Amazon workers voted against forming a union at an Alabama warehouse, handing the online retail giant a decisive victory and cutting off a path that labour activists had hoped would lead to similar efforts throughout the company and beyond.
After months of aggressive campaigning from both sides, 1,798 warehouse workers ultimately rejected the union while 738 voted in favour of it, according to the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is overseeing the process.
Of the 3,117 votes cast, 76 were voided and 505 were contested by either Amazon or the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which led the organizing efforts in Bessemer, Ala.
The union said it would file an objection with the NLRB charging the company with illegally interfering with the union vote. It will seek a hearing with the labour board to determine if the results “should be set aside because conduct by the employer created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals.” The union accused Amazon of spreading disinformation about the unionization effort at meetings that workers were required to attend.
“Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees. We won’t let Amazon’s lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU president.
Amazon said in a statement that it didn’t intimidate employees.
“Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us,” the company said. “And Amazon didn’t win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”
Always a long shot
The union push was the biggest in Amazon’s 26-year history and only the second time that an organizing effort from within the company had come to a vote. But Bessemer was always viewed as a long shot since it pitted the country’s second-largest employer against nearly 6,000 workers in a state where laws don’t favour unions.
That the labour movement in Bessemer even got this far was unexpected. Amazon has an undefeated record of snuffing out union efforts before they can spread. And at a time when the economy is still trying to recover and companies have been eliminating jobs, it is one of the few places still hiring during the pandemic, adding 500,000 workers last year alone.
But the pandemic also revealed inequities in the workforce, with many having to report to their jobs even while the coronavirus was raging, leading to concerns over health and safety.
The organizing efforts in Bessemer coincided with protests happening throughout the U.S. after the police killing of George Floyd, raising awareness around racial injustice and further fuelling frustration over how workers at the warehouse — more than 80 per cent who are Black — are being treated, with 10-hour days of packing and loading boxes and only two 30-minute breaks.
Workers in Bessemer approached the RWDSU last summer about organizing and the momentum had been building ever since. The union push was thrust into the national spotlight, attracting the attention of professional athletes, Hollywood stars and high-profile elected officials, including U.S. President Joe Biden.
During the voting process, workers were flooded with messages from Amazon and the union. Amazon hung anti-union signs throughout the warehouse, including inside bathroom stalls. It held mandatory meetings to convince workers why the union was a bad idea and also argued that it already offered more than twice the minimum wage in Alabama plus benefits without paying union dues.
Union organizers, meanwhile, stood outside the warehouse gates trying to talk to people driving in and out of work. It also had volunteers call all of the nearly 6,000 workers, promising a union will lead to better working conditions, better pay and more respect.