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Amazon union loses election: Alabama warehouse workers reject historic organizing bid

The union plans to file an objection to the election and expects the National Labor Relations Board to order a revote. Amazon denies allegations of improperly swaying the vote.

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

Amazon fought fiercely against an organizing effort at an Alabama warehouse. 

Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images

Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted no on certifying a union to represent them, rejecting the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. More than 3,200 workers cast ballots by mail in the historic vote on whether to form the first unionized Amazon facility in the US. Though about 500 challenged ballots remain to be considered on Friday, more than 1,700 votes against had been counted, enough to defeat the union effort.

The warehouse employees were the first at Amazon in seven years to have a union election. Had Bessemer unionized, it likely would've sparked similar movements across the country. But the effort's defeat instead could have a chilling effect on other warehouse workers considering unionizing. The unofficial tally on Friday stood at 1,798 votes against unionizing and 738 votes in favor. More than 5,800 workers were sent ballots.

Those in favor of organizing found themselves up against fierce opposition from Amazon, which argued that its workers didn't need union representation because the company offers them pay that's nearly double the region's minimum wage, as well as health, retirement and tuition benefits. To push its stance with workers, Amazon hired a consultant known for persuading employees not to unionize, at a rate of $3,200 per day, according to documents revealed by The Intercept. Advocates for organizing hoped the union would bring more job security and help improve break policies, among other benefits. The demands have become even more desired by workers now as the coronavirus pandemic puts a burden on them to fulfill the millions of items Americans are ordering every day. 

The union, which is small compared with giants like the National Education Association of the United States and the Service Employees International Union, also represents meatpackers, cereal makers and department store workers.

Watch this: Union reacts to Amazon defeat

As the final votes were being counted Friday, the RWDSU said it's filing objections over the election, along with unfair-labor charges that allege "Amazon interfered with the right of its Bessemer, Alabama, employees to vote in a free and fair election." The National Labor Relations Board will likely hold hearings to resolve the matter. If the labor board holds that Amazon's actions weren't allowed, it could order a redo of the election. In extreme cases, the board can order an employer to immediately recognize a union for its employees.

"Amazon knew full well that unless they did everything they possibly could, even illegal activity, their workers would have continued supporting the union," the president of the RWDSU, Stuart Appelbaum, said in a release. "We demand a comprehensive investigation over Amazon's behavior in corrupting this election."

During a press conference Friday, Appelbaum added that he believes a rerun of the election is likely (the full press conference is here). At the same press conference, pro-union warehouse worker Emmet Ashford said he'd welcome a second election. "Now that people have the information in how we were misled," he said, "the workers would vote in favor of the union."

Amazon disagreed with the union's portrayal of the company's actions. "Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us," the company said in a blog post. "Amazon didn't win -- our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union."

Organizers with the RWDSU had already taken issue with one action by Amazon: the installation of a private mailbox on Amazon's premises by the US Postal Service. The NLRB ordered Amazon not to host a ballot drop box on its premises. Documents obtained by the RWDSU show that Amazon pressed the USPS for the mailbox to be installed before the election. Appelbaum said the presence of the mailbox, a metal cabinet with drawers and locks that makes it look like something found in an apartment building instead of a classic blue post office box, could've swayed employee votes. The workers are used to being constantly surveilled at work, he said, and that could make them uncomfortable about voting at all. What's more, it could give them the wrong idea about how the votes would be counted. 

"It gives people the impression that Amazon, not the government, is conducting the election," Appelbaum said.

Amazon says only the USPS had access to the mailbox. "We said from the beginning that we wanted all employees to vote and proposed many different options to try and make it easy," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. "The RWDSU fought those at every turn and pushed for a mail-only election, which the NLRB's own data showed would reduce turnout." 

The Bessemer warehouse election, which took place over seven weeks in February and March, drew attention as the first union vote at Amazon since January 2014. If it had succeeded, it would've formed the first US Amazon union and potentially inspired more organizing drives at the company's other warehouses. Financial analysts and labor experts said Amazon's intense anti-union campaign was an effort to maintain control over its brand and operations. 

A large group of unionized warehouses could potentially use strikes and work stoppages to slow down delivery times, which would undermine a key selling point for Amazon's retail service. One union victory was unlikely to dent the company's reliability, but Amazon would also have less control over its day-to-day operations in Bessemer, and if more unions formed, it could impact operations. A union could give employees a say in how shifts are structured, how promotions are given and how employee complaints over safety are dealt with. It also could give employees more power during the ongoing pandemic, when employees have continued to work long hours in Amazon warehouses despite facing possible COVID-19 infection. Amazon last year saw its profits jump more than 79%, to $21.3 billion.

The higher demand for Amazon's retail services has come as the tech powerhouse faces increasing scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers for its labor conditions. During the past year, the company has fired warehouse employees who staged walkouts and protests over Amazon's coronavirus safety policies. Though the company attributed the firings to reasons unrelated to the walkouts, the NLRB in several cases found merit in employee complaints of illegal retaliation. Lawmakers have also questioned the company's treatment of workers, expressing concern over pandemic safety measures and policies that require delivery drivers to consent to nonstop monitoring from AI-powered cameras in their trucks. 

Amazon has tried to portray itself as the good guy by touting its $15-an-hour starting wage and benefits like the same health insurance it offers its corporate workers, but it's also used negative tactics when faced with criticism. In late March, an Amazon executive called out Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on Twitter for supporting the Bessemer workers' efforts, and a Twitter account affiliated with Amazon public relations snarkily denied reports that the company's employees have had to pee into bottles to keep up with their demanding schedules. Amazon later issued an apology and acknowledged that it's sometimes hard for delivery drivers to find bathrooms on their routes.

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

Worker division 

The closely watched union drive reportedly divided workers in the Amazon warehouse, where the company conducted mandatory training sessions against unions and posted anti-union messages on employee notice boards in bathroom stalls. For weeks leading up to and during the seven-week election, community activists and union organizers stood outside the warehouse talking to workers as they ended their shifts. Workers voted by mail-in ballot.

The union's failure could cause other warehouse workers to think twice before launching efforts to organize. Labor experts said it showed the effectiveness of Amazon's approach of spending big money on strategists to defeat the union, and that it could discourage future unionization efforts. 

"The election numbers reflect workers who've been bombarded with information that they might lose their jobs," said Rebecca Givan, professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. The results, she added, "demonstrate Amazon's deep pockets and willingness to spend any amount of money to fight unions."

Union organizers Friday painted an optimistic picture, saying that the union drive had already inspired other movements regardless of the outcome. "This is just a spark that has started a fire across the US," said Ashford, the Bessemer warehouse worker.

Carla Johnson, a Bessemer warehouse worker who didn't support the union, said the company's health benefits saved her life when she was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor not long after she started working. The benefits kicked in on her first day, and they made her expensive treatments affordable. That made her wary of bringing in a third party to negotiate benefits, she said.  

"I didn't want it to change," Johnson said. On Friday, she said she was pleased with the results and would like to get together with pro-union co-workers to plan a way forward.