Amazon Has Enough Votes to Bust Bessemer Union

But the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union has indicated that it will formally challenge Amazon’s conduct during the election.
April 9, 2021, 3:00pm
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Darryl Richardson, an Amazon employee, speaks in support of the unionization of Amazon.com, Inc. fulfillment center workers outside the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) office on March 26, 2021 in Birmingham, Alabama. Image: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Amazon employees at a 5,800-worker warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, have voted against unionizing, according to a vote count by the National Labor Relations Board. Amazon secured a majority of "no" votes in counting that took place Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.

The decision, which was formalized by a vote count at the National Labor Relations Board offices in Atlanta, with 1,798 workers voting against the union and 738 voters in favor of the union. There were 505 contested ballots, however, even taking into account those ballots, Amazon had enough votes to bust the union. 

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The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has indicated that it is filing objections to Amazon's conduct during the election and related unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. In particular, the union has indicated it will file a complaint against Amazon for emailing USPS employees in early 2020 and pressing the agency to install a mailbox feet from the entrance of the warehouse. 

“The RWDSU will request that the NLRB Regional Director schedule a hearing on its objections to determine if the results 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,” Chelsea Connor, a spokesperson for the union said.

Responding to these charges, Kate Kudrna, a spokesperson for Amazon, said, “We said from the beginning that we wanted all employees to vote and proposed many different options to try and make it easy. The RWDSU fought those at every turn and pushed for a mail-only election, which the NLRB's own data showed would reduce turnout. 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."

Despite international press coverage and endorsements from prominent politicians and celebrities, the union faced an uphill battle in winning an election against one of the world's most powerful companies, which campaigned against the union, and in a legal environment that is stacked in favor of employers.

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“Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU, 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 of the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote".”

“Amazon knew full well that unless they did everything they possibly could, even illegal activity, their workers would have continued supporting the union,” he continued. “That’s why they required all their employees to attend lecture after lecture, filled with mistruths and lies, where workers had to listen to the company demand they oppose the union. That’s why they flooded the internet, the airwaves and social media with ads spreading misinformation.”

"I think it’s important that there’s a broader understanding of the NLRB elections under current circumstances, which are not a reflection of whether workers want a voice on the job, but rather show the imbalance of labor law and resources in favor of employers," said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. 

Meanwhile, hotbeds of Amazon worker organizing have proliferated at warehouses around the country, including in California's Inland Empire, New York City, Chicago, Iowa, and Minnesota. This week, Amazon warehouse workers went on strike at a warehouse facility in Chicago. 

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Amazon has long opposed the unionization of its workforce. During the Bessemer union drive, Amazon launched a full-fledged campaign to derail the union drive, continuing its legacy of fierce resistance to unionization. In Bessemer, Amazon tactics included an anti-union website, Twitch ads, mailers, care packages, text messages, compulsory meetings, fliers in bathroom stalls. The company even convinced local officials to change the timer on a stoplight outside the warehouse, hindering the union's organizing efforts. In the final weeks of the union election, a hostile and bizarre anti-union social media campaign from Amazon shocked Amazon's corporate employees

The debate to unionize the warehouse captured national support from prominent figures including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and actors Danny Glover and Tina Fey, and glowing national press coverage. It also provoked a video from President Biden, who said "every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union," in the most pro-union statement from a U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt

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But experts say while this support surely helped the union, it doesn't override the company's powerful anti-union tactics. "The path to winning an NLRB election is always challenging and the only path to success is really deep organizing," said Givan, the labor studies professor at Rutgers University. "The odds are always against the workers and you can’t overcome them just with high profile support or media coverage." 

As Motherboard has reported, Amazon has gone to great lengths to tamp down on worker organizing, hiring Pinkerton operatives and intelligence analysts to spy on warehouse workers in Europe and forming "social listening" teams dedicated to surveilling its workers' private social media groups.

In recent years, enthusiasm for unions and labor organizing in the United States has been on the rise with 65 percent of Americans saying they approve of unions in 2020, a 17-year high. But this enthusiasm does not translate over to union membership, which is near a historic low, at 10.8 percent. But the success of the union drive at Amazon has already inspired employees of other non-union mega retailers to consider unionizing. 

Efforts to unionize the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, a Birmingham suburb with a long history of militant unionism, began in the late summer of 2020. Organizers met with Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union in secret at a Bessemer hotel to discuss their desire to improve their working conditions, in particular concerns related to high productivity quotas, surveillance, arbitrary firings, and inadequate break time. According to the union's estimates, more than 85 percent of Amazon's Bessemer workforce is Black and 65 percent are women. For the union, the effort to unionize Amazon has also been a civil rights struggle for basic human rights at work. 

Meredith Whittaker, the co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University, said that the landmark election marked "the biggest tech worker organizing victory yet by a long shot." "It further normalizes the idea that tech workers need to mobilize and develop collective power and begin to advance demands for...ownership over the technologies that control workers' lives," she said. 

The election arrives in the middle of an unprecedented wave of organizing in the tech industry, which includes successful union elections among white collar tech workers at Kickstarter, Glitch, a Google contractor in Pittsburgh, and the recent formation of a union at Google. The union election in Bessemer, 

During the pandemic, Amazon saw an unprecedented amount of organized backlash from its warehouse workers. Amazon warehouse workers, as well as Whole Foods employees, organized petitions, walkouts, and sickouts in response to the company's handling of COVID-19 outbreaks and decision to cut off hazard pay and unlimited unpaid time off during the pandemic, but none have made it as far as the Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer. RWDSU spokesperson Chelsea Connor says the union has received more than 1,000 inquiries from workers around the country since the start of its campaign.