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

Here's how a major union vote went at Amazon, what unionizing could mean for customers, and what was up with that Twitter rant.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
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
8 min read
Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, with a "vote" banner hanging on the side of the building

The warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where 5,800 workers had the opportunity to vote on whether to certify a union. If a large number of Amazon warehouses were to organize, the company's costs for providing two-day delivery could go up, but it likely wouldn't affect customers.

Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images

Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union are responding to the results of a major union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. The National Labor Relations Board finished tallying the votes Friday, after the count on Thursday showed that votes against the union had a major lead, which started early and never wavered. The vote rejects the creation of the first US Amazon union. 

The election took place against a backdrop of increased scrutiny of the company's labor practices during the coronavirus pandemic, with employees publicly pushing back against Amazon's policies. Though union drives have been quashed for years at the powerhouse e-tailer, the past 12 months saw an uptick in worker activism. As employees risked exposure to a frightening new disease, some protested COVID-19 safety measures at Amazon facilities and complained that Amazon was firing workers who organized walkouts

Labor regulators have backed up some of these allegations by finding merit in complaints that the layoffs were retaliatory. As the Bessemer union drive moved toward an election, Amazon required workers to attend anti-union training, sent messages to their phones and posted anti-union signs in facilities.

Amazon, however, says it's been on the level. "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. "We encouraged all of our employees to vote, and their voices will be heard."

The bitter side of this fight spilled onto Twitter in late March when an Amazon executive derided Bernie Sanders in a series of tweets, claiming that Amazon is more progressive than the independent Vermont senator, who's spent his career championing workers' rights and income equality. Further tweets from the official Amazon News account raised eyebrows for denying reports that workers have to pee in bottles to keep up with demanding schedules, and for goading Sen. Elizabeth Warren for failing to pass stricter tax regulations. (The tweets led to an apology from Amazon.)

Read more: Amazon apologizes, says that for its drivers, 'peeing in bottles thing' is actually a thing

Behind the acrimony is Amazon's desire for control over its warehouse operations, which power the company's reliable, fast delivery. "That creates a lot of loyalty towards Amazon," said GlobalData retail analyst Neil Saunders. 

One union isn't going to cause significant changes, but broad unionization and less control over the warehouse workforce could threaten the massive profits Amazon has turned in recent years. That's because an organized workforce could increase the cost of maintaining the company's speed and dependability, Saunders said.

Here's what's going on with Amazon's labor woes, what its essential workers want, and how worker efforts might (or might not) affect customers:

What's at stake with the union vote?

About 3,200 workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, cast their ballots in an election to certify the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to negotiate on their behalf. It's the largest group of Amazon workers to vote on the question of unionizing, and the first to vote on the question since 2014.

Amazon has fought the union effort, reportedly hiring an anti-union consultant at a high price, in addition to using a number of opportunities to dissuade its workers from voting in favor of organizing. 

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

Pro-union workers have said they want better, clearer break policies and improved job security. Though the company offers a 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks during the workers' 10-hour shifts, workers say they're exhausted. They move constantly during their shifts, with some walking upward of 10 miles every day, and taking extra bathroom breaks puts them further and further behind on the company's demands to fulfill orders. Firings also seem arbitrary, some of these workers say.

Amazon and some of its anti-union employees say they don't want a third party getting between managers and workers. The company argues it already offers a good wage and generous health, retirement and tuition benefits. A union could give workers a say in the structure of shifts, the handling of safety complaints, and the way both promotions and discipline are meted out.

Is this the end of the union effort?

Amazon appears to be the clear winner. There are 505 challenged ballots that could change the tally, but that isn't enough votes to change the outcome. The union has declared its intention to object to the election in a formal NLRB process based on allegations that Amazon improperly swayed the election. The NLRB will likely litigate the claims in a process that could take weeks, which will delay official certification of the result. If the NLRB rules in the union's favor, it can order a redo of the election.

The RWDSU is likely to base its objection in part on a private mailbox installed by the US Postal Service at the Bessemer warehouse. The NLRB previously ruled that Amazon couldn't host a ballot drop box on its grounds. According to emails obtained by the RWDSU, Amazon pressed the USPS to install the mailbox before the election began. The mailbox is a metal cabinet with several locked drawers that looks like a mailbox seen in an apartment building, rather than a big blue mail box clearly associated with the USPS. According to a Washington Post report on the matter, Amazon is the USPS' biggest corporate client.

The union argues that the mailbox could've confused workers into thinking Amazon was involved in the collection or counting of the votes, which could in turn have made them less inclined to vote for the union. Amazon says it didn't have access to the mailbox and that the company wanted it installed to make sure as many employees as possible voted.

"The RWDSU ... pushed for a mail-only election, which the NLRB's own data showed would reduce turnout," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. "This mailbox -- which only the USPS had access to -- was a simple, secure, and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less."

What are the retaliation allegations against Amazon?

The National Labor Relations Board has investigated multiple complaints from former Amazon employees saying the company intimidated or fired them for organizing walkouts or other protests. Jonathan Bailey, for example, alleged he was interrogated for 90 minutes for his role in organizing a walkout at a Queens, New York, warehouse early in the pandemic, and then written up for harassment.


Gerald Bryson lost his job at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse after he got in a verbal altercation with another employee at a protest he helped organize.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The NLRB reportedly found merit in his complaint, and Amazon settled the case in March, agreeing to post notices in the facility reminding workers of their right to organize and work together to improve working conditions. Another worker, Gerald Bryson in Staten Island, complained to the NLRB, saying he was fired for his role in organizing a protest about pandemic safety measures (Bryson swore at a co-worker who opposed the protest during a reportedly heated argument). 

NBC reported that Amazon faced 37 retaliation complaints to the NLRB since February 2020, a significant increase over the previous two years. 

The complaints weren't limited to warehouse workers. Two corporate Amazon employees who organized a walkout to protest the company's approach to climate change and its treatment of warehouse employees complained they were fired for legally protected activities. The NLRB agreed the claim had merit and told the employees, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, that it would pursue the claim if Amazon didn't settle with them. The case is pending.

Why doesn't Amazon want a unionized workforce?

Amazon's retail service thrives on getting purchases to customers on time or early. The company's "customer obsessed" ethos makes dependable delivery an essential part of its business model. Unions would take away some of Amazon's control over this process and could disrupt speedy delivery if enough warehouses organized.

That's not to say Amazon won't be able to keep its two-day delivery if the warehouse in Bessemer organizes and then inspires a wave of unionization. It'll simply cost more for Amazon to keep the service alive, and that will eat at the company's vast profits. The company generated $21.3 billion in net profit in 2020, a 79% increase from the previous year.

What does this mean for you?

Unless you work at Amazon, it might not mean much. If a large number of warehouses were to unionize, Amazon would likely have to pay more to ensure two-day delivery, potentially by hiring more staff or paying workers more. 

But Amazon is unlikely to pass increased logistics costs along to customers, said financial analyst Michael Pachter, who follows Amazon for investment firm Wedbush. That's because Amazon has to match or beat competitors' pricing.

"Price is always going to be determined by competition," Pachter said. "It's never going to be a pass-through."

What did Amazon tweet to lawmakers?

On March 24, Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon's consumer operations, posted a series of tweets criticizing Sanders, who was planning to visit workers in Bessemer to support the union drive.

"I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that's not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace," Clark wrote, going on to cite the company's starting wage of at least $15 and its benefits package, which offers the same health insurance the company's corporate employees receive.

Senator Bernie Sanders

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in Bessemer, Alabama, supporting the Amazon warehouse union drive.

Patrick T. Fallon / Getty Images

While business analysts questioned the more aggressive stance, Vox reported that it resulted from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ' direct orders. Two days later, the Amazon News account went on to mock Warren for failing to pass tougher tax laws, while at the same time defending the amount of taxes Amazon pays.

Sanders didn't reply to the tweets directed at him, but Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, responded by saying Amazon can't call itself progressive amid charges of union busting and worker mistreatment. Pocan pointed out reports that workers have to pee in bottles to keep up with their workloads.

Then, Amazon News scoffed at Pocan's tweets, saying, "You don't really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us."

Do Amazon workers pee in bottles?

Yes. Later, on March 26, Amazon issued an apology to Pocan for the remark about the pee bottles. In a blog post, the company ""="">called the tweet an "own-goal" that was inaccurate, and acknowledged that Amazon delivery drivers struggle to find bathrooms along their routes.

The company went on to say the problem is not specific to Amazon drivers. "Regardless of the fact that this is industry-wide, we would like to solve it. We don't yet know how, but will look for solutions," the company said.

Previous reports have said some warehouse workers in the UK said they also peed in bottles or waste cans while trying to keep up with quotas, but Amazon's statement didn't respond to those allegations.