It's A No: Amazon Warehouse Workers Vote Against Unionizing In Historic Election

Apr 9, 2021
Originally published on April 9, 2021 11:12 am

Updated April 9, 2021 at 1:28 PM ET

Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama will not be forming a union.

The vast majority of votes cast by Amazon's workers in Bessemer, Ala., were against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in a stinging defeat of the union drive. The final tally showed 1,798 votes against unionizing and 738 votes in favor of the union.

That means Amazon has withstood the largest union push yet among its U.S. workers despite celebrity endorsements, including implied solidarity from President Biden. Building on years of successfully fighting off labor organizing, the company avoided the prospect of its first unionized warehouse in America.

The retail union is now filing a legal challenge to the election and charges of unfair labor practices against Amazon. It's requesting a hearing by the National Labor Relations Board "to determine if the results of the election should be set aside because conduct by the employer created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees' freedom of choice."

Amazon rejected the allegations Friday, adding in a statement: "Amazon didn't win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union." Nearly 5,900 people work at Amazon's Bessemer facility, and more than half cast ballots in the election.

The union push in Bessemer has been the most consequential labor battle in decades. With a ballooning warehouse workforce, Amazon has grown into the second-largest private employer in the U.S., with more than 800,000 employees.

Union leaders said the vote alone prompted hundreds of new inquiries from other Amazon workers across the country. It was the first union election at an Amazon warehouse since 2014 when a small group of technicians in Delaware also voted against unionizing.

"We're really seeing how the balance is always tipped in favor of employers," said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. "Organizing a union under current labor law is extremely challenging — the odds are always stacked against you."

In Alabama, Amazon unleashed a strong pushback, with lengthy mandatory "information sessions" and flurries of text messages to its workers. The company blanketed the warehouse with its slogan "Do it without dues." The company argued the union was only interested in collecting workers' hard-earned money in the form of dues, while Amazon paid $15 starting pay — far above the local minimum — and provided generous health care and other benefits.

"This particular union can't give us anything that Amazon does not already offer," said LaVonette Stokes, a Bessemer worker who voted against unionizing. "There are a [lot] of people who never have issues."

At first, the Bessemer union push appeared to take Amazon — like much of the country — by surprise. Historically, unions have been a tough sell in Southern states such as Alabama. Some Bessemer workers quietly reached out to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union last summer, a few months after the warehouse opened. They described grueling productivity quotas, wanting more say in how people at Amazon work, get disciplined or get fired.

The pandemic put in stark relief the stakes for essential workers. Many workers pointed out the immense wealth of both Amazon, whose profits skyrocketed during the lockdowns, and CEO Jeff Bezos, one of the richest people in the world.

The retail union mobilized an organizing support system: unionized workers around the region, many from poultry plants. Within months, more than half of Amazon staff at the Bessemer warehouse signed cards saying they wanted a union shop, prompting federal labor authorities to schedule the vote.

Several controversies bubbled up around the election, and they will likely factor in the union's pending legal challenges.

A key one was over a new mailbox that Amazon says was installed by the U.S. Postal Service to make voting "convenient, safe and private." But the mailbox placement inside an Amazon tent right by the warehouse prompted many workers to wonder whether the company was trying to monitor the vote. The retail union has argued Amazon's push for the mailbox tainted the vote and went against NLRB's directives.

Another controversy was over the timing of a red light outside the warehouse, which was shortened by the county at Amazon's request in December. Was it to relieve traffic jams or to stop organizers from talking to workers in their cars? Amazon said it was common practice for shift changes and peak holiday season.

The union push in Bessemer gathered the attention of sports stars, politicians and celebrities. Actor Danny Glover, a group of House Democrats and longtime Amazon critic Sen. Bernie Sanders came to visit. Black Lives Matter organizers stood in solidarity. Endorsements arrived from politicians, including the president and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

The result might prompt Biden and other U.S. officials to revisit the laws that give big advantages to employers, including the freedom "to bombard their employees with anti-union messages," labor professor Givan said.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama will not be negotiating their work terms through a union. In a historic election, the workers voted heavily against unionizing. The vote tally ended just minutes ago, and NPR's Alina Selyukh has been covering this story. Hey there, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello, hello.

INSKEEP: First, I want to understand why the union vote at a single warehouse in Alabama would be considered historic at all. What kind of warehouse is this?

SELYUKH: Right. So this warehouse is one of many, many, many warehouses of this kind that Amazon has around the country and around the world. It's really large, extraordinarily large. A total of 5,800, a little over 5,800, people work at this warehouse.

INSKEEP: Wow.

SELYUKH: And it's, you know, where all of that packing and repacking and opening of boxes happens. Trucks pull in at all hours of day and night, and workers hustle to get your packages ready to ship them to you. And the reason this warehouse was so highly watched is because this is the first union vote in - at Amazon in years, and this was potentially looking to be the first unionized warehouse for Amazon in the country, which didn't go that way.

INSKEEP: Wow. And - yeah, and you can see why - thousands of people at this one facility and, if it were to succeed, it might spread to other facilities. So what was the vote tally?

SELYUKH: The vote tally, totally, was almost 1,800 votes against unionizing versus a bit over 700 votes in favor of a union. So it was a pretty decisive election. The majority of Amazon's workers in this warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which means, to reiterate, Amazon has once again withstood a union push. And this was the largest union push among its U.S. workers. And it has avoided the prospect of its first unionized warehouse in the country.

INSKEEP: It seems to me that this was greeted nationally with so much interest and excitement among proponents of labor unions that I get the impression that the union movement thought they had a better chance than this.

SELYUKH: Well, there were hundreds of workers who had expressed interest in a union. And this unionization effort came together extremely fast. The drive started with a few workers who reached out to a union last summer, and in a matter of months, they had enough cards signed by workers to show enough support for federal labor officials to schedule this election.

And, in fact, union leaders said that the vote itself had prompted a massive new wave of interest in labor organizing. They were saying that they were hearing from warehouses across the country, in other facilities and other companies of workers saying, well, Bessemer is voting on this potential Amazon union; what can we do? And so there was this sense of potential watershed moment, and it was a really major labor battle. And it continues - I should say, it continues to be a major labor battle.

INSKEEP: Yeah, there'll be the question of whether people try union votes at other places. But is the vote in Bessemer, Ala., final? Is it over there?

SELYUKH: Well, the tally is final. But, of course, now, as I was sort of alluding to it, the union is - the retail union is pursuing legal challenges to this election. They are planning to file charges of unfair labor practices against Amazon. They're requesting a hearing to question some of the actions that Amazon has done during the vote count. They're essentially saying that Amazon had created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and fear that may have tainted this vote. And so we will be watching how that legal challenge plays out.

INSKEEP: Alina, thanks for the update.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Alina Selyukh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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