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Amazon avoids a union in Alabama, but scrutiny over labor practices is here to stay

Regulators and the public remain focused on working conditions at Amazon, whether or not any more warehouses try to organize.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
Expertise E-commerce | Amazon | Earned wage access | Online marketplaces | Direct to consumer | Unions | Labor and employment | Supply chain | Cybersecurity | Privacy | Stalkerware | Hacking Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
6 min read
Bernie Sanders speaks at an outdoor rally supporting the Amazon union effort in Bessemer, Alabama.

Bernie Sanders is among the politicians supporting Amazon workers who want to unionize. The union's objection to the Bessemer election could keep the issue in the public eye and energize efforts at other facilities.

Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images

Amazon prevailed Friday in its fight against labor organizing at its Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse, with workers rejecting the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union by a ratio of 2-to-1. The union's definitive loss could be the end of the road for its effort in Bessemer, but the labor fight at Amazon may just be getting started.

The union, which said immediately it would object to the election, argues that Amazon improperly swayed the vote, and it may yet win the chance to redo the election. Whether or not it does, the effort garnered the backing of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and words of support from President Joe Biden, becoming a national story that could catalyze future attempts elsewhere -- especially as reports about the working conditions continue to spill out. 

Meanwhile, Amazon is trying to position itself as a leader on labor issues and directing the conversation away from unions. In a statement Friday, the company emphasized its advocacy for a $15 federal minimum wage for the "40 million Americans who make less than the starting wage at Amazon, and many more who don't get health care through their employers." 

Even if no warehouse workers try to organize in the near future, the scrutiny on working conditions at Amazon is likely to get even more intense. The National Labor Relations Board is reportedly considering investigating the company for a possible pattern of unfair labor practices, after receiving 37 complaints of retaliation from Amazon workers who say they were fired or disciplined for organizing walkouts or complaining about working conditions. And Amazon's thousands of workers, called essential during the coronavirus pandemic as they processed orders while risking infection, will likely continue calling attention to conditions they say leave them exhausted, at risk of injury and in fear of losing their jobs.

"People are not going to give up," said Kirthi Kanyalam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University. "They are too big an employer."

A union determined to keep going

It's uncommon for a union to object to a lost election when workers have voted it down by such a wide margin, said Andrew MacDonald, a labor attorney who represents employers but who wasn't involved in the Bessemer election. There's a high cost to running an organizing drive, and a big loss can send a signal that the union has lost worker support. 

But the RWDSU announced its intention to object before the NLRB publicly released its final tally.

"That says to me that they feel strongly," MacDonald said. "It's not over yet."

If the fight keeps going, it could help maintain the union's momentum in organizing efforts elsewhere in the country. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said Friday that the union is already talking about unionizing with workers at other Amazon warehouses. Additionally, the giant union federation AFL-CIO is working with the RWDSU on its unionizing efforts, adding heft and resources to the tiny union's endeavors. Separately, Teamsters organizers are reportedly talking with workers at two Iowa Amazon warehouses about a potential union drive. 

In its fight to redo the Bessemer election, the RWDSU takes issue with Amazon's anti-union tactics, including mandatory employee training sessions that argued against unions and that the RWDSU says were filled with falsehoods. It also criticizes Amazon for pressing the US Postal Service to install a mailbox at the Bessemer warehouse after the NLRB ordered Amazon not to host a drop box for ballots. 

Read more: Amazon union defeated, pushes for election redo: What you need to know

The union argues that the mailbox, which was a metal cabinet with mail slots leading to locked drawers, and not a clearly marked blue Post Office mailbox, could've given employees the false impression that Amazon was involved in collecting and counting votes. Amazon says only the post office had access to the mailbox. 

Additionally, the city of Bessemer reportedly agreed to a request from Amazon to change the length of the red light at a traffic light near the Bessemer facility. The result was that workers driving away from their shifts wouldn't wait as long at an intersection where union advocates were waiting to talk with them about organizing. Amazon says the change was to address traffic created by almost 2,000 people leaving the facility at shift changes. "It's normal to work with local officials to assess traffic patterns and adjust as needed to reduce impact on neighboring communities," a spokesperson said in a statement.

These techniques could give organizers at other warehouses an idea of what they'll be up against. One constant that can lead workers to reject unions is the fear of layoffs and facility closures, said Rebecca Kolins Givan, a professor of management and labor relations at Rutgers. 

That's especially the case in places like Alabama, where Amazon warehouse workers earn almost twice as much as the state's minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The Bessemer facility brought thousands of jobs with pay higher than $15 an hour to the region. Workers' fear of losing that could make it hard for the union to make its case a second time, and it could also derail other union drives.

The future of labor relations at Amazon

Even if union drives fizzle out, Amazon will still have to face the NLRB and public opinion on its treatment of workers.

Based on 37 complaints from Amazon employees that the company fired or disciplined them in retaliation for organizing walkouts or complaining about working conditions, the NLRB is reportedly considering launching an investigation into Amazon's general practices. Amazon has settled some of the individual cases while saying the company disagrees with the claims. If the NLRB finds Amazon has a pattern of violating labor laws, it could hit the company with fines, however small they may be in proportion to Amazon's 2020 profits of $21.3 billion.

Additionally, the union drive and media attention have put pressure on Amazon to improve working conditions, said Michael Pachter, a financial analyst who follows Amazon for investment firm Wedbush. He added that Amazon would do well to address the complaints workers have made about breaks and job security -- and not simply rely on its wages and benefits as proof that it's doing the right thing.

"It's in everybody's best interest that the company treats the employees right," Pachter said. "If they can do so without a union, that's better for shareholders."

The challenge for Amazon is balancing competing needs: to treat workers well and to maintain control over its warehouse operations, which power the company's promise of two-day delivery. While no company wants to be unionized, Amazon's leadership especially prizes the company's ability to innovate, retail management expert Kalyanam said. 

That shows in the company's history of developing technology to improve its own operations, and then use tech to build a whole new business. The most striking example is Amazon Web Services, the cloud business that currently brings in the majority of Amazon's revenue. Innovations in robotics and automation at Amazon warehouses could potentially create the next big revenue generator.

The company wants to avoid labor negotiations slowing down that process, Kalyanam said, adding that "They would consider that an existential threat."

Amazon seems less concerned about having to pay its workers a bit more. As Amazon pushes for a higher federal minimum wage, it could drive up its own labor costs. If its competitors pay $15 an hour, the company could find itself paying even more to attract workers to its facilities. This likely doesn't worry Amazon, though, said Rutgers labor expert Rivans.

"That just demonstrates that this is not about the money," she said, "This is about control."