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Amazon warehouse workers vote not to unionize in Bessemer, Alabama

Nearly 1,800 employees said no to forming the company's first union. Less than half that number said yes.
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BESSEMER, Ala. — Amazon warehouse workers here voted overwhelmingly against forming a union Friday after a monthslong campaign in which labor had hoped to make inroads into the sprawling company.

As of Friday morning, 1,798 employees voted against unionizing, compared to 738 in favor.

If it had been approved, the union would have been the first in the United States for Amazon, the country's second-largest employer.

Even as the vote was being completed, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, the union seeking to represent the 5,800 workers in Bessemer, said it would challenge the vote by filing unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. It will allege that Amazon broke the law with some of its anti-union activity in the run-up to the election.

“We demand a comprehensive investigation over Amazon's behavior in corrupting this election," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU. “Working people deserve better than the way Amazon has conducted itself during this campaign. This campaign has proven that the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is to join together in a union. However, Amazon’s behavior during the election cannot be ignored and our union will seek remedy to each and every improper action Amazon took. We won’t rest until workers' voices are heard fairly under the law."

Amazon disputed these charges in a blog post after the vote concluded. "It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true," the post read. "Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us."

After the seven-week window to vote by mail ended March 29, the NLRB spent two weeks checking the eligibility of ballots and counting them in a process observed by the union and Amazon. Out of 5,876 eligible voters, 3,041 ballots were cast, but 505 were set aside as contested, mostly by Amazon, according to the union. Ballots can be contested by Amazon or the union based on factors like illegible signatures or questions about whether employees' job titles entitle them to vote. Those ballots are counted only if the final margin is small enough.

Few surprises

Labor experts said the results are not a surprise, given the resources Amazon has invested in countering organizing.

"It's so hard for workers to win in a situation like this," said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of management and labor relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "The most likely outcome in these situations is that the employer successfully busts the union by instilling fear and uncertainty into the workers, and even those workers that were initially in favor of organizing into a union get afraid and change their mind."

The Bessemer warehouse, which opened in March 2020, is Amazon's first fulfillment center in Alabama. Workers started organizing toward a union vote in August, hoping it would help improve their working conditions. Currently, it is difficult to go to the bathroom without being penalized, said Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker in Bessemer, who said she was inspired to support the union effort after regularly having seen her colleagues walk out of work limping from the physical toll the job takes.

At the start of this year, Amazon launched what labor experts characterized as a classic, well-funded anti-union campaign at the warehouse.

Workers said they were required to attend multiple meetings during their shifts, in which Amazon representatives explained why a union was not, in their view, beneficial for workers. Posters all over the warehouse, some of them in bathroom stalls, encouraged workers to vote no. The company also distributed buttons and stickers for employees to wear, and it created a website and a hashtag, #DoItWithoutDues, highlighting how workers might have to pay $500 in annual dues to the union.

Amazon has a long history of thwarting unionization. In 1999, the Communication Workers of America started a campaign to unionize 400 customer service employees in Seattle. After months of anti-union campaigning, Amazon closed down the call center in 2000 in what the company said was a restructuring related to the dot-com bust.

In 2014, 21 equipment technicians at an Amazon warehouse in Delaware voted against organizing with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers following what the union spokesman described as "intense pressure from managers and anti-union consultants."

Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako told Time magazine at the time that the "no" vote against third-party representation showed that employees "prefer a direct connection with Amazon."

Organizing fallout

Workers in Bessemer who opposed the union seemed to question its purpose.

LaVonette Stokes, who works as a labor organizer for the Alabama teachers union when she's not working at Amazon, and her husband are have positions as mid-level process guides that earn $15 to $19 an hour. But she said that a union for unskilled labor in Bessemer makes no sense and that it would move too slowly. She and her husband spent $2,400 of their own money to print flyers that detailed Amazon's benefits.

"We're talking about a union that has made contracts where, yes, they got a raise, but it took them about five to seven years before they even got to that raise," she said.

Her husband, William, said: "We're not against unions. We're against this particular union, and we're against a union at this particular facility. Everything that this union is offering, we can do ourselves."

Workers in favor of the union said they had hoped it would help improve their working conditions, providing better job security and benefits when Amazon is reporting record profits in part because of a pandemic-induced boom in online retail.

"I like my job. I give it 110 percent every day I go in there, regardless how hard it is, how stressful it is," said Darryl Richardson, a worker at the Bessemer warehouse. "But I feel like employees deserve better and more for what they do."

Richardson said he and other pro-union workers expect to be fired or forced to quit their jobs.

"I have to move on, and I hate it," he said. "It's sad that you do everything you can to try to make things better for the people and you feel like you are going to lose your job."

Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, said in an email, "We respect all our employees' right to join, form, or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of reprisal, intimidation, or harassment."

Amazon spokesperson Leah Seay said that in Bessemer receive health care coverage and hourly pay of at least $15.30, which is well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Alabama has no minimum wage law.

Employees also get a retirement plan, Seay said.

Broader impact

Despite the ultimate vote against unionizing, the drive attracted global attention to conditions for Amazon's warehouse workers and the lengths the company goes to prevent them from organizing, said Givan, the Rutgers professor.

"Workers around the country who have been watching what's happening will be potentially inspired by what can happen if you do take action and get national attention," she said.

It also drew attention from other unions. Following the results, Randy Korgan, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters National Director for Amazon praised workers' attempts to unionize.

“Despite going up against one of the world’s richest men in a country with weak labor laws, the workers in Bessemer brought national attention to issues that many non-union workers face in this industry," said Korgan. "This fight is not over, and the Teamsters will always support workers who want to build power by standing together and demanding dignity, a safe workplace, and a fair return on their work.”

Analysts said efforts to unionize at other Amazon warehouses in the U.S. are likely to continue, particularly in higher-cost states like New York and California. RWDSU spokesperson Chelsea Connor said the union received over a thousand inquiries about organizing from Amazon workers at other facilities since the organizing effort began.

"Amazon is already about the best-paying job a non-skilled laborer can get in Alabama," said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities. "But in higher-costs states, it's barely a living wage.

"It will cut into profits," he said. "But it's a humane thing to do."

Ezra Kaplan reported from Bessemer, Alabama, and Olivia Solon from San Francisco.