Close to 6,000 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, will decide whether to unionize in a vote that ends Monday, with the results expected to be announced later this week. If the organizing drive succeeds—that is, if more than 50% of the ballots cast are in favor of unionizing—the Alabama warehouse employees would form Amazon’s very first union in the US, setting a precedent that could see workers at the company’s fulfillment centers across the country following suit. More than 1,000 Amazon workers in the US have contacted the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) about the possibility of organizing in recent weeks, according to the Washington Post.
“There are strikes and elections that become historical pivot points,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University, told Bloomberg. “This is one of them.”
Amazon isn’t too happy about the prospect of a wave of organizing among its more than 800,000 US employees. (Many of its European employees are already unionized or covered by collective bargaining agreements.)
The $1.5 trillion e-commerce giant, which has a history of employing anti-union tactics, has been urging Alabama workers to vote no with bathroom fliers, leaflets, daily text messages, mandatory anti-union meetings, and ads on Twitch, its streaming subsidiary. (Twitch has since removed the ads, which it said violated its own policy on political advertisements.) Amazon also tried (and failed) to ban workers from voting via mail-in ballots.
Clearly, the stakes of the vote are high for both sides. The Bessemer warehouse employees’ concerns include everything from Covid-19 safety protections to a lack of air conditioning to what they describe as extreme productivity quotas that leave them without sufficient time for bathroom breaks.
Meanwhile, former Amazon executives told the Washington Post that the company is worried unions would limit “its ability to rapidly hire and cut workers to meet shopping demands that spike and recede throughout the year” in accordance with its current business model. The company also noted in a statement that the starting pay at the Bessemer site is $15.30 per hour with medical benefits, adding, “we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”
So what are the chances that Amazon will unionize—and what would the impact be if it does?
Will Amazon workers in Bessemer vote to unionize?
There are reasons to think this latest push may not succeed. Amazon has successfully beaten back unionizing efforts in the rest of the country so far. A much smaller unionizing drive among Amazon warehouse workers in Delaware lost the vote by a wide margin in 2014. And Alabama is a right-to-work state, so even if the union drive succeeds employees can opt out and cannot be required to pay union dues, a threat to the union’s sustainability.
These very factors lend extra weight to the possibility of a union victory. “This is happening in the toughest state, with the toughest company, at the toughest moment,” Janice Fine, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University, told the New York Times. “If the union can prevail given those three facts, it will send a message that Amazon is organizable everywhere.”
One potentially promising sign for the pro-union Amazon camp is that US president Joe Biden seems to be on their side. In a video posted to Twitter last week (which did not explicitly name Amazon), Biden called out “workers in Alabama” voting to organize and said that his administration supports union organizing and the right to collectively bargain. “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda,” he said. Other politicians are also lending public support to the push, including the 50 members of the US House of Representatives who signed a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Senator Bernie Sanders made a trip to Bessemer in support of the union drive, and brought a Bessemer warehouse worker before the Senate Budget Committee to testify at a hearing on income inequality last week.
Another optimistic sign is that 3,000 Bessemer workers (about half the eligible employees) have already signed union cards—although some have left Amazon since signing.
Race is another factor that could make this drive different. A majority of the Bessemer Amazon workers are Black, as are many of the union organizers, as the AP points out. And the fight against racial injustice has been a common thread in conversations about the benefits of unionizing, particularly in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. “We see this as both a labor struggle and as a civil rights struggle, which has often been the story of the labor movement in the South,” RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum told NPR.
What happens if Alabama Amazon workers vote yes on unions?
If the Bessemer workers do vote to unionize, it’s likely to energize organizing efforts at Amazon warehouses elsewhere in the US. Already, the Alabama push has inspired discussions about unionizing among Amazon workers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver, and southern California. “If the most powerful company in the world can be unionized in an anti-union state like Alabama, it gives hope to people in Louisiana, in Mississippi, in West Virginia who are trying to do the same thing,” a New Orleans warehouse worker told Bloomberg. Bloomberg also reports that the Teamsters are in talks with Amazon delivery workers, though they “acknowledge the company’s health benefits and a $15-an-hour starting wage make their pitch difficult.”
As for what happens if workers vote no, there’s no doubt it will be a blow to morale. But Appelbaum says it won’t be enough to put a stop to the rising interest in unions among Amazon workers. As he told CNN: “We’ve always known that this campaign is just a beginning no matter what the result is.”
This post has been updated with a statement from Amazon.