By Evan Madden || Contributing Writer
Amazon workers at a fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama sided with the company against unionization in a historic vote last week. They voted 1,800 to 738 against joining the “Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union” (RWDSU) in the mail-in vote, a margin of more than two to one. The outcome of the vote represents a major loss for the labor movement, which has long sought to make inroads in the quickly growing company.
The union effort in Bessemer was the first of its kind to gain international attention, as the biggest labor organization effort in Amazon’s history. The push to unionize, started by a small group of workers at the facility, has garnered support from celebrities and politicians alike. Prominent Democrat Bernie Sanders visited Bessemer in support of the push, along with several House Democrats and actor Danny Glover. Republican Senator Marco Rubio also endorsed unionization.
Dissatisfied workers reported having their “time on task” closely monitored throughout long shifts with infrequent breaks. Jennifer Bates, a warehouse worker in favor of unionization, commented “Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, if you’re not scanning, then they say you’re not working” (NY Times). Bates also felt that Amazon’s vague rules about what was expected of workers caused additional stress, especially with a lack of face-to-face communication with managers.
The online retail giant has been historically anti-union and successful at keeping unions out. Leading up to the vote, Amazon deployed aggressive tactics such as putting anti-union posters up in bathroom stalls, sending employees five anti-union texts per day, and holding mandatory information sessions about why a union was not needed. The company also requested to make red lights shorter at a stoplight near the facility, which organizers claim was done to give them less time to speak to workers at the light.
The tactics used by Amazon have led the union to allege that the integrity of the vote was compromised. RWDSU Union President Stewart Appelbaum stated, “The results demonstrate the powerful impact of employer intimidation and interference” (NPR). He claims Amazon threatened to close the facility or fire workers who voted in favor of unionizing. The mailbox Amazon requested be put in front of the facility also may have misled workers into believing that the company was involved with the voting process. The union is filing unfair labor practice charges against Amazon with the National Labor Relations Board, but it is unlikely that the company will face significant repercussions in any case.
Amid the push, Joe Biden offered public support for unions in a video message, saying they “lift up workers, both union and non-union, but especially Black and Brown workers” (ABC). Even as the unionization effort became the first in recent decades to receive vocal support from a sitting president, the workers chose to side with the company.
For many workers at the plant, Amazon’s $15 an hour starting wage was a strong draw, as the minimum wage in the state is set at the federal minimum of $7.25. Amazon’s day one health insurance benefits also hold great appeal, especially with many similar jobs offering inferior packages. A large number of workers were skeptical that organizing would improve these offerings, and worried they might actually reduce them. One worker, LaVonette Stokes, who voted against unionizing, commented, “This particular union can’t give us anything that Amazon does not already offer” (NPR).
The result of the hard-fought vote may have implications for labor law going forward. The House recently voted to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which is awaiting a Senate vote. The bill would strengthen collective bargaining rights and seek to bring about more equity in negotiations, which organizers claim are unfairly balanced in employers’ favor. Advocates point to Amazon’s anti-union tactics as examples of this imbalance. It remains to be seen if the act will pass in the Senate, with it currently backed by 47 senators, 3 short of the 50 needed to pass.