but their most intense and publicized efforts ended in failure. In 2017, a years-long campaign to unionize a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, ended with a decisive 2,244-1,307 rejection of the union — the kind of margin that would be devastating in Bessemer. Two years later, however, Volkswagen workers in Tennessee had a much more evenly split vote, with 776 workers supporting unionization and 833 voting against it.
Besides the number of Amazon workers involved, the Alabama campaign has stood out because of how explicitly many advocates have linked the effort to the civil rights movement of the 20th century. The RWDSU estimates that more than 80% of the warehouse workers in Bessemer are Black.
Robert Korstad, a Duke Emeritus professor and labor history expert, says those dynamics could help in Bessemer.
“The history of the Black struggle in Alabama is pretty deeply entrenched in the social, political and religious institutions there,” he says. “We’re starting to see people rise up again. So this Amazon struggle is part of a larger struggle that’s gone on a long time.”
The question, Korstad says, is whether a win in Bessemer truly becomes a “ripple effect” that inspires workers across racial and ethnic lines elsewhere.
By JOSEPH PISANI and BILL BARROW
Consumer confidence hitting record high, but with hangovers left from pandemic
Global consumer confidence soared to record heights in the first quarter of 2021, according to The Conference Board: Global Consumer Confidence Survey, as vaccination campaigns broadened, travel restrictions loosened, and governments and central banks continued to provide robust economic stimulus.
These factors are contributing to various geographic regions returning to a “state of normalcy sooner” including increased spending across the spectrum, but some economic hangovers persist from the global pandemic crisis.
The Conference Board is a member-driven think tank that has delivered economic insights since 1916. It released this recent global consumer confidence survey on Wednesday. Their methodology for what is comparably a business cycle index is based on a point system where a figure above 100 is considered positive, or below 100 representing decline. This survey also employs opinion polling which is expressed as percentages.
“The lightening of consumer moods globally bodes well for spending throughout the remainder of the year as economies continue to emerge from the 2020 pandemic-induced economic downturn and work toward arresting the spread of the virus,” said Dana Peterson, Chief Economist of The Conference Board.
“Nonetheless, the global economic recovery – and, consequently, consumer sentiment – is likely to continue to vary notably from region to region. Economies with greater access to vaccines are likely to achieve herd immunity, and thus will return to a state of normalcy sooner,” Peterson added.
The survey found that overall global consumer confidence shot up from 98 in the fourth quarter of 2020 to 108 points in the first quarter of 2021. That figure exceeded the reading of 106 registered in pre-pandemic 2020 Q1. Reminder, a figure above 100 is considered positive and the 108-point score is the highest recorded since the survey began in 2005.
Confidence rose in 49 of 65 markets surveyed, as economic activity resumed, COVID-19 cases peaked in many economies, and vaccine development and distribution expanded.
The vaccines contributed to that revival, so individual economies’ level of access to them will greatly affect the timing of their recoveries and boosts in consumer confidence. (For 2020 Q4 indexes, results exclude China due to data collection constraints.)
Confidence still varied across regions: Latin America (up 13 points, from 86 to 99) and Europe (up 11 points, from 76 to 87) enjoyed the biggest gains in consumer confidence. But both regions started from low bases, and Europe remains the least confident region. North America, by contrast, slipped six points, from 116 to 110, while Africa and the Middle East dropped from 101 to 97.
Growing confidence in personal finances, especially, propelled the stronger global sentiment: Consumers were significantly more optimistic about their finances in Q1 2021, with the gap between positive and negative responses standing at +29 percentage points, up substantially from +15 percentage points in Q4 2020.
Of the three key drivers of global confidence, personal finances made the largest impact, although the other two drivers also trended upward: Sentiment about job prospects were up overall around the globe and spending intentions flipped from negative (-7 ppts) in Q4 2020 to positive (+6 ppts) in Q1 2021.
Consumers are gearing up for a return to normalcy: Consumers spent more on entertainment outside of the home, clothing, and vacations. Taken together, these trends indicate that consumers are increasingly looking forward to returning to normal activities at some point this year.
Given that consumption levels significantly contribute to growth in many mature economies, such activity in anticipation of greater freedom later on supports The Conference Board’s upwardly revised projection of 5 percent real GDP growth globally this year.
However, around the world, consumers also ramped up their protective savings: 57 percent of global consumers indicated that they are putting money into savings, an increase of 9 ppts from the previous quarter. Their efforts to economize primarily reflected savings on hospitality and entertainment services.
Consumers planned to eliminate annual vacations, delay upgrading technology, and cut meals away from home. They also switched to cheaper grocery brands and drove their cars less.
The scars of the recession lingered, with health and economic concerns still looming large.
The world is not quite buzzing yet.
A strong majority of consumers (64 percent) said that their market was still in recession during the first quarter of 2021. While that figure dropped sharply from the end of 2020 (down 17 percentage points, from 81 percent) recession concerns remained elevated.
Globally, only 41 percent of consumers expected that their economy would be out of recession in 12 months, virtually unchanged from the previous quarter.
Consumers’ worries about their own health (22 percent) and economic performance (20 percent) dominated their top concerns. This trend will likely hold through mid-2021 given the continued crisis, and the time it will take to arrest the coronavirus and establish herd immunity.
“With uncertainty around jobs and health prompting consumers to continue economizing, it seems clear that GDP returning to pre-pandemic levels will not in itself mark a return to the old normal,” said board chief economist Peterson. “Healing in labor markets may take longer, with greater potential for scarring among industries that are vulnerable to automation and digital transformation.”
Unbound by geography, CFOs look to capitalize on global talent pool
A large majority of CFOs around the world are planning to expand operations into new countries in 2021 to achieve their long-term growth strategies, according to a recent survey by CFO Research and Globalization Partners.
The survey also uncovered changing perceptions about hiring and remote work because of their pandemic experiences, with respondents saying they want to attract from the global talent pool that is unbound by the geographic restrictions of their company’s operating model.
The February 2021 survey of chief financial officers, chief executive officers and other senior finance executives also cites a common theme that they are prioritizing the need to build resiliency and although optimistic, disclose that their businesses are still stabilizing and in recovery.
Optimism towards organizational performance in 2021 varies across the regions. Asia-Pacific (APAC) CFOs are more optimistic about success in 2021 than their counterparts in the UK and North America. Since 65 percent of APAC respondents indicated that they expect to exceed goals and expectations in 2021, compared to 46 percent for UK and 47 percent for North America.
“The ongoing rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, investments flowing into the region, and momentum gained as companies accelerated their digital investments during the pandemic – all these are contributing to positive sentiments toward business in 2021,” said Charles Ferguson, General Manager, Asia Pacific, Globalization Partners. “With the ongoing shift in the global supply chain and a renewed focus of the US, UK and EU to grow alliances with APAC markets, there is an abundance of opportunity to expect from this region.”
CFOs’ global view within their hiring approaches
When asked to describe their hiring strategy over the next 12 to 18 months as, 48 percent of APAC respondents say they will attract new talent where they are based while 43 percent say they want to attract new talent that is unbounded by the geographic restrictions of their company’s operating model.
APAC CFOs have a high degree of interest in tapping into a more cost-effective, global talent pool—a concept favored by half of those surveyed –and capturing market share through global expansion, which is favored by 61 percent.
CFOs’ altered workforce management strategies
Seventy-four percent of the survey respondents in APAC anticipate operating remote and/or hybrid workforce models in the next 12 to 18 months.
Eighty-three percent of executives also say the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally altered the way they think about hiring and workforce management and 89 percent say it altered how they consider remote employees or the work-from-anywhere model.
In parallel, CFOs are deeming global expansion as a top priority in the next 12 to 18 months.
“Implementing a strategy for global expansion and presence” was deemed a top priority in the next 12 to 18 months for 52 percent of APAC executives, compared to 38 percent of the EMEA executives and 36 percent of the North American executives.
With that in mind, 55 percent of the APAC CFOs that are expecting to achieve their goals in 2021 are already engaging a global (Professional Employer Organization) PEO, while 25 percent plan to use a global PEO within one year to support their international business strategy and 17 percent plan to engage a global PEO within three years.
Drivers wanted: Record demand at Uber as vaccinations rise
Uber is offering sign-up bonuses and other incentives for drivers as it faces record demand for rides and meal delivery.
The San Francisco ride-hailing company said Monday that total monthly bookings, including food delivery and passenger service, reached an all-time high in March.
In a government filing, the company said demand for ride-hailing, which plunged during coronavirus lockdowns last year, has recovered more quickly than expected as daily COVID-19 vaccinations exceed 3 million per day in the U.S.
Some people are still avoiding public transportation out of infection fears, potentially boosting demand for services like Uber and Lyft further.
Passenger bookings last month reached the highest level since last March, when spiking infection rates began to shut the country down. Bookings last month hit an annual run rate of $30 billion. Last year, Uber’s passenger business recorded $26.4 billion in gross bookings.
Food delivery, of course, has surged over the past year and in March Uber Eats deliveries hit an all-time high. With more regions opening restaurants to at least partial capacity, that could be a positive sign for Uber as it could signal that some habits acquired during the pandemic may stick.
Food delivery jumped 150% from last March to an annualized run rate of $52 billion, the company said.
Last week, Uber announced $250 million in sign-up bonuses and other perks to lure more drivers. Many drivers gave up last year when demand dried up, the company said. But demand now exceeds the supply of Uber drivers on call, the company said.
In another perk, Uber has partnered with Walgreens to make it easier for drivers to get vaccinated.
Driving professionally, however, may still be considered too risky by some. Last month, a woman was arrested on suspicion of pepper-spraying an Uber driver in San Francisco who was coughed at and insulted after he demanded a passenger wear a mask.
Drivers may still be holding out to see if Uber will sweeten pay and benefits. Uber was forced to classify its drivers in the United Kingdom as workers last month — not self-employed — after a Supreme Court ruling there.
The company said Monday it has begun a historical claims settlement for its U.K. drivers.
Shares of Uber Technologies Inc. rose nearly 5% to $60.40 Monday.
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