The failed unionization push of Amazon workers at a warehouse in Alabama is highlighting some of the challenges facing organized labor in the U.S.
A vote by workers in Bessemer on whether to unionize failed on Friday by a more than 2-to-1 margin in a major win for the world’s largest online retailer and a blow to organized labor.
Union leaders had hoped the campaign just outside Birmingham would spark a new era of worker activism, but instead it has illustrated the continued challenges facing the labor movement.
Insiders say Amazon’s fierce resistance to unionization, skepticism among younger workers that organizing could get them a better deal, and the way the vote was run all contributed to the apparently lopsided defeat.
A vote by Amazon workers in Bessemer on whether to unionize failed on Friday by a more than 2-to-1 margin, highlighting some of the challenges facing organized labor in the US
Pro-union organizers told the workforce that a union could get more from the company controlled by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos
In Friday’s vote, a National Labor Relations Board representatives counted 1,798 voting against forming a union, with 738 ballots in favor. A simple majority was needed for victory.
The union plans to object to the results based on Amazon’s conduct during the election.
Officials at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) argued that Amazon’s unfair tactics were to blame for the defeat in an election where only 55% percent of voters cast ballots.
In a statement, the RWDSU said, ‘The results of the election should be set aside because conduct by the employer created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice.’
Amazon referred an inquiry from DailyMail.com to a company blog post, which read in part: ‘It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true.
‘Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union,’ the company said.
Appealing to concerns that Amazon was monitoring their every move and associating themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement, pro-union organizers told the largely black workforce that a union could get more from the company controlled by the world’s richest man.
Prominent left-wing politicians such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who helped block a massive Amazon expansion in New York City, voiced their support for the union push in Bessemer.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who helped block a massive Amazon expansion in New York City, voiced her support for the union push in Bessemer
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell speaks to media at the entrance to Amazon facility as she arrives as a member of a congressional delegation to show her support for workers in the union vote
Amazon responded with an intense weekslong anti-union campaign, plastering the warehouse and even a bathroom stall with anti-union notices, stopping work for mandatory employee meetings on the election, and bombarding workers with text alerts criticizing the RWDSU.
In one of the alerts seen by Reuters, warehouse leadership warned staff that collective bargaining could result in workers losing benefits – something the union has disputed. ‘Everything is on the table,’ the text declared.
In one of the mandatory meetings, presentations included assertions that union leaders used membership dues for improper purposes such as buying expensive cars and taking vacations, a former employee at the company’s Bessemer fulfillment center told Reuters. The union did not immediately comment on the claim.
But some warehouse workers involved in the Bessemer battle pointed to other shortcomings in the union drive.
Many younger workers, lacking experience with unions and knowledge of labor history, were never persuaded of the benefits of organizing, these people said.
Some cited Amazon’s above-average wages, and better working conditions overall than other local employers.
Amazon offers at least $15.30 an hour, more than twice the federal minimum wage, which applies in Alabama.
Many younger workers, lacking experience with unions and knowledge of labor history, were never persuaded of the benefits of organizing and helped tip the vote in Amazon’s favor
‘Amazon is not perfect, there are flaws, but we are committed to correcting those flaws and management has been, thus far, on board with us,’ William Stokes, an Amazon worker at the Bessemer warehouse, said at a panel organized by the company. He voted ‘no’ to the union.
Denean Plott, 56, who picked customer orders at the warehouse until March and voted for the union, said, ‘It is a good paying job. They do have wonderful benefits.’
And young employees ‘don’t feel they need a union because they’re not putting health and safety at risk as much,’ he said.
Some workers cited fear that voting for a union would mean a constant battle with management they would rather do without.
A group of dock employees who do heavy lifting at the warehouse were against the unionization effort and appreciated Amazon’s current benefits, which include receiving health insurance upon hiring, according to one of the former fulfillment center employees.
These dock workers also held skeptical views of unions generally, associating them with corruption, the former employee said.
The setup of Amazon’s warehouse itself may have also tipped the vote in the retailer’s favor. The size of several football fields, the warehouse was not a space for social gathering, let alone union organizing discussion.
The setup of Amazon’s warehouse itself may have also tipped the vote in the retailer’s favor, with the huge space unfavorable to social gatherings and organizing
The buzz of machines obscured people’s voices, workers’ desks were spread out, social-distancing became the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic, and cell phones on the clock were not allowed, current and former workers told Reuters.
Plott, one of the former Amazon workers, said, ‘You might be in that area for hours and not see a soul.’
Union leaders had hoped the election outside Birmingham would spark a new era of worker activism, at a time when only 6.3 percent of private sector workers belonged to unions in 2020, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics. Private sector union membership declined by 428,000 in 2020 from the year before.
High-profile union organizing drives have failed at factories in the South run by car companies Nissan and Volkswagen, as well as aircraft maker Boeing.
In each of those cases, as at Amazon, union leaders bet that workers unhappy with wages and working conditions would jump at the chance to have a union go toe-to-toe with management. In each case, the unions were wrong.
The retail workers’ union struggled in Bessemer with some of the same challenges that carmakers previously hurled at the auto workers’ union, known as the UAW.
Car company officials made much of the conviction of several UAW leaders on charges of embezzling union funds, for instance.
Other union decisions may have backfired. In December, Amazon lawyers filed lengthy exhibits with regulators delineating thousands of additional individual employees at the Bessemer warehouse they said should be allowed to vote in the election, beyond the 1,500 the union originally proposed. After some back and forth, the union accepted sending ballots to more than 5,800 workers.
Companies often try to pack such proposed bargaining units with additional workers to dilute union support, making it harder to achieve the majority needed to win an election, according to labor experts including former U.S. National Labor Relations Board members.
Union supporters hold signs before the vote in Alabama. Other attempts to unionize workers at car and airplane factories in the south have also failed
The union has disputed that it was hurt by the bargaining unit’s expansion, saying it expected that.
Harry Johnson, a Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP partner representing Amazon, said Amazon simply wanted ‘to make sure that everybody essentially doing the same job at the fulfillment center would have a chance to vote.’
He added that, generally, additional voters can include temporary workers not necessarily more inclined to side with the company.
The union’s push for a mail-in vote, rather than the socially distanced in-person voting that Amazon proposed, was successful.
But the NLRB had set a March 29 deadline for submitting ballots, several weeks after they were mailed. That gave Amazon nearly two additional months to bombard workers with text messages and other communications urging them to vote against unionization.
‘Time is the weapon employers use to defeat the union,’ said Mark Pearce, a Democratic NLRB chair during the Obama administration.
Concerns about U.S. Postal Service operations, prominent leading up to the November 2020 U.S. presidential election, likely contributed to allowing several weeks between mailing ballots and the deadline for returning them, Pearce said.
Regardless, the additional time likely conferred some benefit to Amazon, he added.
The union also had the extra time, and garnered support from U.S. lawmakers and President Joe Biden as the vote drew closer. Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and rapper Killer Mike held rallies in Bessemer supporting the union drive.
Pro-union politicians and activists argued the power imbalance between the workers and the company was just too much to overcome.
‘The pressure a company like Amazon builds up against you can feel like a 1,000 lb weight on your chest,’ Congressman Andy Levin, a pro-labor Democrat from Michigan, wrote on Twitter.
‘The company´s goal is to create so much pressure, anxiety and fear -and to make workers feel that pressure will never go away as long as the union is around.’