Amazon Waged a Brutal Anti-Union Campaign. Unsurprisingly, They Won.

Amazon won the majority of ballots cast in the union election by the company’s warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama. There's no way around it: the result is a major setback in the fight to organize one of the most powerful corporations on the planet.

"Vote" signage hangs outside the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. (Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

Amazon has secured a majority of “no” votes from workers at BHM1, the company’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, on the question of unionizing with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) received 3,215 mail-in ballots in an election in which around 5,800 workers were eligible to vote. Were they to unionize, these workers would have become the first unionized Amazon employees in the United States.

Before the public vote count began yesterday, 505 votes were contested in closed-door proceedings. According to RWDSU, most of the challenges were from Amazon, suggesting those votes favor the union. But even accounting for these ballots, the company has secured enough votes to win the count. Of the non-challenged ballots, 1,798 were against the union, while 738 were in support.

After the tally, both Amazon and RWDSU can file objections with the regional director of the NLRB over the other side’s conduct during the election process, or appeal the ruling to the NLRB in Washington, DC. This morning, RWDSU announced that it will do so. The union says that it “will request that the NLRB Regional Director schedule a hearing on its objections to determine if 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.” It will also present evidence for a related unfair labor practice complaint, alleging that Amazon unlawfully interfered with the protected right of employees to engage in union activity.

“We won’t let Amazon’s lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged, which is why we are formally filing charges against all of the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote,” said Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU’s president. “Amazon knew full well that unless they did everything they possibly could, even illegal activity, their workers would have continued supporting the union.”

That the US Postal Service, at Amazon’s urging, installed a mailbox on company property in time for the mail-in voting period is likely to be a focus of such objections. The company had argued for in-person voting but lost that argument as well as an appeal. The union may argue that this mailbox effectively served the company’s purpose, allowing them to monitor voters or the votes themselves. As Appelbaum said of the matter this morning, “even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one. They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.” Hearings will likely follow from such objections, with a resolution potentially months down the line.

Some may be surprised that the vote broke so strongly in Amazon’s favor. After all, isn’t Amazon a notoriously unpleasant place to work? Isn’t this the company that just had a news cycle devoted to how many of their workers pee in bottles?

It’s not so simple. As Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, told Vice, NLRB elections “are not a reflection of whether workers want a voice on the job, but rather show the imbalance of labor law and resources in favor of employers.” In the United States, every step of the unionization process is stacked against workers. It is a miracle that anyone ever unionizes. In polls, about half of nonunion workers in the country say they’d join a union if they could; there are countless obstacles ensuring that they won’t. The Bessemer campaign reflects that reality but to a heightened degree.

After RWDSU filed for an NLRB election in November of 2020, Amazon held “captive audience meetings,” mandatory sessions where workers heard management tell them why they shouldn’t unionize. Managers lie in these meetings, and the ones in Bessemer are no exceptions. The company texted workers several times a day to urge them to vote no. They papered the facility’s bathroom stalls with anti-union flyers. They outfitted temp workers, ineligible for the union but especially vulnerable to management pressure, with “vote no” swag, ensuring they’d serve as walking anti-union propaganda on the shop floor.

These are standard anti-union tactics, if amped up thanks to Amazon’s effectively infinite coffers. All of this is permitted under US law. And even if the company broke the law during the union drive, that is to be expected — given how nonexistent the repercussions are for violating workers’ rights, around 40 percent of employers are charged with violating federal law during a union election.

Perhaps just as important was Amazon’s success in setting the terms of the union itself. During NLRB hearings prior to the vote, the company argued that the bargaining unit should be 5,800 people, rather than the 1,500-person unit for which the union had filed. Under existing law, the employer has standing to say which workers should be in a union and which shouldn’t. Further, under a 2017 NLRB decision, it is easier than ever for the boss to determine the size and scope of a bargaining unit. Amazon won the argument over the unit’s size, adding many more temporary seasonal workers to the unit and thereby inflating the number of people organizers needed to reach. Contacting these workers, persuading them, keeping track of them, and inoculating them against the boss’s scare tactics takes an immense amount of time and energy. More than 3,000 workers signed union cards by mid-January, but that was time and energy that might have otherwise been devoted to shoring up a majority of the original 1,500-person bargaining unit.

That Amazon can do any of this is evidence of how existing labor law favors employers. Why should the boss have a say in the size and scope of a union? Why can a company that tracks workers’ movements down to the second force them to sit in meetings where a manager propagandizes to them? Notably, none of these actions would be legal under the PRO Act, a labor law reform bill that recently passed in the House of Representatives. In a press conference this afternoon, Appelbaum said as much, stating, “We have to work hard for labor-law reform.”

Under current conditions, it’s fair to find hope in every yes vote. It’s certainly the case that the high-profile nature of the Bessemer campaign has spurred new organizing efforts  And in a sense, any workplace where hundreds of workers voted for a union is a workplace that has a union, whether or not that union is legally recognized. But the goal was a majority of the ballots. This result should therefore be cause for critical reflection.

Given the coming legal objections, the story is not yet over, but there is a need for renewed engagement with tricky questions. When asked at the press conference what he’d change about the strategy and tactics used in the union drive — should an NLRB election have been pursued, should the election petition been withdrawn when the bargaining unit’s size ballooned — Appelbaum said that “In some ways, we didn’t have a choice. We were afraid that if we were forced to delay the election, it would be a long, long time after litigation and appeals where we even got to the point where we could hold the election.” It’s not surprising that RWDSU’s president remains steadfast about the campaign, but there are debates to be had over organizing approaches going forward.

We know Amazon engages in ruthless anti-union tactics. We know that it is difficult to win a union vote in a large workplace in the South. We know that Amazon warehouse jobs have a high turnover rate. We know the company is expert at rendering restive shops redundant. Given all of that, what are the most effective organizing strategies? Is an NLRB election a feasible path for an Amazon shop? How are ties across warehouses best strengthened? How are unions relating to existing worker formations that aren’t traditional union campaigns? How are unions and other organizations that work with not only warehouse employees but delivery drivers or software engineers cooperating with rather than ignoring one another?

Workers at other Amazon facilities are still organizing, and their reasons for doing so remain. Just two days ago, workers at DIL3, a Chicago-area Amazon facility, walked out over the company’s “megacycle,” a graveyard shift that requires them to work from 1:20 AM to 11:50 AM. Some of that organizing is happening under the banner of Amazonians United Chicagoland, a formation that looks different from a traditional union. As Vice reports, the DIL3 workers’ demands include “schedule accommodations for workers who cannot work at night, $2 per hour additional megacycle shift pay, free Lyft rides to and from work (which are offered at Amazon’s delivery station in New York City), and respect for workers’ 20-minute paid breaks.”

The Intercept recently reported that the NLRB found Amazon had illegally retaliated against these workers last year when they organized walkouts over COVID-19 safety issues at DCH1, another Chicago-area warehouse. The company announced it would close DCH1 earlier this year. As Ted Miin, one of the DCH1 workers whose rights had been violated, told the Intercept, “I think we’d be really naive to believe closing DCH1 was in no way related to the organizing we’ve been doing.”

“It’s okay to feel depressed and frustrated,” says Emmit Ashford, a worker at the Bessemer warehouse, when asked what he’d say to Amazon workers at other warehouses who are upset by today’s setback. “Those feelings let us know that there is something not right going on. Let those feelings motivate you to say strong and keep going.”