Amazon workers voted not to unionize in Alabama, but the fight's not over

After a tense two day count, Amazon has won its effort to defeat the union election vote.

Amazon workers voted not to unionize in Alabama, but the fight's not over

A union supporter stands outside the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama.

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images

Some Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, lost their union election today, at least temporarily ending the effort to create the first unionized group of Amazon employees.

Amazon won the election vote tally by more than a 2:1 ratio, securing 1,798 "no" votes to the union's 738 "yes" votes. Nearly 6,000 full- and part-time employees in the Bessemer fulfillment center were eligible to vote in the election by mail from mid-February until the end of March, and about half of that workforce cast ballots. Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (the national union supporting the organizing effort) challenged the validity of hundreds of ballots before the vote count, but the vote margin in favor of Amazon was high enough that the challenged ballots will not affect the final outcome.

The RWDSU immediately contested the results and announced it would be filing unfair labor practice charges against Amazon with the National Labor Relations Board. The union will argue that Amazon violated labor laws and the election agreement in its anti-union efforts, interfering with workers' voting rights.

The union's chance for victory may rest on Amazon's decision to push the United States Postal Service to install a mailbox for mailed ballots at the entrance of the Bessemer facility, according to emails obtained by the RWDSU. An NLRB judge ruled against Amazon's push for an on-site ballot box before the election began, and the company's efforts to install a postal service mailbox may have directly contravened that ruling in violation of the election agreement, which could lead an NLRB judge to throw out the election results.

"We won't let Amazon's lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged, which is why we are formally filing charges against all of the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote. Amazon knew full well that unless they did everything they possibly could, even illegal activity, their workers would have continued supporting the union," Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU's president, said in a statement.

"More than half of large employers are charged with violating the law during a union election campaign. That is a broken system," said Celine McNicholas, the director of government affairs at the Economic Policy Institute. "These results make clear that this is time for policymakers to prioritize labor law reform. Without significant change, workers will continue to face an unfair election system marked by employer coercion and intimidation as was clearly documented in this case."

The votes were counted over the course of two days by six masked administrators shoved into a tiny, puke-green room, moving ballots into boxes labeled "yes" and "no" with colored construction paper. Every ten seconds or so during the counting process, an administrator shouted "yes" or "no" to indicate they had reviewed a ballot, and the votes were recounted every time 100 "yes" or "no" votes were recorded. Hundreds of observers watched the process on Zoom, while the administrators showed observers how they opened boxes, broke them down, verified boxes were empty, and checked that each ballot was correct.

"Within Amazon itself, win or lose, this campaign really brought to light the working conditions of workers in Amazon warehouses," said Ken Jacobs, the chair of the University of California, Berkeley's Labor Center. "I think we will continue to see actions by workers and efforts to organize Amazon warehouses, regardless of what happens, regardless of the outcome of the results in Bessemer."

While this particular election set an important precedent for Amazon warehouse workers specifically, worker organizing in the tech industry more broadly has also boomed over the last few years. Workers at Alphabet, Kickstarter, Glitch and Mobilize are among the software engineers to have formed unions since 2019, while a group of contractors for Google in Pittsburgh, tech shuttle drivers in California and gig workers for Uber, Lyft, Instacart and others have also formed unions or other collective groups in the same period. The group leading the Alphabet Workers Union formed a non-contract union in order to allow temporary employees and contractors into the same collective group as software engineers, an attempt to bridge the divide between the two types of workers for the first time in the tech space.

Large national unions are also moving into the tech sector. The Communications Workers of America and the Office and Professional Employees International Union have both launched initiatives to unionize workers in the tech space, called Code-CWA and Tech Workers Union Local 1010, respectively.

National public opinion toward unionization has also become more positive in the last year. Sixty-five percent of Americans approve of labor unions, a high not recorded since the year 2000, according to Gallup polling. "The Amazon campaign really highlighted the change we are seeing in terms of worker demand and interest in unionization, and a big change in the public's view of unions," Jacobs said. Despite the loss, Jacobs believes that the attention and energy focused on the campaign over the last few months will contribute to increased interest in collective action.

The unionization push first began when a small group of Bessemer warehouse workers filed a petition to unionize with the RWDSU in November 2020. They proposed a bargaining unit of around 1,500 employees, but while the workers eventually won the right to hold the election, Amazon successfully pushed to expand the group of eligible workers to around 5,800, in order to include part-time employees, cleaners, medical care workers and other assorted employees, a tactic traditionally used to dilute the potential power and success of the election.

While Amazon workers haven't seriously attempted a unionization effort since a failed push by call center workers in 2014, the RWDSU leadership believed this particular group of workers could succeed in their push because of the history of successful worker organizing in Alabama generally, and in the greater Birmingham region specifically. RWDSU has successfully won union elections and contracts for poultry workers in Alabama and Georgia in recent years.

The election has sparked national attention, including endorsements from Sens. Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders and a nationally televised speech about union rights from President Joe Biden. "Because of the size of Amazon, and how much we've all come to rely on these workers over the course of the pandemic, people are more aware of and in solidarity with workers in Amazon fulfillment centers … the essentialness of this workforce is incredibly clear to the average American right now," McNicholas said.

Amazon's aggressive anti-union position — including signs posted in the bathroom, a website called, and text messaging to workers — has also made the public pay more attention to Amazon's working conditions and worker demands, according to McNicholas. "Amazon has chosen to be the poster child for the traditional response to workers choosing to organize," she said. "The takeaway, the learning from this experience: This is what workers face all the time when they organize."

"There are lots of things around how employers respond to workers' efforts to organize that were brought to public attention as a result of the organizing drive, what employers do to deprive workers of the right to democratically choose whether they want," Jacobs agreed.

Amazon has challenged the allegations of poor working conditions and the criticisms of its reaction to the union drive. "I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that's not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace," Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark said in a tweet.

"It's easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that's not true," an Amazon spokesperson wrote in the statement after the election results were released. "Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn't win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union."

"These companies that do everything to stop unionization have decided that actually the benefits they will have to give this workforce when they have a union are significant enough to spend millions of dollars preemptively," McNicholas said. "The cost of adequate break times, not having quotas for packing and shipping things, there is an economic cost to that. Those would be business practices that I would argue would likely cost Amazon far more than an additional dollar an average for a worker. And they know that."


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep ReadingShow less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep ReadingShow less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep ReadingShow less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep ReadingShow less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep ReadingShow less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories