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Union Busting at in Britain

No Sweat | 21.01.2004 15:30 | Globalisation | Social Struggles

"New Economy" darling keeps its costs down by putting the boot into its workers. They're the Wal-Mart of cyberspace.

"The company - whose 36-year-old founder Jeff Bezos made $20m from selling Amazon shares this year - is fighting back with resolutely traditional union-busting tactics." The Guardian, Thursday December 7, 2000.

Amazon's internet selling and distribution depot in Britain is based in a large warehouse-type building just off the M1 motorway, near Milton Keynes. It has employed around 500 workers since its establishment in 1998. At the height of the campaign to win union recognition for its members at Amazon, the print and media union, the GPMU, had around 100 workers in membership. Union recognition denotes a procedural agreement signed by the employer and the union which allows the union to represent its members and bargain on their behalf to improve their terms and conditions of employment. By the end of the campaign, marked by the trouncing of the union in a company-organised union recognition ballot, the GPMU had less than 10 members. This short account of the successful employer union busting operation is written with a view to raising awareness of the deliberate and conscious non-union conditions under which Amazon operates. It is a non-union employer, and an avowedly anti-union employer at that. It is also written to raise awareness of the wider issue concerning the lack of democracy in the workplace and the imbalance in power between employers and workers.

Prior to 2001, several workers initially approached the print and media union, the GPMU, over work grievances and the desirability of union membership to help resolve these. The GPMU was keen to organise a large and well-known employer that was in close proximity to its headquarters in Bedford. Issues of work intensity, excessive working hours and poor wages along with blocked promotion were taken up by the GPMU after identifying these as the most widespread issues of discontent from its activists in the workplace. Through intensive leafleting and off-site meetings, the workforce was communicated with on these issues and membership began to rise. The GPMU was then in a position to able to ask for a meeting with the employer on union recognition and in a position to subsequently enter into talks in June 2001 about progressing a means to decide upon whether union recognition would be granted. Initially, these meetings were seen by the GPMU as positive engagement from the employer. However, it then became apparent that the talks represented the means by which the company was trying to coax the union into agreeing to voluntary ballot where the company aimed to deploy its superior resources to win the ballot and kill the organising attempt. As this became clear, the GPMU decided not to participate in the ballot and urged abstention in the vote. When the company held the ballot, the union urged members and supporters to spoil their ballot papers in an attempt to invalidate the ballot.

During the talks over recognition, on the one hand, Amazon instituted a 50p per hour pay rise, promotions for some black and Asian workers and established canteen facilities while, on the other, it victimised four union members and held a series of captive meetings. A GPMU official claimed of this period, Amazon had been: 'doing its level best to make sure anyone vocal over unionisation is sacked or given constructive dismissal' (New Media Age 23 August 2001). At the time of the ballot, the GPMU received 23 union resignation letters from workers, on Amazon-headed paper, 10 of which were not from union members. During the ballot, a GPMU official reported he had seen 'pre-printed 'no' ballot papers and the staff were kitted out with T-shirts telling the union to get back in the history books' (Printing World 24 September 24). The result of the ballot was 'conclusive': of the 500 staff, 90% voted with 80% voting against union recognition, 15% for and 5% spoiling their papers. The GPMU received less votes than it had members.

Prior to the ballot, Amazon stated: 'We believe our employees wish to be union-free, but they will make their decision known in the ballot and we'll respect that … We're not anti-union, we just don't think joining a union will help our employees' (New Media Age 23 August, 13 September 2001). Afterwards stated: 'Employees have given this matter due consideration and I hope the GPMU will take their views into account by leaving the workforce alone' (Printing World 24 September 2001) The GPMU responded: 'All this result shows is how good Amazon is at intimidating its workers against joining a union. … [We] always regarded this ballot as meaningless, seeing as it is being held by Amazon with the sole intent of getting its employees to vote against recognition' (Printing World 17, 24 September 2001). The GPMU vowed to continue with the recognition campaign - it could not do otherwise where it sought to save some face and credibility after being 'turned over' by a high profile employer in a high profile battle. Subsequently, it ended its campaign. It may return to Amazon at some future date.

Since 6 June 2000, a statutory mechanism for gaining union recognition has existed in the form of Schedule 1 of the Employment Relations Act 1999. There are many justifiable criticisms of its provisions regarding required thresholds for membership and voting levels in order to gain union recognition. For example, an employer must employ more than 21 employees to be subject to the statutory mechanism, in a ballot the union must obtain not just a simple majority of those voting for recognition but this must also equate to 40% of all those entitled to vote and failed applications are subject to a three-year bar on a further application. But the case of Amazon represents something quite different. Here was an employer that used what are known as 'unfair labour practices' to pre-empt the GPMU from ever being able to avail itself of the benefit of the statutory union recognition provisions. As such nothing that Amazon did (save the victimisations) was illegal in its battle to prevent unionisation. This situation suggests that workers in Britain need a drastic change in the employment law governing employer practice and the rights of workers to collectivise. Only then are unions likely to be able to act as organisations capable of defending and advancing their members' interests. But, of course, for this to happen means unions need to secure effective political representation to bring about that legal change. As is often said, that is another story to be told another time.

Dr Gregor Gall [the author] is editor of Union Organisizing: Campaigning for Trade Union Recognition. He is also editor of the forthcoming 'Union Recognition: Organising and Bargaining Outcomes' (Routledge 2005).

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