Warehouse workers in Bessemer voted 70/30 not to unionize, but this story ain’t over by a damn sight. We’ll have to wait, of course, but the results were going to be contested either way—so we’ll just have to see where this goes.

Remind me… why are people paying so much attention to a (would-be) Amazon union? Because Amazon is the second-largest private employer in America, they don’t have a single union yet, and their first union—whenever it’s created—will be the first of many dominoes to fall.

Why might Amazon workers want a union in the first place? The huge bulk of Amazon’s employees are blue-collar warehouse workers, and their work conditions have gotten more and more arduous over the past couple of years (remember that this is physical, on-your-feet work which strikes a lot closer to health and safety than most of our desk jobs). Trouble is, many of Amazon’s workers don’t have competing job opportunities; you can’t quit Amazon if Amazon provides 90% of the jobs in your town.

Unions were practically invented for this kind of situation, where workers are “stuck” in the impossible choice between hazardous work and joblessness.

Why can’t we take all of the No votes at face value? Two reasons, which we’ll label Presumption and Coercion:

PRESUMPTION ⚖️ It’s certainly true that some workers disdain unions, but a simpler and more common reason workers vote against unionization is that they don’t anticipate any personal benefit from the change.

This principle is called presumption in legal policy… basically, if your options are the Status Quo vs. Something Different and you’re not convinced that Something Different will be better, pick the Status Quo because you’re already (t)here.

Presumption is a reason not to take No votes at face value, in the sense that many such votes were not “conviction in No” but “failure of Yes.”

COERCION 💪 Given the above, nobody expected a unanimous Yes from the couple thousand workers in Bessemer… but Amazon’s handling of this situation has been shady at best, and (without condoning it) Amazon has had plenty of motive to engage in foul play.

The union side has filed 23 objections to Amazon’s conduct with the National Labor Relations Board—not all confirmed, not all strictly illegal, but with clear strategic implications to anyone who’s seen any House of Cards.

Why would Amazon be desperate to avoid unionization? Nutshell version: unions could wreak havoc upon Amazon’s strategy and bottom line.

More specifically: Amazon’s business cannot operate without a constant and enormous supply of labor, and unions would make the average Amazon employee considerably more expensive to keep. Complicating Amazon’s problem: their prevailing strategy has been to choose growth over profit (operating near breakeven) and that delicate equation could break when confronted with such a big shift to one of their biggest operating expenses.

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