New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says Amazon workers should try to unionize because their employer is on the wrong side of history—although history suggests he's the one who is out of step with the times.
"I think their stance on unionization reflects a different time," de Blasio told reporters this week, according to The Wall Street Journal. "Now that people are more and more concerned about decent wages and benefits, I think Amazon's gonna have to reconsider that."
If de Blasio wanted to influence Amazon's labor policies, he's probably already missed his best chance to do it: while officials from New York City and New York State were negotiating to handover more than $3 billion in subsidies through a series of state-level tax credits and grants, along with city-level tax incentives.
Now that Amazon is heading to New York, though, de Blasio thinks the company can be convinced to cave to unionization—in the same way that public pressure helped convince the tech giant to up its minimum wage to $15 per hour last year. "Amazon felt a tremendous amount of pressure nationally and gave in on the $15 minimum wage before we got to this deal," de Blasio told the Journal. "I felt strongly if they came here, the pressure to unionize deeply would win the day."
Except, well, there's not really a lot of evidence to support that idea.
For starters, the comparison to the $15 minimum wage is misleading. It wasn't really public pressure that got Amazon to up what it pays its more than 250,000 American workers. It was good old supply and demand.
As New York Magazine put it in October: "With the unemployment rate sitting below 4 percent, and the holiday season on the horizon, U.S. retailers are in fierce competition for staff. Amazon plans to hire 100,000 seasonal employees—as does UPS, while FedEx is looking for 55,000. Meanwhile, Amazon's retail competitors have been lifting their starting wages—with Target's recently rising to $15, Costco's to $14, and Walmart's to $11."
And, as Wired noted around the same time, putting more money in the pockets of Amazon workers makes a lot of sense for Amazon, since many of those employees will end up spending that extra cash on items purchased from—yep—Amazon.
If widespread public criticism of Amazon's low pay was a factor in the company's decision to hike wages, it's really best to think of that as an additional factor in labor market. In other words, in a tight labor market where workers have more leverage in choosing where they want to work, negative press about Amazon might encourage some workers to choose not to work there—and, by extension, the goodwill generated by stories about higher pay (as well as the higher pay itself) gives Amazon an advantage in landing scarce labor.
When it comes to unionization at Amazon, though, de Blasio might want to take a look at the rate of unionization over the past 35 years before he goes spouting off about non-unionized workplaces being an anachronism.
There are surely many reasons for the decline in private sector unionization in America, but most of them have to do with the fact that jobs today provide better pay, shorter hours, and greater degrees of physical safety than during the peak times of unionization. Once you've checked those boxes, there's fewer reasons for workers to join a union and limit their individual control over employment issues.
Instead of trying to insert his political views into the relationship between Amazon and its employees, de Blasio should have done a better job of preventing Amazon from raiding New York's treasury.
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