Amazon Defeats Union Push at Alabama Plant

The failed vote is a setback for a retail union and politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders, who described the effort as a pivotal moment for American unions and workers.  

The Amazon fulfilment center in Bessemer, Ala., where workers came up short in an election on whether to form a union. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

(CN) — The labor union whose failed bid to organize the first Amazon fulfillment center in the United States vowed Friday to file objections to the election that showed workers rejected the unionization effort by a wide margin.

Of the 5,876 workers at the facility, 3,041 cast mail-in ballots over whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. It was a vote that the union and politicians such as Senator Bernie Sanders described as a pivotal moment for unions and labor around the country.

After a hand count, the NLRB announced 738 employees voted to join the RWDSU while 1,798 voted against the move.

An additional 76 ballots were declared void and 505 have been challenged – not enough to overturn the results of the election, as the union needed a simple majority of votes to prevail.

Even before the NLRB finished its public portion of the count and closed out the Zoom call that broadcast the proceedings at its office in Birmingham, the RWDSU issued a statement saying it would file objections.

Amazon, the union said, had interfered.

Stuart Applebaum, president of the RWDSU, told reporters on a Zoom press call that the results of the election showed the effect of the retail giant’s interference and intimidation.

“The system is broken and Amazon took full advantage of that,” Applebaum said.

He added that the RWDSU would be filing multiple challenges, alleging the company illegally interfered with the election, which could result in a redo.

Applebaum said the company misinformed workers with its “do it without dues” campaign because in Alabama, a right-to-work state, union dues are voluntary.

Furthermore, while the NLRB told the company it could not install a drop box on its property to collect workers’ ballots, the company had the U.S. Postal Service install a mailbox instead.

This, Applebaum said, “creates the impression of surveillance” at a company that heavily monitors its employees for productivity. He said the union planned to show the NLRB that Amazon violated the law by harvesting votes.

“This is the first phase of the campaign,” Applebaum added.

The union, which represents a wide range of people from chicken plant workers in the South to adult toy store employees in New York City, had picked a fight with one of the biggest companies in the world, founded by Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest men. It sought to organize workers who were initially attracted to the $15-an-hour minimum wage but felt disrespected within the automated and hyper-fast work environment.

But according to Amazon, the union drive was not a David and Goliath tale: Amazon thanked its workers in Bessemer for participating in the election in a statement, noting that less than 16% of the approximately 5,800 workers there checked the mint-green ballots for unionization.

“Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union,” Amazon said.

Jeffrey Hirsch, a professor at University of North Carolina School of Law who teaches labor and employment law, said there were several factors stacked against the RWDSU’s effort to unionize: for instance, employers are allowed leeway to resist union drives and the election occurred in the South, a region historically resistant to unionization.

And while the NLRB could look into to the mailbox that sat outside the plant, the high margin of no votes may weigh against the board ultimately deciding that a redo election is warranted, Hirsch said.

Sometimes, it can take years and multiple elections before a union’s cause is finally successful at a place of employment, the professor said, and challenges could take years to resolve.

“From the union’s perspective … certainly their goal was to win this election. Oftentimes, though, they’re playing or at least recognize the need to play a longer game,” Hirsch said.

Despite the vote result, the RWDSU and its supporters have said the union drive has already been a success.

When Sanders visited Birmingham to speak with Amazon workers March 26, he said despite the outcome, a message had been sent: “workers even in the Deep South are prepared to stand up and organize and fight for justice.”

Applebaum told reporters Friday he hoped their effort would lead to a change in legislation and if Amazon believes it won, the victory is a pyrrhic one, he said.

“We’ve exposed atrocious working conditions at Amazon, for everybody to see. We have shone a spotlight on the ways that Amazon goes to crush union organizing, and hopefully this is going to lead to new legislation,” Applebaum said.

The parties have five business days to file any complaints, the NLRB said.

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