NEW ORLEANS - An unofficial vote tally shows a push to unionize an Amazon.com Inc. facility in the U.S. state of Alabama losing by more than a 2-to-1 margin. While Friday's reported results haven't been finalized and could be challenged, they dealt a bitter blow to the U.S. labor movement's efforts to reverse decades of sharp declines in the private sector.
At issue was whether 5,800 Amazon workers would join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Voting was done by mail in February and March.
The outcome is seen as having far-reaching implications, not just for workers at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Bessemer, Alabama, but also for the company as a whole and the growing U.S. e-commerce sector that has fended off most labor organizing.
Amazon hailed the outcome in a blog post, saying workers' "collective voices were finally heard." The company added, "Amazon didn't win – our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union."
For its part, RWDSU decried the conduct of the election and said it was filing an objection with the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency that enforces U.S. labor law.
Sharp divisions over whether to unionize
Opinion among Amazon workers was far from uniform. While some decried working conditions, others said they are satisfied with the status quo.
“I’m not against unions,” explained J.C. Thompson, who has worked at the Amazon facility in Bessemer since April last year, less than a week after it opened. “I’ve been in unions, and I think they can do good things. I just don’t think we need it here.”
While acknowledging that everyone’s experience is different, he said he is treated fairly at Amazon and is impressed with the package of benefits the company provides him. He also values the direct communication he said workers have with Amazon managers.
“My dad used to tell me, ‘You’ve either got a seat at the table, or you’re being eaten for dinner,’” Thompson said, “And I feel like I’ve got a seat at the table here. Not that I’m some superstar worker or anything, but when I message a manager, I always get a response back. Every time.”
Thompson said he worried that if a union came in, he’d lose his ability to advocate for himself and to reach out to management without having to go through the union first.
“Everything they say they want from a union, we’ve already got by working directly with Amazon,” he said.
Amazon provided essential support
Another Amazon worker, Carla Johnson, agreed. She was diagnosed with cancer shortly after beginning her job at the Bessemer facility and said Amazon has provided her with essential support throughout the process.
“They’ve been so wonderful, I just don’t see what some of those voting for unionization are seeing,” she said. “I guess if you’re going to the bathroom or talking so much you don’t get your work done, then you’ll get fired, but that’s the case at any workplace.”
“I work hard here, and I think I’ll be rewarded for that,” she added. “I don’t want a union to get in the way if they’re prioritizing people with seniority.”
‘They don’t care about us’
While Amazon touts higher wages and more generous benefit packages than those offered by many other service industry employers, worker Dale Richardson told VOA last month he voted to unionize.
“They treat us like we’re just a number — like we’re nobodies,” he said. “I’ve been there for almost a year now, doing the best work I can do, and nobody — no manager — asks me about my goals. They don’t care about us.”
Richardson pointed to Amazon ending worker hazard pay in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he has seen coworkers reprimanded for talking during their shift and fired for taking too long for bathroom breaks.
“They give us two 30-minute breaks over a 10 or 11-hour shift, but it can sometimes take 10 minutes of that break to walk across the facility,” he said, noting the massive fulfillment center is the size of 16 football fields. “It’s not uncommon to walk all the way to the bathroom on your floor to find that it’s not working, or that it’s closed for cleaning. Now you have to walk to another floor’s bathroom, most of your break is used up and you might get fired if you don’t get back in time. It’s a lot of stress.”
Also, last-minute shift changes are not uncommon, according to Richardson, who hoped joining RWDSU would improve conditions for workers.
“If they can help us get a little more job security, so they can’t fire us whenever they want,” he said, “and help organize us and represent us to advocate for equal opportunities for promotions and pay increases — that’s why I’m voting to unionize.”
Direct dialogue is essential
Amazon didn't address Richardson's specific complaints, but spokesperson Owen Torres emphasized communication between managers and their employees.
Direct dialogue is essential to our work environment in which we encourage associates to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team with the goal of quickly improving the work environment and challenging leadership assumptions," he said.
A unique moment
For months, Bessemer has been ground zero for one of the most closely watched unionization efforts in decades. During the voting period, RWDSU and Amazon jockeyed to persuade undecided workers.
Amazon insists it does right by its workers in Alabama – and everywhere else.
“We opened this site in March and since that time have created more than 6,000 full-time jobs in Bessemer, with starting pay of $15.30 per hour, including full health care, vision and dental insurance, 50% 401(k) match [for retirement savings] from the first day on the job,” the company said in a statement provided to VOA. Amazon said it provides “safe, innovative, inclusive environments, with training, continuing education, and long-term career growth.”
Such statements don’t impress RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum. Nor does Amazon’s backing for a national $15 hourly minimum wage, up from $7.25 currently.
“Society is celebrating essential workers like the ones who work at Amazon,” Appelbaum told VOA. “But then we’re also going to cut their hazard pay? That doesn’t make sense, and I think Americans understand we need to celebrate them by rewarding and supporting them.”
Appelbaum added, “We’re in a unique moment in history, and I think that’s why people across the country and around the world are watching how we do.”
Without specifically mentioning Amazon, in late February President Joe Biden urged “workers in Alabama” to exercise their right to organize and “make your voice heard.”
"Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, but especially Black and brown workers," Biden said in a video posted to Twitter.
Casting labor unions as a promoter of racial justice resonated with Jennifer Bates, one of many people of color working at the Bessemer fulfillment center.
“You have a workplace where 85% of the employees are Black, and you literally see policemen in the parking lot with their lights on when you arrive,” she said. “What kind of message does that send? It feels like a prison. We’re working for the richest man in the world [Amazon founder Jeff Bezos]. You can’t give us hazard pay? You can’t provide more opportunities for raises so we can afford to live in safer housing?”
2014 vote failed
This wasn't the first push for collective bargaining at Amazon. In 2014, machinists at a warehouse in Delaware voted more than 3-to-1 against unionization.
The Bessemer effort now had bipartisan backing in Washington, a rarity for union efforts. Writing in USA Today recently, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said, “Amazon has waged a war against working class values” and that “workers are right to suspect that its management doesn’t have their best interests in mind.”
“Unions haven’t seen this kind of support in many decades,” said Natasha Zaretsky, professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
She said America’s unions were at their strongest in the 1940s and ’50s, when 33% of workers were unionized, many in the steel and automobile factories of the time. Today, that number has dropped to 12% as jobs have shifted from manufacturing to the service industry.
It’s no accident that Bessemer stood at the precipice of what labor organizers hoped would be a watershed moment for unionizing in America, according to Zaretsky.
“African American workers have a rich history of unionizing here that goes all the way back to Reconstruction [after the U.S. Civil War] in the 19th century," she said.
Dispute on tactics
During the voting period, Applebaum said Amazon resorted to strong-arm tactics to influence workers.
“They put anti-union materials in the bathrooms, and they hold mandatory meetings where they tell workers why unions are bad for them and how it could cause Amazon facilities to close,” he said. “We set up outside the facility to talk to employees when they leave work, but then Amazon asked the county to change the cadence of the traffic lights so they wouldn’t be stopped there anymore. This isn’t normal.”
For its part, Amazon said workers had to know what is at stake.
"If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site and it's important all associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon,” the company said in a statement. "We don't believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees' views. Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire."
An earlier version of this article appeared on March 14, 2021.