Why the Attempt to Unionize at a US Amazon Warehouse Failed

Why the Attempt to Unionize at a US Amazon Warehouse Failed
A banner encouraging workers to vote in labor balloting is shown at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., on March 30, 2021. (Jay Reeves/AP Photo)
Zachary Stieber

Workers in Alabama tried to form the first union at an Amazon facility in the United States, but saw their efforts fail.

The final tally of the vote at the Bessemer warehouse was 1,798 to 738. Another 505 ballots were challenged, but that number is not sufficient to affect the results, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

Workers who opted against joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) said they did not know if the union could improve conditions that are already better than most entry-level jobs in the area and were not sure if their jobs would be safe.

“Amazon is not perfect, there are flaws, but we are committed to correcting those flaws and management has been, thus far, on board with us,” William Stokes, who works in the warehouse, told reporters in a press conference organized by Amazon.

Circumstances in Alabama made targeting the Bessemer facility an “ill-advised strategy from the get-go,” said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University Business School.

“The warehouse had only been opened about a year and in a town which has chronic unemployment, and very, very few prospects for employment,” he told The Epoch Times.

When Amazon opened the distribution center last year it was “like a godsend” for people in the area, Cohen said. Amazon not only offered $15 an hour, which is over twice the state’s minimum wage, but also first-day benefits like health care.

“They don’t hedge with regard to benefits, but they expect the people that they employ to work their tails off,” added Cohen, a former business executive with companies including Sears Canada. “And the union makes promises of all sorts of things, and [it] looks like a lot of people who voted decided, ‘we don’t need you to deal with the issues we have, we’ll deal directly with the company if there’s a way to do that.'”

RWDSU, the union, alleges Amazon won because it employed illegal practices, including the installment of a drop box even after the board rejected a request to have one installed.

“People should not presume that the results of this vote are in any way a validation of Amazon’s working conditions, and the way it treats its employees. Quite the contrary. The results demonstrate the powerful impact of employer intimidation and interference. We will be calling on the Labor Board to hold Amazon accountable for its egregious behavior during the campaign,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the union, told a conference call following the vote.

People hold a banner at the Amazon facility as members of a congressional delegation arrive to show their support for workers who will vote on whether to unionize, in Bessemer, Ala., on March 5, 2021. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)
People hold a banner at the Amazon facility as members of a congressional delegation arrive to show their support for workers who will vote on whether to unionize, in Bessemer, Ala., on March 5, 2021. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)

The union filed objections over Amazon’s tactics.

After reviewing the objections, the National Labor Relations Board’s regional director may hold a hearing to decide if there will be a new election, a board spokeswoman told The Epoch Times in an email.

Before the vote, a union official said that whether the effort would succeed was up in the air.

“It’s anybody’s guess. Your guess is as good as mine,” the official told The Epoch Times.

Amazon challenged the impropriety accusations before they were made.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true. Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us,” the company, the nation’s second-largest employer, said in a statement.

“And Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union. Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace.”

But Amazon was able to expand the worker pool voting on whether to unionize from 1,500 to 5,800, a move the union agreed to in order to avoid “months of delay,” according to the Economic Policy Institute, which said the tactic served to “dilute the union’s support by adding thousands of workers to the bargaining unit who hadn’t previously been involved in the organizing drive.”
Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon, in New York City, Dec. 14, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon, in New York City, Dec. 14, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Emmett, an Amazon worker on the union call, said that people felt frustrated, disappointed, and angry with the failed effort to unionize. He attributed the results to “being misled and manipulated and lied to.”

“If we had to lose this election here in Bessemer for people across the United States to succeed? That is the point, our time will come around again. And next time we will win,” he said.

Linda Burns, another worker, added that she was not discouraged but happy because she sees the effort to organize as just getting started.

Whether Amazon turned to illegal practices is not yet determined, but one key factor in the vote was “the uneven playing field between the union and management, where management had plenty of tools at its disposal to dissuade workers from voting for the union, and the union had very little means to counter Amazon’s messaging,” according to Jake Rosenfeld, professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “What Unions No Longer Do.”

“This was exacerbated by COVID, which prevented organizers from doing house calls to help convince workers that the union was best for them. Were these factors decisive? Hard to tell, and may not have been given the magnitude of labor’s loss. Without an even playing field to start from, it’s impossible to know,” he told The Epoch Times in an email.

The union did not respond to an inquiry regarding whether it plans to try to organize at other Amazon facilities, but an official previously said that the effort could spur organizing across the south at a range of different companies.

Amazon has seen sales leap during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stock prices for Amazon soared by 70 percent from March 2020 to the end of the year, according to the Brookings Institution.

But workers inside the company have not seen substantial gains since the pandemic started, Beth Gutelius, research director for the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told The Epoch Times in a previous interview.

“I think it’s possible that what we’re starting to see and at this Amazon effort is sort of maybe a canary in the coal mine, that we’re witnessing the start of a pretty big course correction—a market correction, really—where you’re seeing the value of this industry but you’re seeing it in a new light,” she said.

Cohen, the former Sears Canada executive, predicted unions would keep targeting Amazon.

“Unions, generally speaking, they can’t survive by treading water, they have to acquire more and more members. Given that there’s a Democrat in the White House and there’s a change in the general outlook with regard to the working man from where it was before Jan. 20, the unions are working to make as much inroads wherever they can. And Amazon’s a juicy target because A. Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, and B. Amazon’s got a lot of facilities with a lot of people working and they’re not union,” he said.

But the Bessemer vote serves as a somber message for other prospective organizing efforts, according to Rosenfeld, the sociology professor.

“It provides more evidence about the risks involved and difficulties in succeeding,” he said. “Until there is proof otherwise, workers and unions will approach these possibilities with wariness.”