Amazon Wins Union Election in Setback to Labor Movement

Amazon.com Inc. workers at an Alabama warehouse voted not to join a retail union, a setback for labor organizers and a significant victory for the world’s largest online retailer.

The election wasn’t close. Of the more than 3,000 ballots cast, Amazon garnered 1,798 nos and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union won 738 yeses. While federal officials set aside 505 contested ballots -- most of them disputed by Amazon, according to the union-- there weren’t enough of those to change the result. The National Labor Relations Board, which oversees workplace union elections, began counting ballots on Thursday.

The union always faced a stiff challenge in Bessemer, Alabama, where Amazon’s $15-an-hour starting wage goes a lot further than it does in New York or San Francisco. The pandemic also precluded the RWDSU from holding large rallies. Amazon, meanwhile, had several advantages, not least that it could appeal directly to workers during mandatory “information sessions,” where company managers argued that a union wouldn’t necessarily improve their wages and benefits. Looming over the entire campaign was the implicit threat that Amazon could simply close the Bessemer warehouse.

“The result is a reflection of just how hard it is for workers to organize in workplaces where employers are free to bombard them with anti-union messages and sow fear and doubt throughout the work day,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “Current labor law makes these attempts to win a voice on the job very very difficult.”

Even before the vote count had finished, the RWDSU pledged to contest the result and accused Amazon of various election violations, including the installation of a mailbox outside the facility in Bessemer, which the RWDSU said the company requested so it could watch employees submitting their mail-in ballots. The company has rejected that accusation, saying it simply had the mailbox installed to make it easier for workers to participate in the election.

Should the union win an appeal, the NLRB can throw out the election results and call a new vote.

The union’s defeat, if upheld, could demoralize labor activists and potentially curb stirrings of labor activism at Amazon’s other facilities. The loss is sure to redouble calls from the broader labor movement to overhaul federal labor laws governing union organizing, a goal that’s supported by the Biden administration but has eluded organized labor for decades.

“Our labor laws basically incentivize employers like Amazon and Walmart and small ones to break the law to prevent their workers from forming unions,” Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat who joined a delegation to Bessemer last month, said Friday on Bloomberg Television. “And that’s what happened.”

The outcome followed a hard-fought election that lasted seven weeks, attracted national attention and saw the union and Amazon engage in an information war that sometimes veered into conspiracy theories. In the campaign’s final days, a Twitter feud broke out between the company and such critics as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

Amazon thanked its employees in Bessemer for participating in the election but quickly pivoted to pushing back on the union’s accusations about unfair practices during the campaign.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company said in a statement. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers and media outlets than they heard from us.”

Still, workers at the facility were sharply divided and remained so after the result.

”I think it’s a mistake,” said one yes voter, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “But you can’t tell these kids around here anything, $15 an hour is the most they have ever made.”

He attributed the loss in part to Amazon’s effort to sway voters. “All of their info came from Amazon’s ‘vote no’ campaign,” the worker said of colleagues at the facility. “They fed them misinformation.”

Roderick Crocton, who has been working at the facility for a year, said he wasn’t surprised his colleagues rejected the union. The 24-year-old said the pay and benefits were much better than at his previous job at Walmart Inc., where he earned less than $12 an hour and didn’t have health insurance after two years.

“It’s really not bad at Amazon,” Crocton said. “Everybody is just ready for it to be over. It’s just annoying to keep hearing about it and see the signs. We’re ready to get back to going in there and getting the packages out.”

The Bessemer fulfillment center opened about a year ago, the first such Amazon facility in Alabama and one of hundreds the company has opened around the U.S. to facilitate speedy shipping. The facility was a big deal for a once-thriving steel town that began shedding manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and 1980s. For many Bessemer residents, Amazon’s arrival was affirmation that their town had finally entered the 21st century. Yes, the jobs were arduous, but many residents focused on the $15-an-hour starting wage and health benefits.

Amazon, instantly Bessemer’s largest employer, had no trouble filling the jobs. Still, some workers found the work pace arduous or fretted about catching Covid-19, which had started spreading around the U.S. and infected dozens of Amazon workers elsewhere.

It’s unusual for labor activism to emerge so quickly at an Amazon warehouse because turnover is high and it typically takes time for workers’ initial enthusiasm to curdle into disenchantment. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum has said the mostly African-American workforce at the Bessemer facility was partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests and the growing acceptance that systemic racism has hurt the economic prospects of people of color.

Whatever happens next, the election in Bessemer will be long remembered as a landmark event in Jeff Bezos’s long battle with American unions.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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