Amazon workers vote against unionizing in blow to organized labor

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer
·6 min read

Amazon workers in Alabama voted down an attempt at unionizing in an effort that was closely followed as an example of how organized labor works in an increasingly digital and tech-focused economy.

While vote counting will continue, the number of "no" votes among the 3,215 ballots cast has now signaled a loss for organizers. The Bessemer distribution center, located outside Birmingham, has roughly 5,800 employees who were eligible to vote on whether they wished to organize through the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Ballots were due March 29 after seven weeks of voting and counted by the National Labor Relations Board in a process in which both sides were allowed to challenge voter eligibility.

The RWDSU announced Friday it will be filing objections to the NLRB over Amazon’s practices during the drive.

A supporter of the RWDSU unionization effort with other supporters outside the Amazon fulfillment warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
Supporters of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union effort outside the Amazon fulfillment warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

“Amazon left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees,” RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement. “We won't let Amazon's lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged, which is why we are formally filing charges against all the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote."

The Washington Post reported Thursday that emails showed Amazon pushing the U.S. Postal Service into installing a mailbox outside the office, which union advocates say could have influenced votes by making workers think the company had something to do with collecting and counting ballots. Amazon had urged employees to vote no on the union by using that mailbox.

"Thank you to employees at our BHM1 fulfillment center in Alabama for participating in the election," Amazon said in a statement Friday. "There’s been a lot of noise over the past few months, and we’re glad that your collective voices were finally heard. In the end, less than 16% of the employees at BHM1 voted to join the RWDSU union."

The vote was seen as a potential tipping point in the organization of other Amazon facilities. Overall, the company employs 800,000 people in the U.S., making it the second-largest private employer in the country, behind Walmart. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics tracking, overall union membership in the United States has declined from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.8 percent in 2020. A number of states have passed right-to-work laws, which make it more difficult for the organizations to collect dues from members.

Organizers at the facility, which opened in March 2020, received support from a number of progressive groups and politicians. Black Lives Matter threw itself behind the unionization effort, and a number of Democratic legislators have visited to encourage workers, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sen. Bernie Sanders outside the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., U.S., on March 26. (Andi Rice/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders outside the RWDSU headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., on March 26. (Andi Rice/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“What you’re doing is for workers across the country,” Sanders said during a March 26 rally in Birmingham. “They know if you succeed here, it will spread all over the country.”

The union effort even garnered some Republican support. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio announced his backing of the organizing effort in a March 12 op-ed but underlined his opposition to labor organizing generally, stating that his support of the union was a means of damaging Amazon, whose leadership he said was waging “culture war against working-class values.”

Workers at the facility have said there have been mandatory meetings and prominent signage displaying anti-union sentiment. NBC News reported that at least three dozen complaints about Amazon had been filed with the NLRB since February 2020 by employees who said they faced retaliation for organizing. A 2020 report found that the company closely surveils its employees in an attempt to limit organizing, and it has reportedly hired Pinkerton agents to track workers in Europe.

Amazon has recently become more aggressive in a broader public relations campaign, with official Twitter accounts criticizing Democratic politicians like Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Recode reported that the change in tactics was due to CEO Jeff Bezos expressing “dissatisfaction in recent weeks that company officials weren’t more aggressive in how they pushed back against criticisms of the company that he and other leaders deem inaccurate or misleading.” The shift in tone was so abrupt that one Amazon security engineer filed a suspicious activity report, believing the account had been hacked.

The Bessemer vote follows a failed attempt in 2014 to unionize a small group of technical workers at a Delaware facility, when employees voted 21-6 against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Banners at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Ala., in March to show their support for workers who will vote on whether to unionize. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)
Banners at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Ala., in March. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)

The drive drew in President Biden, who promised he would be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” on the final day of the presidential campaign. He offered his support for the union effort in a February video posted to his Twitter account, not explicitly mentioning Amazon but noting that “workers in Alabama, and all across America, are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace” while urging “no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda” from employers.

“Unions put power in the hands of workers,” Biden said. “They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment.”

One of Biden’s first acts in office was firing the NLRB’s general counsel, Peter Robb, a Trump appointee. Biden fired him and his deputy after Robb refused to resign 10 months before his term expired. Unions and worker advocates had seen Robb as a foe and his early termination by Biden as a sign of support for labor, with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka calling Robb a “union-busting lawyer by trade” and his removal “the first step toward giving workers a fair shot again.”

The next request for Biden from labor leaders is facilitating the signing of the PRO Act, a piece of legislation that passed the House last month and would make organizing efforts easier if enacted. The bill is unlikely to garner 10 Republican votes in the Senate, meaning that it would require the elimination of the legislative filibuster to get through with a simple majority. Both the White House and more conservative Democratic senators like Joe Manchin of West Virginia have continued to support the filibuster’s presence even as it likely hinders the passage of legislation on unions, guns and voting rights.

President Joe Biden in the Rose Garden. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Biden in the White House Rose Garden. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“I urge Congress to send the PRO Act to my desk so we can seize the opportunity to build a future that reflects working people’s courage and ambition, and offers not only good jobs with a real choice to join a union — but the dignity, equity, shared prosperity and common purpose the hardworking people who built this country and make it run deserve,” Biden said in a March statement.

The Washington Post reported that the White House planned to incorporate the PRO Act into the president's infrastructure plan, which would require only 50 votes to pass, but it’s unclear if Senate rules will allow the union provisions to be part of the package.

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