Union Loses Pivotal Election At Amazon Warehouse In Alabama

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is accusing Amazon of breaking labor law during the campaign and plans to contest the results.

Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama voted against unionizing in the most closely watched U.S. union election in decades — a lopsided win for the online retail giant and a stinging setback for organized labor.

In a preliminary tally completed Friday by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), workers voted 1,798 to 738 against unionizing. The results have not yet been certified.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said the union would seek to have the results of the election set aside. The union accused Amazon of committing “unfair labor practices” and interfering with the vote. Those claims could prompt a lengthy legal fight at the labor board and delay the results from being finalized.

“Amazon deliberately confused and lied to people about what it meant to have a union in the facility,” Appelbaum said. ”We believe that a re-run election will be very likely.”

Amazon thanked employees for voting in the election in a blog post following the results.

“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company said. “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.”

Although Amazon must bargain with unions in some other countries, the company’s U.S. warehouses remain union-free. The seven-week mail-in election was the largest union threat to date in Amazon’s home country, with nearly 6,000 workers eligible to cast ballots. More than 3,200 ultimately did, and both the union and the company ran aggressive get-out-the-vote campaigns.

The company fought the organizing effort fiercely, hiring “union avoidance” consultants who specialize in beating back union drives, holding mandatory anti-union meeting, and subjecting the workforce to anti-union literature and texts.

The union has accused Amazon of stepping over legal lines, particularly regarding a mailbox placed on warehouse property when the election began in early February. The labor board had rejected Amazon’s request for drop boxes onsite, but Amazon asked the U.S. Postal Service to place a mailbox on its campus, according to emails obtained by the union through a public records request and published by The Washington Post. The union has called the mailbox an attempt by Amazon to exert control over the election.

If the union fights the results, there would be a hearing to investigate the union’s claims against Amazon. NLRB officials could potentially set aside the results and order a new election if they find Amazon’s behavior to be as egregious as the RWDSU has portrayed it. A lengthy dispute could eventually go before the NLRB’s board in Washington, which President Joe Biden could reshape in Democrats’ favor as early as August.

A union organizer waves to cars outside the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, during the union election.
A union organizer waves to cars outside the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, during the union election.
PATRICK T. FALLON via Getty Images

Several workers who voted against the union spoke at a press conference organized by Amazon on Friday. They said there were issues at the warehouse that Amazon needed to address, but they were never convinced the union was the right way to fix things. William Stokes, a process assistant at the facility, said “a lot of things that Amazon already has are better than what the union can offer.”

Linda Burns, a pro-union worker, said during a press conference hosted by the RWDSU that she was not discouraged by the outcome.

“I’m proud,” Burns said. “This is the beginning. It’s not over.”

The union election in the Birmingham suburb of Bessemer drew the type of outside interest that is more commonly associated with a crucial political election. Progressive lawmakers such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) visited the area to show their solidarity with the pro-union workers. Other high-profile Democrats lambasted Amazon for its anti-union tactics, while famous athletes and celebrities voiced their support for unionization. Even Biden weighed in with a speech condemning union-busting efforts by employers, a clear reference to Amazon.

That support was not enough to tip the scales in the union’s favor. Many labor experts said Amazon’s aggressive tactics showed a need to overhaul labor law and level the playing field between employers and unions during elections. While Amazon held regular onsite meetings to discourage unionizing, the union was making its case to workers largely through phone outreach amid the pandemic.

As Amazon continues to grow and reshape different industries, it’s become more imperative for unions to gain some kind of toehold inside the company. Amazon’s workforce has swelled to nearly a million in the U.S., influencing not just the retail space but logistics and web services as well.

Bessemer workers approached the RWDSU last summer, shortly after the warehouse first opened. They had grievances about Amazon’s productivity requirements and work monitoring, as well as the typical pay of $15 per hour, which they said did not match the workload. The union said it ultimately gathered more than 3,000 signed union cards to prompt the election.

Amazon argued that it already offered sufficient pay and benefits. The company told workers they would be paying dues — even though Alabama is a right-to-work state and dues are optional — and might not see any improvements if they voted for the union.

Research has shown that anti-union campaigns like the one run by Amazon can significantly aid efforts to beat back organizing. Initial Labor Department filings show that Amazon was paying more than $3,000 per day for each consultant under contract, though future filings will give a broader idea of how much Amazon spent to combat the union drive.

The preliminary tally in Amazon’s favor does not mean the company’s labor troubles are behind it. The election brought unprecedented scrutiny of Amazon’s labor practices in both the media and Congress, with one pro-union worker even testifying before a Senate committee.

The publicity of the union drive helped galvanize organizing at other Amazon facilities as well. The union says it has gathered more than 1,000 union cards from other Amazon sites, which could lead to more unionization efforts elsewhere.

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