November 28, 2023

Amazon workers in a huge warehouse in Alabama voted firmly against the formation of a union on Friday, suppressing the most significant labor force in the history of the internet giant.

Workers cast 1,798 votes against a union, which gave Amazon enough to forcefully thwart efforts. According to federal officials, the vote for a union was 738, less than 30 percent of the vote.

The one-sided outcome at the 6,000-person warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama dealt a heavy blow to work organizers, Democrats and their allies at a time when conditions were ripe for unions to move forward.

Amazon, which has repeatedly suppressed labor activism, appeared to be vulnerable as it faced increasing scrutiny of its market power and influence in Washington and around the world. President Biden signaled support for the union effort, as did Senator Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermonter. The pandemic, which caused millions of people to shop online, also shed light on the plight of key workers and raised questions about Amazon’s ability to protect these employees.

However, in an aggressive campaign, the company argued that its workers had access to rewarding jobs without having to involve a union. The win leaves Amazon the freedom to treat employees on its own terms as it went on a hiring frenzy and expanded its workforce to more than 1.3 million people.

Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the history of tech companies, said Amazon’s message of offering good jobs with good wages won over criticism from the union and its supporters. The result, she said, “reads as a justification.”

She added that while the elections were just a warehouse, they had attracted so much attention that they had become a “brawl.” Amazon’s victory likely made organized workers think, “Maybe it’s not worth trying other places,” Ms. O’Mara said.

The retail, wholesale and department stores union that spearheaded the campaign blamed Amazon’s anti-union tactics before and during the vote, which ran from early February to late last month. The union said it would question the election results and call on federal labor officials to investigate Amazon in an attempt to create “an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and / or fear of reprisal”.

“Our system is broken,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president. “Amazon took full advantage of that.”

Amazon said in a statement, “The union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true.” It added, “Amazon did not win – our employees made the decision to vote against joining a union.”

About 50 percent of the 5,876 eligible voters in the camp cast ballots in the elections. A majority of 1,521 votes was required to win. About 500 ballot papers were mostly contested by Amazon, the union said. These ballot papers were not counted. If a union had passed it would have been the first for Amazon workers in the United States.

William and Lavonette Stokes, who started working at the Bessemer camp in July, said the union had not convinced them how to improve their working conditions. Amazon already offers good performance, relatively high pay starting at $ 15 an hour, and opportunities for advancement, said the couple, who have five children.

“Amazon is the only job I know of where they pay for your health insurance from day one,” said Ms. Stokes, 52. She added that she was put off by how organizers tried to view the union action as an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement as most of the workers are black.

“This wasn’t an African American problem,” said Ms. Stokes, who is black. “I think you can work there comfortably without being bothered.”

At a press conference organized by Amazon Friday, Mr. Stokes and other employees said they had concerns the company should address, such as better training and anti-bias coaching for managers. “We just feel like we can do it without the union,” he said. “Why pay the union to do what we can do ourselves?”

Union-friendly Amazon workers said they were discouraged by the result. “Of course we will be disappointed and angry with the way this election went,” said Emmet Ashford, a Bessemer camp employee, at a press conference organized by the union.

He and other workers hoped the election results would be overturned because of Amazon’s anti-union tactics, adding that they took pride in inspiring workers in other camps to consider union formation.

“Our time will come again,” said Mr. Ashford.

The vote could lead to a rethinking of strategy within the labor movement.

For years, union organizers have tried to use growing concerns about low-wage workers to break into Amazon. The retail, wholesale and department store unions had addressed critical issues related to supporting key black workers in the pandemic. The union estimated that 85 percent of the workers in the Bessemer camp were black.

The inability to organize the warehouse also follows decades of unsuccessful and costly attempts to form unions at Walmart, the only American company that employs more people than Amazon. The repeated failures in two large companies could lead labor organizers to focus more on supporting national policies, such as a higher federal minimum wage, than on unionizing individual jobs.

Washington Democrats, who put their full weight behind the union effort, said the loss shows they need to push for changes to labor and antitrust laws. The House of Representatives passed an expansion of worker protection this year, but it is unlikely to be approved in the Senate.

“Workers in America can’t organize to scale without labor law reform, period,” Michigan representative Andy Levin, who visited Bessemer, said in an interview.

The Amazon warehouse on the outskirts of Birmingham opened a year ago when the pandemic hit. It was part of a significant expansion for the company that accelerated during the pandemic. Last year, Amazon grew by more than 400,000 employees in the US, which now employs almost a million people. Warehouse workers typically assemble and package orders for items for customers.

The union efforts came together quickly, especially for someone aiming at such a big goal. A small group of workers in the Bessemer building reached out to the local retail union branch last summer. They were frustrated with the way Amazon was constantly using technology to monitor every second of their work day, and they felt that their managers weren’t ready to listen to their complaints.

Organizers appeared to have strong support early on, getting at least 2,000 workers to sign cards saying they wanted an election, enough for the National Labor Relations Board, which is holding union elections, to approve a vote.

Some labor experts said the erosion of this early support shows the power of employers to crack down on unions by holding mandatory meetings and talking to workers about the organisation’s disadvantages during working hours. Others said the union’s failure reflected problems with its organizing tactics, which included supporting national politicians and celebrities.

The election was carried out by mail, a concession to the pandemic. Instead of holding elections for just a few days, workers had more than a month to fill out and send in their March 29 ballot papers.

Amazon’s public campaign focused on the company’s accomplishments and the $ 15 minimum wage, which is double the Alabama minimum wage. Internally, it was stressed that workers do not have to pay for union membership to have a good job. The company’s slogan – “Do it for free” – was conveyed to employees in text messages, mandatory meetings, and signs in toilet cubicles.

Ms. O’Mara said complaints about the union about job stability and safety made it difficult for workers to organize. This is because the impermanence of warehouse jobs “counteracts solidarity and willingness to invest in this employer and this job,” she said.

Many union leaders said union formation at Amazon was critical to reversing the long-term decline in union membership, which fell from the upper teens to just over 6 percent of the private sector in the early 1980s.

They argued that Amazon had power over millions of workers in the industries in which it operated. The dominance of the company has forced its competitors to adopt their work practices, where efficiency is paramount.

“Amazon is changing the industry one by one,” said Appelbaum, president of the retail workers’ union, in an interview in 2019. “Amazon’s vision of the world is not the vision we want or can tolerate.” He has often referred to efforts to unify Amazon as a struggle for the “future of work”.

Some union leaders said the campaign in Bessemer would advance work goals, even if it ended in loss.

The election generated “a lot of coverage and discussion, and people in this country are hearing that unions are the solution,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “We were able to have a real discussion about what the union is actually doing.”

Noam Scheiber, Sophia June, David McCabe and Miles McKinley contributed to the coverage.