Supply Chain Matters provides a follow-up to a series of ongoing commentaries regarding labor union organizing efforts occurring across Amazon’s global distribution and online fulfillment centers. Throughout 2013, we highlighted multiple disruptions by a German labor union protesting Amazon’s labor classifications and wage rates across Germany.

Last week, the first-ever union election has held among technical workers at an Amazon warehouse in Middletown Delaware. This select group of workers voted 21-6 against joining the Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), the same labor union representing portions of Boeing’s technical workforce in the U.S. northwest.

A posting appearing on CNN Money-Fortune concludes that union elections have grown outdated because employers have developed more sophisticated anti-labor tactics making it far tougher for labor unions to solicit and hold elections. Unions have instead turned to large-scale campaigns or public protests grounded in business and social-media to gain public recognition to below-market wages or sub-standard working conditions. This strategy relies more on workers voluntarily signing union authorization cards rather than holding an election among all workers. A labor education research academic at Cornell University is quoted: “To take on a multinational corporation, you have to have multinational strategies.

This is certainly what has been transpiring a both Amazon and Wal-Mart, which have both experienced disruptions and protests timed for the most critical operational periods such as the holiday buying surge.  Various Wal-Mart stores were targeted for labor protests on Black Friday and before the Christmas holiday. Just last week it was reported that the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is currently reviewing accusations that protesting Wal-Mart workers were terminated because of their protest actions.

Supply chain executives are certainly attuned to organized labor strategies and tactics, especially within industry environments such as retail where seasonally driven operational volumes cause high fluctuation in labor and resource needs. In the case of Amazon, Wal-Mart and others, thousands of temporary workers are brought on during these periods. The core workforce however has to be able to operate across the entire year and under all forms of customer demand and environmental conditions.

The takeaway is that labor unions are going to continue to target high visibility global firms such as Amazon that operate within high stress, dynamic environments. Supply chain operations and fulfillment is especially targeted since that is the area more often called upon to respond to many of the fluctuating needs of business. Of late, many supply chain operational and customer fulfillment organizations have come to rely on more temporary labor practices as a means to insure responsiveness while reducing overall direct labor costs. Often, fulfillment is outsourced to third-party logistics providers.  However, there is, by our view, a fine line where the existence of acceptable operating conditions such as air conditioning or heating in warehouses, along with providing a responsible wage are becoming blurred of-late.

Supply chain leaders need to focus beyond the corporate mantra of defeating union organizing actions and more toward assuring acceptable workforce and operating practices. The ageless principle that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of the business will always ring true.

Bob Ferrari