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 doitwithoutdues.com, 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."

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