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Amazon's union vote: What's at stake in the Alabama warehouse election

Nearly 6,000 Bessemer workers could kick off a movement that takes Amazon's reputation for reliable delivery out of its control.

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Aerial view of the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama

The warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where a union vote will be tallied this week. Historically, the region had strong steel and coal unions, but industry died out in the late 20th century. 

Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the first time in seven years, Amazon warehouse workers are deciding whether to unionize, which could give them more say in their hours, pay and working conditions. Union drives rarely make it to a vote in Amazon warehouses, and those that have, failed. Now employees in Alabama have the opportunity to break this pattern and become the first unionized Amazon warehouse workers in the US.

The 5,800 workers in Bessemer, a small industrial city outside of Birmingham, have been casting ballots in a union election for more than a month. The potentially historic outcome is being tallied now. If it succeeds, it could kick off more Amazon warehouse unionization efforts around the country.

Whether or not the workers certify the union, the vote itself is remarkable. Union advocates have long told stories of intense anti-union pressure from Amazon that snuffed out unionizing efforts before a vote, as well as interrogations of workers who protested working conditions. Additionally, the vote is taking place in the South, a region historically viewed as anti-union and a haven for corporations trying to avoid cooperation among their workers. 

The vote also brings the story of warehouse workers to the fore as the coronavirus pandemic rages. Amazon's warehouse employees, deemed essential workers, have made sure customers have toilet paper and other necessary items while working from home -- a luxury the warehouse workers themselves don't have. Instead, workers have faced possible COVID-19 infection and long hours fulfilling online orders. In the meantime, Amazon made hefty profits in 2020, which ended with the company growing its net sales 44% over the previous year, bringing in $125.6 billion in the fourth quarter.

Amazon workers protest working conditions

On March 30, 2020, Amazon warehouse workers held a protest and walkout over conditions at the company's Staten Island distribution facility, where a number of employees had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The online retail giant has long opposed unionization. A union would give employees rights to strike and conduct work-stoppages, which could make it harder for Amazon to make good on its reputation of fast, reliable delivery. One unionized warehouse likely wouldn't disrupt the whole system, but if the organizing drive inspires more union efforts, the company will be in trouble, said Michael Pachter, a financial analyst at Wedbush. 

While Amazon also wants to look like a good-guy company that already treats its workers right, he added, "It's far more important that nothing disrupts two-day delivery."

Amazon argues that workers don't want a union. "Our employees know the truth -- starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement Monday. "We encouraged all of our employees to vote and hope they did so."

Amazon has tried to steer the conversation about working conditions at its warehouses by using newspaper ads to push for a federal $15-an-hour minimum wage to match its own starting wage and by using public statements and conversations with reporters to highlight its benefits and tuition reimbursement programs. These are the benefits Amazon believes make a union unnecessary for its workers. At the start of the pandemic, it also temporarily increased worker wages by $2 per hour from their base pay -- a short-lived policy that many workers want to return.  

Union advocates point to a different picture of warehouse work. Amazon has a uniquely high turnover in an industry that already churns through workers, according to the Seattle Times. Counting all Amazon and Whole Foods employees, the company had to refill positions at a rate of more than 96% between March and mid-September in 2020. 

Its warehouse employees report that the job involves intense physical exhaustion and the risk of injury, coupled with Amazon tracking their every move. (That applies to delivery drivers too, who recently were required to consent to monitoring from AI-powered cameras in their vans.) Added to that is unpredictable scheduling and mandatory overtime. 

The union advocates aim their efforts at these issues, arguing that union representation would give workers better job security and help them advocate for adequate rest and better safety measures. Workers who've spoken publicly against unionizing say they don't want a third party involved in making decisions or getting between them and their managers. Bloomberg reported in February that opinions in the warehouse are divided.

Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee in March, Bessemer warehouse worker Jennifer Bates said the company seems "to think you are another machine."

Amazon's first US union could form in the South

The Bessemer warehouse workers are deciding whether to form a bargaining unit represented by RWDSU, which also speaks for workers at meat packing plants, cereal factories and department stores. The union would negotiate contracts with Amazon on the workers' behalf and oversee a grievance process when workers want to dispute discipline against them. 

The union would only include the 5,800 workers at the Bessemer warehouse, and none would be required to join or pay dues if the vote certifies the union. If people opt not to join, they still benefit from higher-pay negotiations or the grievance system, but they wouldn't be able to vote on contracts or participate in union activities like choosing politicians to endorse or running for office within the union. 

While Alabama, and Bessemer in particular, historically had strong steel and coal mining unions, organized labor generally lost its hold on the South after World War II. The fact that the largest unionizing effort at a US Amazon facility is in the South is "fascinating," said Erik Gellman, a labor historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

In 1946, the Congress of Industrial Organizations made an ill-fated effort in Operation Dixie to organize southern workers, focusing on textile factories and other industrial worksites. Its failure is attributed to the union's inability to bring white and Black workers together, pressures created by Jim Crow segregation and a lack of regional understanding from northern organizers, Gellman said. Afterward, several southern states passed laws that made union organizing much harder in the South. 

Large corporations have used those difficulties to their advantage. Some have moved their workforces to the South -- or at least threatened to do so -- to weaken unionization efforts at facilities in union-friendly states. Boeing, for example, began moving its plane assembly operations to South Carolina in 2009. By 2013, Boeing had access to non-union labor in the South and offered its unionized Washington workers a take-it-or-leave-it contract that cut wages and pension contributions. 

Still, not everyone agrees with characterizations of Alabama as an anti-union state. Erica Iheme, a community organizer who grew up in nearby Birmingham, is part of a coalition of local organizations supporting the Amazon workers' union drive called Alabama for Community Benefits. The state has 8.7% union density, making it the most unionized southern state other than Kentucky (based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' definition of the South), where 9.4% of the workforce was represented by a union in 2020.

From her childhood, Iheme remembers when her school bus passed a unionized steel plant. "Alabama is a union state," she said. "I remember seeing the steel workers picketing that plant growing up." 

Bessemer, which is named after a steel processing method created by Englishman Henry Bessemer, is full of people whose grandparents were in unions, Iheme said, adding that the Amazon vote could revive that trend. "That's going to open the door for so many other workers across Alabama to think, 'That could happen to us.'"

But it's not just Alabama or the South at stake. Amazon's business strategy requires it to have warehouses in every state, and a success in the South could mean unionization is possible anywhere, especially regions with labor-friendly laws. 

Employers will always use the threat of closing down a facility to stop union efforts, but Amazon doesn't appear poised to leave the Birmingham area, said George Davies, a labor lawyer who serves as lead counsel for the RWDSU effort in Bessemer. Amazon is slated to build another facility at the site of a shuttered mall in Birmingham.

Other protest and union efforts have failed and led to firings

Amazon isn't treating the organizing drive as an idle threat. Bessemer employees and RWDSU representatives have said that Amazon put anti-union messages in the warehouse's bathroom stalls, held mandatory anti-union trainings, sent anti-union messages through corporate apps and brought in corporate employees for one-on-one meetings to gauge their levels of union support. (Union organizers have called workers to persuade them to vote yes and stationed activists outside the Bessemer warehouse to send a pro-union message.)

The actions echo Amazon's previously reported approaches to employee organizing. The last union vote at an Amazon warehouse took place in 2014. A small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at a Delaware warehouse voted overwhelmingly not to certify the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers as their union. Amazon said the vote made it clear the employees "want a direct connection with Amazon," but the union blamed Amazon's anti-union pressure for the outcome.

amazon-prime-now-manhattan-06.jpg

An Amazon Prime warehouse in Manhattan, back in 2015.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Shortly after, a machinist in a Virginia warehouse led a union drive in 2014 and 2015 and told The New York Times that he faced intense anti-union pressure from Amazon as a result. After a National Labor Relations Board investigation, Amazon agreed to post a notice saying it wouldn't retaliate against employees who tried to organize a union and to rescind a warning to the machinist that he was on the verge of being fired, according to the Times. The machinist, Bill Hough Jr., was fired later that year.

The pandemic has ignited further protests over working conditions, especially the company's COVID safety measures in March and April of 2020, when some employees said there weren't sufficient masks. That's when a small group of Staten Island warehouse workers walked out in protest after a co-worker tested positive for COVID-19. 

Christian Smalls, one of the protest organizers who was exposed to a colleague with COVID-19, was subsequently fired for attending the protest at Amazon's facility. Amazon later came under fire when a leaked memo showed that the company's top legal executive David Zapolsky called Smalls, who is Black, "not smart or articulate."

Last week, Vice reported that a worker who organized a March 2020 protest over COVID protections at a Queens, New York, warehouse was questioned for 90 minutes and disciplined for his role in planning the walkout, in seeming violation of US labor laws. Amazon confirmed a settlement with the NLRB over the incident and said it didn't agree with the details of the complaint.

Exhausted warehouse workers 

Amid the union drives and worker walkouts, Amazon warehouse employees have expressed a desire to slow down at work, for safety and to keep their bodies from breaking down. Working at an Amazon warehouse is like "a nine-hour intense workout every day," Bates, the Bessemer warehouse worker, told federal lawmakers in March. Bates said she wants workers to get enough rest to recover from repetitive movements and extended physical exertion. 

Amazon said it appreciated the feedback from Bates but that it didn't think her views reflected those of most warehouse workers. The company added that 90% of her fulfillment center colleagues "say they'd recommend Amazon as a great place to work to friends and family." Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox emphasized that employees receive two 30-minute breaks per 10-hour shift, as well as paid breaks to go to the bathroom or get a snack.

Iheme, the community organizer, said Amazon workers deserve to have enough energy to function outside of work. If warehouse employees aren't "exhausted when they get off work," or running off to a second job to make ends meet, they can be better parents. They might also get involved in the community and even take vacations to other parts of the state, she added, all of which would be good for Bessemer and the state's economy.

"When you have that time to invest in your home," she said, "you have that time to invest in your community."

Correction, Friday, Mar. 9: This story has been updated with Erica Iheme's correct hometown.