Business

Amazon workers in Alabama vote against forming union

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., handed the online retail giant a decisive victory when they voted against forming a union and cut off a path that labour activists had hoped would lead to similar efforts throughout the company and beyond.

Twice as many voted against unionization as those in favour in a widely watched case

A truck carries a trailer with the Amazon Prime logo past the Amazon fulfilment centre in Bessemer, Ala., on March 29. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images)

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., handed the online retail giant a decisive victory when they voted against forming a union and cut off a path that labour activists had hoped would lead to similar efforts throughout the company and beyond.

After months of aggressive campaigning from both sides, 1,798 warehouse workers ultimately rejected the union while 738 voted in favour of it, according to the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is overseeing the process.

Of the 3,117 votes cast, 76 were voided for being filled out incorrectly and 505 were contested by either Amazon or the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which led the organizing efforts in Bessemer. But the NLRB said the contested votes were not enough to sway the outcome. About 53 per cent of the nearly 6,000 workers cast their ballots.

The union said it would file an objection with the NLRB charging the company with illegally interfering with the union vote. It will seek a hearing with the labour board to determine if the results "should be set aside" after it accused Amazon of spreading disinformation about the unionization effort at meetings that workers were required to attend.

"Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees. We won't let Amazon's lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged," said Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU president.

Amazon said in a statement that it didn't intimidate employees.

"Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us," the company said. "And Amazon didn't win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union."

Always a long shot

The union push was the biggest in Amazon's 26-year history and only the second time that an organizing effort from within the company had come to a vote. But Bessemer was always viewed as a long shot since it pitted the country's second-largest employer against nearly 6,000 workers in a state where laws don't favour unions.

Alabama is one of 27 "right-to-work" states where workers don't have to pay dues to unions that represent them.

That the labour movement in Bessemer even got this far was unexpected. Amazon has an undefeated record of snuffing out union efforts before they can spread. And at a time when the economy is still trying to recover and companies have been eliminating jobs, it is one of the few places still hiring during the pandemic, adding 500,000 workers last year alone.

A banner encouraging workers to vote in labour balloting is seen on display at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., at the end of March. (Jay Reeves/The Associated Press)

But the pandemic also revealed inequities in the workforce, with many having to report to their jobs even while the coronavirus was raging, leading to concerns over health and safety.

The organizing efforts in Bessemer coincided with protests happening throughout the U.S. after the police killing of George Floyd, raising awareness around racial injustice and further fuelling frustration over how workers at the warehouse — more than 80 per cent who are Black — are being treated, with 10-hour days of packing and loading boxes and two 30-minute breaks.

The organizing effort inside the Bessemer warehouse began last summer when a group of workers approached the RWDSU about forming a union. The movement gained momentum ever since, attracting the attention of professional athletes, Hollywood stars and high-profile elected officials, including U.S. President Joe Biden.

During the voting process, workers were flooded with messages from Amazon and the union. Amazon hung anti-union signs throughout the warehouse, including inside bathroom stalls. It held mandatory meetings to convince workers why the union was a bad idea and also argued that it already offered more than twice the minimum wage in Alabama plus benefits without paying union dues.

Union organizers, meanwhile, stood outside the warehouse gates trying to talk to people driving in and out of work. It also had volunteers call all of the nearly 6,000 workers, promising a union will lead to better working conditions, better pay and more respect.

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