As It Happens·Q&A

'We're not going away,' vows labour leader after Alabama Amazon workers vote down union 

The fight to unionize at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is far from over, says union that led the organizing efforts. Workers in Bessemer voted against forming a union this week.

Warehouse employees in Bessemer rejected the union, but organizers are accusing the company of illegal tactics

People protest in support of the unionizing efforts of the Alabama Amazon workers, in Los Angeles in March. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

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The fight to unionize at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is far from over, says union that led the organizing efforts.

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., voted 1,798 to 738 against forming a union, handing the online retail giant a decisive victory.

But Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), says Amazon didn't play fair.

The RWDSU has accused Amazon of illegally interfering in the vote. It intends to file an objection with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board and seek to have the results overturned. CBC cannot independently confirm the union's allegations. 

Appelbaum spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off on Friday after the results of the vote were announced. Here is part of their conversation. 

What are you alleging that Amazon did to thwart your union drive?

Amazon conducted a campaign of intimidation and interference. People should not believe that vote represents any sort of validation of working conditions at Amazon's facilities. Instead, Amazon made people afraid to vote for the union.

In what way did they make people afraid to vote for the union?

Amazon told workers that if the union came in, the facility might close and they would lose their jobs.

They told workers that if the union came in, they would have to pay hundreds of dollars in dues, whereas Alabama is what we refer to as a right-to-work state where nobody is ever required to pay union dues, even if there is a union at their workplace.

They installed an illegal dropbox on their property for ballots, which the National Labour Relations Board, which conducts the election, explicitly rejected.

Is that not a United States Postal Service box that was set up for people to mail in their ballots, as it was required?

Actually, it was something different. It was a refitted box, not a normal box, but what you would see in apartment buildings, that was placed on Amazon property with a tent put around it telling people to vote against the union, and with cameras focused on it. This is something that was not allowed because it also creates the impression that Amazon is conducting the election when it's not.

The National Labour Relations Board felt very strongly when Amazon requested permission for a dropbox that there should not be one. But Amazon did it anyway.

I think it demonstrates the problem with labour law in the United States and why we need labour law reform, because too many employers feel that you can violate the law with impunity, that there will not be any serious repercussions.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum pose for a picture at the entrance to Amazon facility in March. Appelbaum says the recent Amazon union vote was unfair and the RWDSU will challenge the results. (Dustin Chambers/Reuters)

Amazon issued a thank-you letter to its employees for voting against the union and said, and this is a quote, "It's easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees. But that's not true." It says, "Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policy makers and media outlets than they heard from us." Is there any truth to that?

No, there is not.

Amazon conducted what's referred to as "captive-audience" meetings, where people were required to attend an hour-long meeting several times a week where they had to listen to anti-union lectures. 

The union really did not have that sort of access to workers. In fact, we're not allowed anywhere on the company's property. We would talk to workers at the stop light as they exited the facility. So Amazon had the timing of the stoplights changed to limit our ability to even talk with workers.

It was such a one-sided campaign in favour of the company.

A banner encouraging workers to vote in labour balloting is shown at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (Jay Reeves/The Associated Press)

But is it not possible that part of the reason why people voted against the union is that they are paid better than other minimum-wage workers in the state? That they are guaranteed, according to Amazon, $15 dollars an hour, which is twice the rate, health-care from Day 1 [and] other benefits? Do you think that that is part of the reason why they defeated the union?

No, not at all, because they're paid less than what other warehouse workers receive in Alabama. Amazon pays less than the median wage in Alabama. In fact, it's lowering the median wage.

And Amazon, at the end of May last year, cut people's [pandemic hazard] pay by $2 an hour. They had no need to do that financially because Amazon was making more profits than it ever imagined possible during the pandemic. If [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos had given every single one of his employees across the United States a bonus of $105,000, he would still be wealthier now than he was at the beginning of the pandemic. So there was no financial need for him to cut workers' pay.

What I think this really came down to was a question of timing — when people voted and also the fear they felt. There were rumours started by Amazon that the facility might close if the union came in. These workers were also told that their benefits might be cut if there were a union at the facility. People were afraid. People were confused. People were scared.

You have said elsewhere that this was about more than just the Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama. What was at stake in this vote, as far as you're concerned?

I think that in this first phase of our campaign — because we're not stopping, we're not going away — we understood that this campaign is really what the future of work is going to look like and how workers are going to be treated.

People feel that they're treated as robots being managed by other robots. People talk about how they are surveilled constantly, that the pace of work is unbearable. They are expected to touch a package every eight seconds. People complain that there is not adequate time to get to the bathroom, so they have to consider whether or not they are going to be able to use the restroom facilities. People talk about being injured at work. There are more instances of calls to public hotlines about co-workers being having suicidal tendencies than anywhere else. 

It's one thing after another. These are not the conditions that we want ... for the future of work. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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