Saturday, September 25News That Matters

Amazon Appears to Defeat Union Effort in Alabama

Amazon appeared to beat back the most significant labor drive in its history on Friday, when an initial tally showed that workers at its giant warehouse in Alabama had voted decisively against forming a union.

Workers cast at least 1,608 votes against a union, giving Amazon enough to defeat the effort, as ballots in favor of a union trailed at 696, according to a preliminary count. Hundreds of votes remained to be tallied, but are not enough to bridge Amazon’s margin of victory. Once the count is complete, the results will still need to be certified by federal officials.

The lopsided outcome at the 6,000-person warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., dealt a crushing blow to labor organizers, Democrats and their allies at a time when conditions have been ripe for unions to make advances.

Amazon, which has repeatedly quashed labor activism, had appeared vulnerable as it faced increasing scrutiny in Washington and around the world for its market power and influence. President Biden signaled support for the union effort, as did Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent. The pandemic, which drove millions of people to shop online, also spotlighted the plight of essential workers and raised questions about Amazon’s ability to keep those employees safe.

But in an aggressive campaign, the company argued that its workers had access to rewarding jobs without needing to involve a union. The victory leaves Amazon free to handle employees on its own terms, as it has gone on a hiring spree and expanded its work force to more than 1.3 million people.

Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who researches the history of technology companies, said Amazon’s message that it offered good jobs with good wages had prevailed over the criticisms by the union and its supporters. The outcome, she said, “reads as a vindication.”

She added that while it was just one warehouse, the election had garnered so much attention that it had become a “bellwether.” Amazon’s victory was likely to cause organized labor to think that “maybe this isn’t worth trying in other places,” Ms. O’Mara said.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which led the drive, blamed its defeat on what it said were Amazon’s anti-union tactics before and during the voting, which was conducted from early February through the end of last month.

“Our system is broken,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s president. “Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign.”

Amazon did not immediately have a comment.

A total of 3,215 ballots, or 55 percent of the 5,805 eligible voters at the warehouse, were cast in the election. A majority of votes, or 1,608, was needed to win. About 500 ballots were contested, largely by Amazon, the union said. Those ballots were not counted.

William and Lavonette Stokes, who started work at the Bessemer warehouse in July, said the union had failed to convince them how it could improve their working conditions. Amazon already provides good benefits, relatively high pay that starts at $15 an hour and opportunities to advance, said the couple, who have five children.

“Amazon is the only job I know where they pay your health insurance from Day 1,” Ms. Stokes, 52, said. She added that she had been turned off by how organizers tried to cast the union drive as an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement because most of the workers are Black.

“This was not an African-American issue,’’ said Ms. Stokes, who is Black. “I feel you can work there comfortably without being harassed.”

The vote could lead to a rethinking of strategy inside the labor movement.

For years, union organizers have tried to leverage growing concerns about low-wage workers to break into Amazon. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union had organized around critical themes of supporting Black essential workers in the pandemic. The union had estimated that 85 percent of the workers at the Bessemer warehouse were Black.

The inability to organize the warehouse also follows decades of unsuccessful and costly attempts to form unions at Walmart, the only American company that employs more people than Amazon. The repeated failures at two huge companies may push labor organizers to focus more on backing national policies, such as a higher federal minimum wage, than unionizing individual workplaces.

The Amazon warehouse, on the outskirts of Birmingham, opened a year ago, just as the pandemic took hold. It was part of a major expansion at the company that accelerated during the pandemic. Last year, Amazon grew by more than 400,000 employees in the United States, where it now has almost a million workers. Warehouse workers typically assemble and box up orders of items for customers.

The unionization effort came together quickly, especially for one aimed at such a large target. A small group of workers at the building in Bessemer approached the local branch of the retail workers’ union last summer. They were frustrated with how Amazon constantly monitored every second of their workday through technology and felt that their managers were not willing to listen to their complaints.

Organizers got at least 2,000 workers to sign cards saying they wanted an election, enough for the National Labor Relations Board, which conducts union elections, to approve a vote.

The election was conducted by mail, a concession to the pandemic. Instead of holding an election over just a few days, workers had more than a month to complete and mail in their ballots, which were due on March 29.

Amazon’s public campaign focused on what the company already provided in benefits and the $15 minimum wage, which is twice the Alabama minimum. Internally it stressed that workers did not need to pay for union membership to have a great job. The company’s slogan — “Do it without dues” — was pushed to workers in text messages, mandatory meetings and signs in bathroom stalls.

The union had complained that those tactics showed how companies like Amazon have an advantage because they can hold mandatory anti-union meetings and have access to workers in the warehouse to persuade them to vote no. In 2018, the union also tried and failed to make inroads at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island.

Ms. O’Mara said the very complaints that the union had surfaced about job stability and security made organizing workers harder. That’s because the transience of warehousing jobs “works against building solidarity and a willingness to invest in that employer and that job,” she said.

Many labor leaders have said unionizing Amazon was critical to reversing the long-term decline in union membership, which has fallen to just over 6 percent of the private sector from the upper teens in the early 1980s.

They argued that Amazon had power over millions of workers across the industries in which it operated. The company’s dominance, they said, forced competitors to adopt its labor practices, which put a priority on efficiency.

“Amazon is transforming industries one after another,” Mr. Appelbaum, the president of the retail workers union, said in an interview in 2019. “Amazon’s vision of the world is not the vision we want or can tolerate.” He has frequently referred to the effort to unionize Amazon as a fight over “the future of work.”

Some union leaders said the campaign in Bessemer would advance labor’s goals even if it ended in a loss.

The election generated “a ton of coverage and discussion, and people all over this country are hearing that unions are the solution,” said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “We’ve been able to have a real discussion about what the union actually does.”

Noam Scheiber and Sophia June contributed reporting.