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UPHILL BATTLE

How Amazon beat the union vote in Bessemer, Alabama

Reuters/Dustin Chambers
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have voted against unionization in an election that drew national attention for its potential to alter the power dynamics between the $1.7 trillion e-commerce giant and its employees.

With 1,798 workers voting against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), and 738 voting for the union, the margin is sufficient to declare victory for Amazon in beating back the effort. Roughly 45% of the 5,800 workers eligible to vote did not participate in the mail-in election.

Had the vote gone the other way, the Bessemer workers would have formed the first Amazon union in the US. Labor advocates had hoped that a victory might embolden the more than 500,000 US Amazon warehouse workers to then organize as well.

“Why this matters so much is that Amazon itself is now so huge as the second largest private-sector employer in the country, and growing fast,” says Alec MacGillis, a reporter at ProPublica and author of the new book Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America. “If you want to lift up low-wage workers today to something more stable, sustainable, family-supporting, and career-supporting, like the manufacturing jobs of yore, then you need to organize jobs at Amazon.”

That’s not going to happen this time, and there are a number of factors that may have gone into Amazon’s victory over the union vote.

Amazon’s anti-union campaign

Drawing on some of the anti-union tactics it employed in the past, Amazon papered bathroom stalls with anti-union fliers, sent daily texts, and pulled Bessemer workers into mandatory group conversations and one-on-one meetings to paint a picture of the negative consequences of unionization.

All this was possible in part because Amazon has a significant home-court advantage, as Steven Greenhouse, a former New York Times labor reporter and author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present & Future of American Labor, noted on Twitter: “Amazon had access to its workers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, while US law let Amazon bar union organizers from entering the warehouse.”

Emails from US Postal Service employees surfaced by the Washington Post also show that Amazon got USPS to install a mailbox on warehouse property just before the start of the mail-in ballot period in February—a move that the RWDSU says was meant to intimidate workers by suggesting that Amazon was involved in running the election.

Amazon denies that was the intent; spokesperson Heather Knox told the Post that the mailbox was “a simple, secure, and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less.”

RWSDU president Stuart Appelbaum has said that the union plans to challenge the outcome with the National Labor Relations Board and to “hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign.” The mailbox issue is likely to be one major point of contention.

A large voting pool

Another factor influencing the outcome of the election may be that Amazon pushed to increase the pool of workers eligible for the union. “It’s in Amazon’s interest to get that number so big,” MacGillis says: The larger the pool, the harder it is to reach the threshold of more than 50% in favor necessary to win the election.

High turnover and higher wages

Then there’s the fact that the Bessemer fulfillment center, like other Amazon warehouses, has high turnover rates: If employees think of their jobs as a waystation, they’re less likely to be invested in trying to improve working conditions. In interviews with Amazon workers who are opposed to unionizing, MacGillis says, “What comes through is their incredibly low expectations, like, It’s just a job that will pay $15 an hour, that’s basically enough for this kind of entry-level work, better than fast food, I’m probably not going to be here long anyway.”

The minimum wage in Alabama is $7.25 an hour, while the starting wage at the Bessemer warehouse is $15.30 an hour with medical benefits. A recent Bloomberg story interviewing 16 workers there found sentiment about Amazon as an employer was divided, with a good number regarding the company as preferable to other local alternatives.

What Amazon’s victory means for organizing efforts

The union drive did succeed in increasing other warehouse workers’ interest in organizing—more than 1,000 Amazon workers have contacted RWDSU about following in Bessemer’s footsteps in recent weeks. But Amazon’s victory in this election will no doubt be disheartening for union efforts elsewhere.

The “no” vote is a signal to unions looking to invest in expanding unionization; it “raises the risk of that investment and makes them likely to be less enthusiastic about these campaigns,” says Matthew Bidwell, an associate professor at the Wharton School of Management at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s also a signal to workers who might be driving those campaigns. “If you think you can try as hard as you like but you’re unlikely to succeed, you’re probably not going to put in the effort,” Bidwell says.

Still, Amazon is likely to be the target of more unionizing efforts in the future, according to Hector Cordero-Guzmán, a sociologist and professor at the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College who studies labor and inequality.

“One thing we do know about the history of the union movement is that these defeats tend to be temporary, not permanent,” Cordero-Guzmán says. And Amazon in particular will appeal to union organizers because “the company is so big and powerful and the issues around it are so visible,” he says. Amazon is a company that countless Americans interact with every day. “So that visibility means that it’s going to continue to be a target of organizing efforts.”

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