Early vote counts show Amazon warehouse workers are unlikely to unionize in Bessemer, Alabama

Workers at Amazon warehouses in Bessemer, Alabama, voted overwhelmingly against forming a union Thursday after a months-long campaign in which workers hoped to make headway at the expanding company.

When the vote count stopped for the night, 1,100 employees had voted against unionization, compared with 463 in favor. The recount presented an almost insurmountable climb for union supporters to get the 1,608 votes needed to win.

If approved, the union would be the first for Amazon, the nation’s second-largest employer, in the United States.

While the vote has not been completed, the Retail, Wholesale and Large Stores Union, or RWDSU, the union that seeks to represent the 5,800 workers at Bessemer, has already said it would challenge the vote by bringing charges of unfair labor practices before the NLRB. It will allege that Amazon violated the law with some of its anti-union activity in the run-up to the elections.

“Our system is down, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will ask the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its heinous and illegal behavior during the campaign,” said Stuart Appelbaum, President of RWDSU. “But make no mistake about it: this still represents an important moment for workers and their voices will be heard.”

Amazon did not provide a statement after the vote count concluded Thursday night.

After the seven-week deadline for voting by mail ended on March 29, the NLRB spent two weeks verifying the eligibility of the ballots and counting them in a process observed by the union and Amazon. Of the 5,805 eligible voters, 3,215 votes were cast, but “hundreds” were set aside as contested, primarily by Amazon, according to the union. Ballots can be challenged by Amazon or the union based on factors such as illegible signatures or questions about whether employees’ positions entitle them to vote. Those ballots are counted only if the final margin is small enough.

Few surprises

Labor experts said early predictions about the outcome are not a surprise, given the resources Amazon has invested in countering the organization.

“It’s very difficult for workers to win in a situation like this,” said Rebecca Givan, associate professor of management and labor relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “The most likely outcome in these situations is that the employer ends the union by instilling fear and uncertainty in the workers, and even those workers who were initially in favor of organizing in a union freak out and change their minds.”

The Bessemer warehouse, which opened in March 2020, is Amazon’s first fulfillment center in Alabama. Workers began organizing for a union vote in August, hoping it would help improve their working conditions. These days, it’s hard to go to the bathroom without getting sanctioned, said Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker at Bessemer, who said she was inspired to support the union’s effort after regularly seeing her colleagues hobble from work. physical toll. the job requires.

Earlier this year, Amazon launched what labor experts characterized as a well-funded, classic anti-union campaign in the warehouse.

The workers said they had to attend several meetings during their shifts, in which Amazon representatives explained why a union was not, in their opinion, beneficial to the workers. Signs throughout the warehouse, some of them in the bathrooms, encouraged workers to vote no. The company also distributed buttons and stickers for employees to wear, and created a website and hashtag, #DoItWithoutDues, that highlights how workers might have to pay $ 500 in annual dues to the union.

Amazon has a long history of thwarting unionization. In 1999, the Communication Workers of America began a campaign to organize 400 customer service employees in Seattle. After months of anti-union campaigns, Amazon closed the call center in 2000 in what the company said was a restructuring related to the dot-com bankruptcy.

In 2014, 21 equipment technicians at an Amazon warehouse in Delaware voted against organizing with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers after what the union spokesperson described as “intense pressure from anti-union managers and consultants.”

Amazon spokeswoman Mary Osako told Time magazine at the time that the “no” vote against third-party representation showed that employees “prefer a direct connection to Amazon.”

Organize radioactive fallout

Bessemer workers who opposed the union seemed to question its purpose.

LaVonette Stokes, who works as a labor organizer for the Alabama Teachers Union when she is not working at Amazon, and her husband have positions as mid-level process guides that earn between $ 15 and $ 19 an hour. But he said an unskilled labor union at Bessemer is pointless and would move too slowly. She and her husband spent $ 2,400 of their own money to print brochures detailing the benefits of Amazon.

“We’re talking about a union that has made contracts where, yes, they got a raise, but it took them five to seven years before they hit that raise,” he said.

Her husband, William, said: “We are not against unions. We are against this particular union, and we are against a union in this particular facility. Everything this union offers, we can do ourselves. “.

Pro-union workers said they hoped it would help them improve their working conditions, providing better job security and benefits as Amazon reports record profits in part due to the pandemic-induced boom in online retail.

“I like my job. I give it 110 percent every day that I go there, no matter how difficult it is, how stressful it is,” said Darryl Richardson, a Bessemer warehouse worker. “But I feel like employees deserve better and more for what they do.”

Richardson said he and other union-minded workers expect to be fired or forced to leave their jobs.

“I have to move on and I hate it,” he said. “It’s sad that you go out of your way to try to make things better for people and you feel like you’re going to lose your job.”

Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for Amazon, said in an email: “We respect the right of all our employees to join, form, or not join a union or other legal organization of their own choosing, without fear of retaliation, intimidation or harassment. “

Amazon spokeswoman Leah Seay said Bessemer receives health care coverage and hourly pay of at least $ 15.30, which is well above the federal minimum wage of $ 7.25 an hour. Alabama does not have a minimum wage law.

Employees also get a retirement plan, Seay said.

Wider impact

The union campaign brought global attention to the conditions of Amazon warehouse workers and the lengths the company goes to preventing them from organizing, said Givan, the Rutgers professor.

“Workers across the country who have been watching what is happening will potentially be inspired by what can happen if action is taken and national attention is garnered,” he said.

Analysts said unionization efforts at other Amazon warehouses in the United States are likely to continue, particularly in higher-cost states like New York and California. RWDSU spokeswoman Chelsea Connor said the union has received more than 1,000 inquiries about organizing from Amazon workers at other facilities since the organizing effort began.

“Amazon is already the highest paying job an unskilled worker can get in Alabama,” said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. “But in the higher cost states, it is hardly a living wage.

“It will reduce profits,” he said. “But it is a human thing.”

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