Whatever the outcome in the drive to unionize workers at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, labor leaders and others were likely to see it as a bellwether event. But now that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has counted the votes, the union says it’s not walking away.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which unsuccessfully tried to organize the Bessemer workers, says it will file “objections to the conduct of the election and related unfair labor practice charges” with the NLRB. The union says “Amazon interfered with the right of its Bessemer, Alabama, employees to vote in a free and fair election, a right protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.”
Citing documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, the RWDSU accused Amazon of “corrupting the election.” Among other things, the union says Amazon pressured the U.S. Postal Service to install a mailbox on Amazon property to make employees cast their ballots there rather than someplace more free of company surveillance. Employees have also said that Amazon used mandatory group meetings and one-on-one discussions to predict harmful consequences if they were unionized.
“Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees,” RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement. “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. Amazon knew full well that unless they did everything they possibly could, even illegal activity, their workers would have continued supporting the union.”
In a statement, Amazon thanked the Bessemer workers for their decision and pre-emptively criticized the union.
“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true. 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.” the statement says.
The retailer also expressed support for raising the minimum wage and other policy priorities touted by progressives.
“We welcome the opportunity to sit down and share ideas with any policymaker who wants to pass laws ensuring that all workers in the U.S. are guaranteed at least $15 an hour, healthcare from Day 1 and other strong benefits,” Amazon said.
In a statement, David French, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation, praised the vote.
“With reports that a majority of employees at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama have voted to reject representation by a union, the results are clear,” French said in the statement. “The process works and employees can make an informed decision despite the enormous scrutiny under which this campaign was conducted. Union representation is a choice for workers, but many clearly prefer opportunities in a competitive marketplace that provides strong wages and benefits over the anonymity of a collective bargaining agreement.”
The stakes of Amazon workers unionizing
An RWDSU victory in Bessemer could have forced Amazon into contract talks with the union, which focused on improving working conditions for warehouse employees. Warehouse workers overwhelmed by the working pace and afraid of catching COVID-19 contacted the union, setting the vote in motion. Other Amazon facilities also are seeing stirrings of labor activism.
Amazon’s sales and profit soared during the pandemic when millions of shoppers stampeded online. The outbreak spotlighted the safety and working conditions of essential workers at supermarkets, big-box stores and online fulfillment centers. For its part, Amazon points out that its $15-an-hour starting wage is more than double the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. The retail giant says its wage and benefits package is appropriate and already covers what unions typically demand.
The unionization drive also was popular with the general public. According to a poll of 1,169 likely U.S. voters by Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, 69% supported the unionization effort, while 19% were opposed. Data for Progress fielded the poll Feb. 12-15. A later survey of 600 registered U.S. voters, conducted March 28-30 by the labor federation AFL-CIO and research firm GBAO found 77% of respondents supported the unionization drive in Bessemer, while 16% opposed.
The union’s loss means the “the status quo remains” in the ecommerce business, says Ryan Gnesin, CEO of Elevate Brands, a venture capital-based company which acquires brands that sell on the Amazon marketplace.
Had the union won, Gnesin says, it’s likely that Amazon would have lost some efficiency in its warehouses—which would have increased the retailer’s costs. He says the cost increase might have been passed to Amazon third-party sellers that use Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) in the form of increased referral and fulfillment fees. In turn, he says, the FBA sellers would have passed the extra costs to consumers in the form of higher prices.
The state of union membership
Unionization is uncommon in retail. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show unions represented just 5.1% of the nation’s roughly 15 million “retail trade” employees and just 4.6% were union members. That’s lower than the rate for the overall private sector. In 2020, unions represented 7.2% of private-sector workers, while 6.3% were union members. In some cases, union or employee association contracts cover workers who aren’t union members.
Overall, the U.S. labor movement, has been in decline for decades. The percentage of workers represented by unions rose by half a percentage point in 2020, reaching 10.8%. But in a year plagued by mass layoffs, the number of union members declined to about 14.3 million. That was down 2.2% from 14.6 million in 2019. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data is available, the union membership rate was 20.1% and there were 17.7 million union workers in the U.S., BLS says.