Amazon is one of the world’s largest online retailers and continues to be one of the fastest-growing companies in the world. With massive fulfillment centers strategically placed throughout the country, they pride themselves on the ability to provide next-day or 2-day delivery for almost all items. Being established nearly 28 years ago has provided them with the ability to learn and experience new ways of doing business. While Amazon has changed and or modified their operations to adapt with modern day needs, they still have areas that require improvement. Although they do provide employees with above minimum wage pay, healthcare coverage and free tuition for college, many employees feel that this is not enough. One area of improvement is how they treat their employees as expendable objects. Having this mentality has created a major push for unionization of workers within fulfillment centers.
For years Amazon executives have stopped any attempts at unionization by implementing anti-union posters and pamphlets in warehouses. Employees and well recognized labor unions like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) have tried to establish themselves within Amazon for years but have been unsuccessful (Solon NBC NEWS). RWDSU representatives have claimed that workers voted against unionization, due to the fact that they were victims of intimidation by Amazon associates. Seemingly every time a new laborer movement tries to unionize, there’s always a lack of voters or corruption in the voting process.As the COVID-19 Pandemic began to spread throughout the US, many people feared the outcome due to the unpredictability of the virus. With grocery stores running low on food, various stores and restaurants shutting down, retailers like Amazon were deemed as an essential business. This meant that workers were forced to meet their daily quotas while also trying to accommodate COVID-19 safety protocols and procedures. Christian Smalls, a supervisor in an Amazon fulfillment location in Staten Island, New York, was fired in March of 2020. After noticing the harsh working conditions and lack of safety protocols he decided to protest by organizing a walkout over the lack of worker protections (Selyukh NPR). At this time, he was suddenly discharged from the company for violating their safety protocols. This departure from the company was a shock to Smalls as he was only trying to improve the safety standards for himself and the employees during the start of the pandemic. The sudden departure reassures the fact that the company treats its employees as expendable objects.
Smalls knew that he was fired as a result of his walkout just hours prior. The actions on behalf of Amazon did not sit well with Smalls as he knew he needed to stand up against the massive e-commerce. A short time after being fired he formed the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). Smalls did not have a huge financial backing or support like the RWDSU, so he utilized GoFundMe to generate support for his message. Using his personal experiences within the company and generated funds, he hosted informational events at bus stops and locations near the facility. These events allowed him to steadily attract members to his “grassroots union drive”. Smalls and his organizers “demanded higher wages, longer breaks, paid sick leave and paid time off for injuries sustained on the job” (Hsu NPR). While Amazon completely disagrees with the idea of unionization, Smalls and his supporters in the ALU argued, this needs to happen as they’re one of the richest retailers in the world.
Amazon completely opposes any unionization in their facilities as they have noticed the negative effect that a union can have on a business’s profitability and production. They feel that for 28 years they have produced jobs that allow for their employees to live a decent life, while having enough money to buy the things they want. Heather Knox an Amazon Spokesperson provided the companies reasoning for opposing unionization; “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs” (Hartmans Business Insider). Although they provide some of the best compensation for their workers, many employees like Smalls feel that the risk of working in the warehouses is not worth the reward. That is why Smalls is so adamant about establishing a union.
On Friday, April 1, 2022 Smalls and fellow workers in the Staten Island facility voted to demonstrate that a majority of employees agreed with unionization. When the results were tallied it was clear that Smalls and his supporters were successful in their pro-union push. Miraculously, they established the first ever union at Amazon; The Amazon Labor Union. Currently the ALU includes 8,300 workers within the Staten Island warehouse. As a result of the union forming there are eight immediate changes that the workers are advocating for: (Health and Safety, Pay, Promotions, Overtime, Working Conditions, Transportation, Time, and Union-Busting), (Amazon Labor Union). These changes will alleviate some of the economic impact and current wage gaps in the company.
The stakeholders in this specific case include the current employees, future employees, general public, top executives, and shareholders. Amazons’ reputation and future success can be affected by the actions of the ALU. Together these stakeholders play a critical part in the fulfillment center operations. The current employees are affected as they can face repercussions for wanting to join in voting for a union. While the current employees at the Staten Island fulfillment center won’t experience any issue, due to the fact of being in a union. Other warehouses across the country may experience issues as their employees are not in the ALU and therefore not protected by the rules and regulations of the union. Future employees can also be affected as a result of the union being formed. With the formation of a union at the Staten Island location, many new workers might apply for employment there as they see the benefits of working in a union. Being a part of a union is favorable as it allows employees to negotiate for better working conditions and benefits.
The general public and top executives can be affected by the outcome of the ALU in the future. For example, if workers in the ALU and Amazon's executives are unable to agree upon safety standards, pay or benefits, there can be delays in production as a result of union workers striking. The shareholders of Amazon are at risk in the pro-union movement, as there seems to be uncertainty as to what can happen within other fulfillment centers across the country. One fear is that other fulfillment centers across the country will also unionize, resulting in a massive unionization movement throughout the whole company. Shareholders may view this change as good or bad if they disagree with the direction the company is heading. This can result in shareholders buying more shares of Amazon stock or selling off their shares, all depending upon if they see the company continuing to grow exponentially or decrease in size.
Based on the ethical theory from Milton Friedman known as Individualism, theorizes that a company or owners sole ethical responsibility is to increase profits for owners or stockholders as long as they are obeying legal responsibilities. Tibor Machan took Friedman’s theory and included the statement that in order for Individualism to be ethical the actual goals of the business must not be to make a profit. (Salazar)
The reaction of Amazon for Chris Smalls trying to develop a union was not unethical according to Individualism. It was not necessarily illegal for Amazon to fire Smalls for starting the protest outside of the Staten Island facility since he broke protocol that Amazon set into place. Federal law states that “working time is for work, so your employer may maintain and enforce non-discriminatory rules limiting solicitation and distribution”(NLRB), so firing Smalls without the pandemic protocol would still be legal since he led chaos within the facility during working hours. Amazon tends to be “anti-union” because they feel it is in the best interest of the customers, shareholders, associate companies and it has been mentioned that they feel a direct employee to employer relation is better than a union, therefore according to Machan, their reaction to unions are not unethical as well. The lack of unions in the workplace potentially increases profits since the union can reduce production output on a day to day basis, ultimately diminishing the profit the company can make significantly. By firing Smalls and attempting to prevent the unionization from occurring, from Amazon’s viewpoint they were protecting profits and eliminating an area of concern that would bring them down. From an Individualistic standpoint, the actions taken by Amazon were perfectly ethical and the right thing to do as long as the termination was legal. The leaked information about how they would use the publicity of the firing of Smalls’ to their benefit to prevent the talk of unions in the news as well as the workplace seems to have malicious characteristics for both Smalls’ termination as well as their anti-union tactics. The leaked information reveals unethical actions from an Individualistic approach because it is illegal to fire an employee for simply spreading union information and for personal gain motives.
A utilitarian would view the outcome of the pro-union movement as the most ethical and beneficial outcome. Based upon the belief of a utilitarian, “a businesses actions should aim to maximize the happiness in the long run for all conscious beings that are affected by the business actions” (Salazar 17). Until the formation of the ALU a utilitarian would not view the actions as impermissible. The reason being that employees in the fulfillment center were not treated properly and faced consequences whenever they tried to bring attention to the issues they faced. On Amazon's behalf these actions were unethical from a utilitarian stand-point and unsafe from the perspective of the workers.
Although a utilitarian views the actions as unethical, the executives and shareholders believe they’re providing excellent opportunities for their employees to maximize happiness without being in a union. Amazon continues to oppose unions and argue against them as they feel they do not have their employees’ best interests in mind. They feel that “Unions could lead to less collaborative relationships between employees and their supervisors, and could favor employees with seniority over new employees” (Hartmans Business Insider). With a union creating a divide between the workers and management, this would disrupt the principles and foundations that Amazon was founded upon. Many executives do not want an outside organization interfering with their internal business operations. They also fear that participating in a union will cost them more money than they can afford, thus limiting the high hourly rate and benefits employees are currently paid. This is the reason why some executives and shareholders oppose fulfillment centers from unionizing like the Staten Island fulfillment center did.
Unlike the executives at Amazon a utilitarian would see the actions of the ALU as permissible. These actions are accepted as they will maximize the pleasure of the employees and minimize any pain and suffering that resulted from working in the fulfillment centers. With the little time and experience Christian Smalls had, he was able to create a union movement in one of the world’s largest e-commerce.
Shortly after establishing a union in the Staten Island fulfillment center, Smalls began to receive letters and emails from across the globe. Many of the letters came from current employees encouraging him to take the ALU to more fulfillment center locations. In an interview with National Public Radio Smalls stated; “the world is definitely paying attention now and these workers are paying attention now, which is the best thing possible because that’s exactly what we plan on doing…we want to spread like wildfire across the nation” (Selyukh NPS). By following through on his goal to establish a union that acts in the employee’s best interest, he was able to maximize happiness and promote the ideas that utilitarianism was founded upon.
A utilitarian would also agree with the pro-union movement as it results in long-term benefits for the workers. This unionization movement is just-in-time as currently there is a larger wage gap than ever before. The additional wages and benefits for union workers would take effect immediately, preventing any future cases similar to what Smalls experienced. By allowing unionization throughout all the fulfillment centers, Amazon would be making themselves a more attractive company for future employees and stockholders. Allowing employees to have a greater voice in the company, they must realize that employees will take their union agreement seriously as it maximizes their happiness in the long run. The pro-union movement may also result in more shareholders feeling inclined to purchase Amazon stock, as they know the company will operate with their employees’ interests in mind.
For this case, there were both positive and negative aspects when viewing it through the lens of Kantianism. One scenario that would be viewed as particularly negative was how Chris Smalls acted when he was trying to make a change within the company. He organized a protest in which many rules that Amazon had specifically put in regarding the pandemic were violated. Rules that had to do with social distancing, gathering during a quarantine, and size of the groups were all specific rules that were violated. A Kantian would not necessarily be pleased with Chris smalls because a key part of Kantianism is rational decision making. “Don’t act inconsistently in your own actions or consider yourself exempt from the rules.” (Salazar 5). It could be viewed that Smalls interpreted it as okay to exempt himself from the rules on the day he organized the protest which caused him to be fired initially.
Another belief that Kantians have is to, “be motivated by Good Will, seeking to do what is right because it is right.” (Salazar 5). Smalls had good intentions with what he was attempting to do. He may have just not gone about it in the best way. He believed that how the company was handling their protocols with the COVID-19 pandemic was morally wrong. One of his major concerns was with how employees were being notified about quarantine and exposures within the work environment. In Smalls’ case, he had an exposure to someone with COVID-19 on March 11, 2020. Amazon failed to notify him about having to quarantine for nearly two weeks. They finally told him he was required to quarantine on March 28, 2020. This came so long after his exposure that the incubation period for the virus had actually ended. He wanted to make a change and he was motivated to help make a change for a better, safer work environment for him and his employees because it is the right thing to do which is something that follows along with Kantian ethics.
Looking at how the company handled the situation from the point of view of a kantian, Amazon did a very poor job with how they handled their protocols. Smalls was just one employee that stood up to them but he was not alone and was doing it for many employees within the company. The principle of Kantianism that Amazon did not follow was, “Respect people, their autonomy, and individual needs and differences”(Salazar 5). The pandemic was something that was new to everyone. People had all different ways of going about it and the top priority was making sure that everyone felt safe. There were a variety of ways in which this was accomplished but Amazon did not seem to care at first even though their employees tried to display their unhappiness. Amazon expected the rules they put in place to be done a certain way without taking into account any other ways of doing it. Many companies were able to respect people's individual needs during this time by ways of working on zoom or careful tracking of exposures, but Amazon failed to do things that way which is why it would be viewed negatively by Kantians.
The virtue theory is an ethical theory that entails people shouldn’t focus on rules to follow but to instead focus on what your core values and personality traits would tell you to do (Ethical Theory, 2018). For example, if you are a person who is generally a compassionate person, act with compassion in all decisions you make. Virtue theorists believe that the way to truly find who you are as a person is to, “suggest that once you can imagine what a good person is like, you should behave in any situation as you think such a person would behave.” (Ethical Theory, 2018). Other ways to find yourself is to realize what characteristics truly make you flourish and to act off those.
With this case regarding ALU vs. Amazon the virtue theorist would find most of what the ALU is doing as morally required. When Smalls led the walkout, it was because he acted based off who he was all about. Determination is what drove Smalls the most. His relentless determination is what led to all his decisions that he made in this case. After being fired by Amazon Smalls could’ve just given up and found a different job but instead stood his ground because that was just the type of person he was. He decided to start the bus stop barbeques and the GoFundMe because he was determined to see Amazon own up to their issues. Yes, the styles were unorthodox, but he needed to find a way to get to the workers and that was the only effective way he found. Based on the virtue theory Smalls made actions off who he was as a person which in this case is determined. He did what he thought was right and ran with it. He was even arrested by Amazon earlier this year for trespassing while they were delivering food and union materials to the warehouse parking lot. It doesn’t matter if somebody else thinks it wrong according to the theory because he was doing what he thought was right. According to Smalls, “Amazon doesn't become Amazon without the people, and we make Amazon what it is.” (Hsu & Selyukh, 2022) That quote alone explains his thought process and explains what his personality traits give off. What Amazon is doing on the other hand is impermissible according to the theory. Amazon’s slogan is Work Hard, Have Fun, Make History. That is what Amazon’s core principle values are supposed to be. According to the workers on the other hand Amazon is not actually acting according to those values. Two of three values are being instructed but one is not being hit at all according to employees. There is no fun to be had at Amazon. Not once has Smalls expressed how he’s had fun working at Amazon he only has ever talked about the tough work environment and how unfair the wages were. Apparently, he can’t be lying with over 2,000 of his colleagues being behind him. The virtue theory in this case would be in favor of Smalls and would be against Amazon.
Amazon fulfillment centers across the nation are facing issues with employees being treated poorly and they need to implement actions to fix this problem. A labor union is an organized association of workers that is formed to protect the further rights and interests of the workers. The US has hundreds of labor unions operating in different industries throughout the country, however most people don't realize that unions are critical to creating equality and fair wages for employees. Not having a union established is unfair and unethical to the employees who want one and would benefit from having one at the world's largest online retailer. Without access to a union employees are affected as their wages, compensation plans and benefit packages are not enough. They are often inadequate as no one is there to fight or negotiate for the employees. The current issue is that Amazon does not act in favor of their employees and put their billion dollar profits before their employees. This is wrong because without the employees, the fulfillment centers would be unable to meet the current demand. Listening to the voices of the employees is critical as a union will meet their employees needs, while also operating ethically and being profitable for the company.
Amazon's current mission statement is “we strive to offer our customers the lowest possible prices, the best available selection, and the utmost convenience’’ (Amazon). It’s obvious that the current mission statement is completely customer focused and mentions nothing about their employees. A new mission statement is needed in order to guide the company into a new era of employee focused improvements. We recommend that “Amazon devotes its resources and technologies to improving working conditions and resources for their employees, by allowing them to join the Amazon Labor Union”. This new mission statement still follows their original idea of providing customers with the best possible experience. But also provides their employees with the best possible care and benefits, as they are focused on their employees and strive to provide the best for them.
As the Staten Island fulfillment center is now a part of the ALU several values they should abide by are: well-being for employees, trust, constant improvement, and teamwork.
Well-being for Employees - The safety and livelihood of their employees is more important than meeting production deadlines or daily quotas. Instead of treating employees as replaceable objects, they need to treat them as human beings with emotions. Amazon is responsible for the health and safety of their employees and they need to address this issue more than ever.
Trust - Creating a relationship between executives and employees allows for trust to be established. Allowing employees to freely communicate their concerns or observations to the fulfillment center managers / executives allows for a connection to be made.
Constant Improvement - As new technologies and ways of doing business are constantly improving, this new to be considered in the workplace. Thus improving upon and limiting the strenuous or labor intensive activities employees do on a daily basis.
Teamwork - Communication between executives and employees allows for ideas and responsibilities to be shared throughout the company. This helps to reduce the stress some employees feel when they are given meticulous tasks.
To ensure ethical productivity and monitoring of ethics at fulfillment centers across the nation, they need to take actions similar to how the ALU was formed by Christain Smalls. Having a union established and union representatives like Smalls allows employees to approach them with issues and or recommendations for improvements. The ALU also prevents executives from abruptly firing an employee, similar to what smalls experienced.
Hiring someone that is experienced with ethical behavior or experienced in business ethics is critical to Amazon flourishing after the ALU movement. The person hired could use their knowledge and determine if tasks are unethical or how to improve these processes for employees. Hiring a production manager / analyst would allow them to make recommendations based on what they observe. They can also be critical in determining if a task should be substituted with a robot, this would prevent employees from doing monotonous or physically demanding tasks.
To promote having union workers in fulfillment centers, Amazon can advertise on boxes saying “This package was packed by union workers”. They can also create advertisements saying that they agree to increase the number of union workers or unionize a majority of fulfillment centers by 2028. To create a better relationship between the executives and employees they should also allow for employees to freely express their ideas and or protest whenever an agreement cannot be reached.
Moving forward they will need to add upon their existing values to incorporate the ideas of their employees. Also new and current employees should not be threatened or forced to do things outside of their union agreement. Adhering to the union agreement established between the ALU and executives will promote greater business profits and productivity for the company. In turn more people will want to shop at Amazon as they agree with the idea of unionization and feel that employees are treated fairly. This plan conforms to the original mission statement because the company will still be producing great products that many people can enjoy, without violating the ethics and values of their employees.
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