Amazon’s Win in Union Fight Shows Harsh Realities Facing Labour Movement

Protestors supporting Amazon workers’ union efforts in March. Shutterstock Inc’s fierce resistance to unionisation, skepticism among workers that organising could get them a better deal and decisions on election parameters all contributed to the apparently lopsided defeat of a labour drive at the company’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, people close to the events said.

A vote by workers on whether to unionise failed on Friday by a more than 2-to-1 margin in a major win for the world’s largest online retailer. The union plans to object to the results based on Amazon’s conduct during the election.

Union leaders had hoped the campaign just outside Birmingham would spark a new era of worker activism, but instead it has illustrated the continued challenges facing the labour movement.

As the final ballots were tallied Friday, officials at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) argued that Amazon’s unfair tactics were to blame for what was on track to be a defeat by a 2-1 margin in an election where only 55 percent of voters cast ballots.

In a statement, the RWSDU said, “The results of the election should be set aside because conduct by the employer created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice.”

Amazon did not immediately comment on the allegations.

The e-commerce company campaigned for weeks, plastering the warehouse and even a bathroom stall with anti-union notices, stopping work for mandatory employee meetings on the election, and bombarding workers with text alerts criticising the RWDSU.

In one of the alerts seen by Reuters, warehouse leadership warned staff that collective bargaining could result in workers losing benefits — something the union has disputed. “Everything is on the table,” the text declared.

In one of the mandatory meetings, presentations included assertions that union leaders used membership dues for improper purposes such as buying expensive cars and taking vacations, a former employee at the company’s Bessemer, Alabama, fulfilment centre told Reuters. The union did not immediately comment on the claim.

But some warehouse workers involved in the Bessemer battle pointed to other shortcomings in the union drive. Many younger workers, lacking experience with unions and knowledge of labour history, were never persuaded of the benefits of organising, these people said. Some cited Amazon’s above-average wages, and better working conditions overall than other local employers.

“Good Paying Job”

Denean Plott, 56, who picked customer orders at the warehouse until March and voted for the union, said, “It is a good paying job. They do have wonderful benefits.” And young employees “don’t feel they need a union because they’re not putting health and safety at risk as much.”

Some cited fear that voting for a union would mean a constant battle with management they would rather do without.

A group of dock employees who do heavy lifting at the warehouse were against the unionisation effort and appreciated Amazon’s current benefits, which include receiving health insurance upon hiring, according to one of the former fulfilment centre employees. These dock workers also held sceptical views of unions generally, associating them with corruption, the former employee said.

Union leaders had hoped the election outside Birmingham would spark a new era of worker activism, at a time when only 6.3 percent of private sector workers belonged to unions in 2020, according to US Labor Department statistics. Private sector union membership declined by 428,000 in 2020 from the year before.

High-profile union organising drives have failed at factories in the South run by Nissan Motor Co and Volkswagen AG, and aircraft maker Boeing Co. In each of those cases, as at Amazon, union leaders bet that workers unhappy with wages and working conditions would jump at the chance to have a union go toe-to-toe with management. In each case, the unions were wrong.

The retail workers’ union struggled in Bessemer with some of the same challenges that carmakers previously hurled at the auto workers’ union, known as the UAW. Car company officials made much of the conviction of several UAW leaders on charges of embezzling union funds, for instance.

Other union decisions may have backfired. In December, Amazon lawyers filed lengthy exhibits with regulators delineating thousands of additional individual employees at the Bessemer warehouse they said should be allowed to vote in the election, beyond the 1,500 the union originally proposed. After some back and forth, the union accepted sending ballots to more than 5,800 workers.

Companies often try to pack such proposed bargaining units with additional workers to dilute union support, making it harder to achieve the majority needed to win an election, according to labour experts including former US National Labor Relations Board.

The union has disputed that it was hurt by the bargaining unit’s expansion, saying it expected that.

Harry Johnson, a Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP partner representing Amazon, said Amazon simply wanted “to make sure that everybody essentially doing the same job at the fulfilment centre would have a chance to vote.” He added that, generally, additional voters can include temporary workers not necessarily more inclined to side with the company.

Defeating the Union

The union’s push for a mail-in vote, rather than the socially distanced in-person voting that Amazon proposed, was successful. But the NLRB had set a March 29 deadline for submitting ballots, several weeks after they were mailed. That gave Amazon nearly two additional months to bombard workers with text messages and other communications urging them to vote against unionisation.

“Time is the weapon employers use to defeat the union,” said Mark Pearce, a Democratic NLRB chair during the Obama administration.

Concerns about US Postal Service operations, prominent leading up to the November 2020 US presidential election, likely contributed to allowing several weeks between mailing ballots and the deadline for returning them, Pearce said. Regardless, the additional time likely conferred some benefit to Amazon, he added.

The union also had the extra time, and garnered support from US lawmakers and President Joe Biden as the vote drew closer. Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and rapper Killer Mike held rallies in Bessemer supporting the union drive.

Pro-union politicians and activists argued the power imbalance between the workers and the company was just too much to overcome.

“The pressure a company like Amazon builds up against you can feel like a 1,000 lb weight on your chest,” Congressman Andy Levin, a pro-labour member from Michigan, wrote on Twitter. “The company’s goal is to create so much pressure, anxiety and fear —and to make workers feel that pressure will never go away as long as the union is around.”

The setup of Amazon’s warehouse itself may have tipped the vote in the retailer’s favour. The size of a number of football fields, the warehouse was not a space for social gathering, let alone union organising discussion.

The buzz of machines obscured people’s voices, workers’ desks were spread out, social-distancing became the norm during the COVID-19 pandemic, and cell phones on the clock were not allowed, current and former workers told Reuters.

Plott, one of the former Amazon workers, said, “You might be in that area for hours and not see a soul.”

By Jeffrey Dastin and Mike Spector with writing by Jonathan Weber; Editors: Vanessa O’Connell and Nick Zieminski.

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