Amazon workers at a giant warehouse in Alabama voted fiercely against union formation on Friday, disrupting the most important organizational dynamic in the internet giant’s history and taking a blow. Labor and Democrats when conditions are ripe for them to make progress.
Workers dropped 1,798 votes against a union, enough for Amazon to beat the effort. According to federal officials, the number of votes in favor of a union stood at 738, less than 30% of the votes counted.
The failure result at a 6,000-man warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., Occurred even as the pandemic’s impact on the economy and the election of a pro-labor presidency made the country more aware of the circumstances of essential workers.
Amazon, which has repeatedly blocked labor activity, appears vulnerable in the face of increasing scrutiny in Washington and around the world over its market power and influence. President Biden signaled in support of the union’s efforts, as did Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is independent in Vermont. The pandemic caused millions of online shoppers to also question Amazon’s ability to keep those employees safe.
But in an aggressive campaign, the company argues that its workers can access rewarding jobs without having to join a union. Winning gives Amazon the freedom to treat employees on its own terms as it has continued to recruit and expand its workforce to over 1.3 million people.
Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the history of tech companies, says Amazon’s message that they provide good jobs with good salaries prevails. quotes from the union and its supporters. As a result, she said, “read like justification.”
She added that although it was just a warehouse, the election drew so much attention that it became an “election”. Amazon’s victory might make organized workers think, “Maybe it’s not worth trying elsewhere,” says O’Mara.
The retail, wholesale and department store alliance, took the lead, blamed its failure for what they saw as Amazon’s anti-alliance tactics before and in the vote, which has been running since early February. to the end of last month. The union said it would challenge the results and ask federal labor officials to investigate Amazon for creating “an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and / or fear of retaliation”.
“Our system is broken,” said Stuart Appelbaum, union president. “Amazon took full advantage of that.”
Amazon said in a statement, “The union will say Amazon won this election because we threatened employees, but that’s not true.” It added, “Amazon didn’t win – our employees chose to vote against joining the union.”
About half of the 5,876 qualified voters at the warehouse voted in the election. A majority of votes is required, or 1,521, to win. The coalition said about 500 votes were disputed, most of which belonged to Amazon. Those votes were not counted. If a union is passed, it will be the first union open to Amazon workers in the United States.
William and Lavonette Stokes, who started working at the Bessemer warehouse in July, said the union had failed to convince them how their working conditions could be improved. Amazon has provided good benefits, relatively high salaries starting at $ 15 an hour and the chance to get promoted, said the couple with five children.
Ms. Stokes, 52, said: “Amazon is the only job I know where they pay for health insurance for you since Day 1. She added that she was shut down by the way organizers try to turn union dynamics into an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement since most workers are black.
“This is not an African-American problem,” said Black Stokes. “I feel like you can comfortably work there without being disturbed.”
During a press conference hosted by Amazon on Friday, Mr. Stokes and other workers said they have concerns they want the company to address, like better training and anti-bias training for regulators. physical.
“We just felt like we could do it without union,” he said. “Why pay unions to do what we can do ourselves?”
Unions support Amazon workers said they were disappointed by the results. “Of course we will be disappointed and angry about how this election played out,” Emmet Ashford, a worker in the Bessemer warehouse, said at a press conference organized by the union.
He and other workers said they hoped election results would be overturned by Amazon’s anti-union tactics and added that they were proud of inspiring workers at other warehouses to see. consider merging.
“Our time will return,” said Mr. Ashford.
Voting could lead to a reexamination of strategy within the labor movement.
For years, union organizers have been trying to capitalize on growing fears about low-paid workers to break into Amazon. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Alliance has organized around important topics about assisting the essential black workers in the pandemic. Trade unions estimate that 85% of workers at the Bessemer warehouse are Black.
The inability to organize a warehouse also entails decades of unsuccessful and costly attempts to form unions at Walmart, the only US company that employs more people than Amazon. Repeated failures at the two giants could motivate labor organizers to focus more on supporting national policies, such as higher federal minimum wages, instead. for consolidating individual workplaces.
Democrats in Washington, who put all of their weight behind the union’s efforts, said the loss shows they need to push for changes to labor laws and antitrust. The House of Representatives approved an expansion of worker protections this year, but it is unlikely to be passed in the Senate.
“Workers cannot organize to scale in the US without labor law reform, stopping it altogether,” Representative Andy Levin, a Michigan Democratic Party member who visited Bessemer, said in a statement. interview.
The Amazon warehouse, on the outskirts of Birmingham, opened up a year ago, just as the pandemic broke out. It was part of a massive expansion at the company that accelerated during a pandemic. Last year, Amazon grew more than 400,000 employees in the United States, where it now employs nearly one million workers. Warehouse workers usually assemble and package items for customers.
The attempt to consolidate came together quickly, especially for a company aimed at such a large goal. A small group of workers at the Bessemer building approached the local branch of the retail workers’ union last summer. They are frustrated with how Amazon continuously tracks every second of their workday through technology, and they feel that their manager isn’t willing to listen to their complaints.
The organizers seemed to have had strong support early on, as at least 2,000 workers signed a card saying they wanted an election, enough for the National Labor Relations Commission, to organize. Union election, passed a vote.
Some labor experts say the erosion of that early support shows the employer’s power to lobby against unions by holding mandatory meetings and talking to staff during work hours on the flip side of the organization. Others say that the coalition’s failure reflects problems with its organizational tactics, including gaining the support of politicians and celebrities in the country.
Elections were conducted by mail, a concession to the pandemic. Instead of holding an election for just a few days, workers have more than a month to complete and mail their ballot, which is due on March 29.
Amazon’s public campaign focuses on the benefits the company has to offer and a $ 15 minimum wage, which is more than double the Alabama minimum. Internally it stresses that workers do not need to pay union members to have a great job. The company’s motto – “Do it without charge” – was sent to workers in text messages, in mandatory meetings and signs in bathroom stalls.
O’Mara said it was the complaints that the union raised about job stability and security that made it more difficult to organize workers. That’s because the transience of warehouse jobs “is against building solidarity and a willingness to invest in the employer and the job,” she said.
Some union leaders say the Bessemer campaign will advance the goals of labor even if it ends at a loss.
Sara Nelson, president of the Airline Cabin Crew Association, said the election generated “a lot of rumors and discussions, and people across the country are hearing that unions are the solution.” “We were able to really discuss what the union is actually doing.”
However, many labor leaders have said that consolidating Amazon is critical to reverse the long-term decline in union membership, which has fallen to just over 6% in the private sector. benevolent youth in the early 1980s.
They argue that Amazon has power over millions of workers in the industries in which it operates. They say that corporate dominance has forced competitors to adopt their methods of labor, which prioritize efficiency.
“Amazon is transforming from one industry to another,” said Appelbaum, president of the retail workers union, in a 2019 interview. “Amazon’s vision of the world is not the vision we want or can accept.” He often called the attempt to unify Amazon as a war for the “future of work.”
Report contributed by Noam Scheiber, Sophia June, David McCabe and Miles McKinley.