The Industry

Amazon Beat the Union Drive in Alabama. Will It Beat the Next One?

The company mounted an aggressive—maybe too aggressive—campaign to stop the effort.

An RWDSU union rep holds a sign outside the Amazon fulfillment warehouse in Bessemer.
Amazon defeated a drive to unionize its Bessemer warehouse. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

This is a breaking news story and has been updated

Amazon secured enough votes on Friday morning to defeat the union drive at its facility in Bessemer, Alabama. Of the 2,536 uncontested ballots cast, 738 approved and 1,798 rejected the proposal to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Though the RWDSU will file a challenge alleging that the company improperly tampered with the voting process, the result—a blowout—could hail the end of a hard-fought battle to make the Bessemer facility Amazon’s first unionized workplace.

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The union drive originated from workers who were critical of Amazon’s grueling productivity requirements and dissatisfied with the company’s coronavirus protections. A group of them reached out to the RWDSU last summer to inquire about organizing their workplace. Roughly half of the workers at the facility then signed a petition calling for a vote in November, which got the ball rolling on the election. The mail-in voting period ran from February to March, and from the 5,805 eligible workers at the facility, 3,215 ballots were cast; 506 were contested and 76 were void. Counting began on Thursday evening, after Amazon and the union spent more than a week checking the eligibility of the submitted ballots, and was on pace to finish Friday.

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The Bessemer drive became a national issue. Figures like Stacey Abrams, Danny Glover, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Marco Rubio threw their support behind organizers on the ground. President Joe Biden released a video tacitly applauding the unionization campaign and tut-tutting Amazon’s many attempts to undermine them. In an effort to prevent the election from being successful, the company has reportedly required workers to go to anti-union town halls, posted “Vote No” signs in the bathrooms, launched an anti-union social media campaign, and even successfully lobbied local officials to change the timing of the traffic lights near the facility, which made it harder for organizers to approach workers in their cars. The Washington Post also reported this week that it had obtained emails showing that Amazon had pressed the U.S. Postal Service in January and February to install a mail box outside the facility, which the union argues is a violation of labor laws around ballot harvesting. Amazon claims, however, that the mail box was simply intended to improve turnout.

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Because of these alleged attempts to improperly sway the vote, the union announced on Friday that it is filing a challenge to “determine if the results of the of the election should be set aside because conduct by the employer created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice.” Either side can file challenges to the National Labor Relations Board about how the voting was facilitated, which could prompt a new election. The NLRB would make such a decision after scheduling a hearing for the union and Amazon to present arguments on the vote process.

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The drive in Alabama was the most visible and formidable unionizing effort in Amazon’s history. There have been fleeting attempts to organize Amazon’s U.S. workplaces over the years. In 2000, the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers tried to help unionize about 400 customer support representatives in Seattle, though the effort fell through when Amazon closed their facility. There have been some concerns that Amazon could also shutter the Bessemer plant, but the company has already allocated more than $360 million to leases and equipment for that location, and the Seattle closure was in part connected to the dot-com bubble burst. Prior to the Bessemer drive, the union effort that got the farthest was in a Delaware, where a small group of technicians ultimately voted 21-6 against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in 2014. There have also been rumblings of a unionization effort at Amazon’s Whole Foods subsidiary since 2018, though Amazon has moved aggressively to tamp it down by sending around a 45-minute anti-union training video to managers and monitoring stores most likely to organize using heat maps.

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Labor advocates were hoping that a victory in Bessemer would show Amazon workers across the country that they could successfully form unions and encourage them to launch their own organizing efforts using similar strategies. That now seems in doubt, though hundreds of Amazon workers in other parts of the country have reportedly already contacted the RWDSU to inquire about starting union drives. Anastasia Christman, a program director at the National Employment Law Project whom I spoke to before the election result was announced, said that a loss for the union wouldn’t necessarily close the door for organizing efforts at other Amazon facilities. “I don’t think that a defeat here is going to mean that workers will suddenly be satisfied with being treated the way they’re treated,” she said. “I think it could just inform whatever strategy they pursue to try to fix it.” Christman predicts that organizers will likely conduct a “forensic analysis of where things fell short,” which would probably involve interviewing workers who voted “no” on why they thought forming a union wouldn’t be lead to an improvement. Reporters from Bloomberg wrote in early March that many of the union-skeptical workers they interviewed were appreciative of the $15.30-per-hour pay, which is higher than most other jobs involving unskilled labor in the area, and the benefits. (The pay at nearby unionized poultry plans and warehouses, however, tends to be higher.) The Bessemer organizers also have the option to launch another union drive at the facility after a year has passed. “Just like in a presidential election, if your party loses that doesn’t mean you don’t get to vote again in four years,” Christman said. “They have not given up their right to organize just because they’ve lost any one particular drive.”

Update, 1:22 p.m.: This story was updated with the final vote tally.

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