A Historic Union Vote Gets Underway at Amazon

A warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, could become the first Amazon union in the US. But it won’t happen overnight.

It might be the most tracked shipment in Amazon history: 5,800 mail ballots are being sent out to the union-eligible workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, fulfillment center on Monday. In the coming weeks they’ll be used to decide the largest US union election at the 26-year-old company, the country’s second-largest employer. It’s an unlikely vote, coming from an unlikely site, but if the labor organizers win, the Bessemer warehouse, not yet a year old, will become the country’s first unionized Amazon facility and potentially a bellwether for the industry nationwide.

Alabama isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of labor organizing; it’s a right-to-work state with a union membership rate of 8 percent, nearly three points below the national average (itself near an all-time low). The Birmingham suburb of Bessemer, however, has a deep history of strong unions that haven’t been shy about striking. The Amazon facility sits atop land once owned by US Steel, a major employer in the region until the industry’s decline in the latter half of the 20th century. Workers at the mills there belonged to United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in North America.

These days, the state is home to 12,000-plus poultry workers represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. When the pandemic hit, the RWDSU became a regular feature of local news reports about the safety protections it won for its workers. The group from Amazon who first contacted the RWDSU over the summer included workers who had been union members at previous jobs; some had friends and family in the RWDSU. “I truly believe that if we win,” says Joshua Brewer, an RWDSU organizer in Alabama who’s working on the Bessemer campaign, “it will be because grandparents and uncles and parents talked to these young folks who work out here and said, this helped me, and it’s a good thing.”

Employees at Amazon fulfillment centers are tasked with retrieving products from miles of shelves and quickly packing them into boxes that eventually make their way to customers’ doors. Part of the job stress, workers say, stems from the company’s highly automated tracking system. Cameras blanket the warehouses, and the company’s Time Off Task (TOT) system tracks every second workers aren’t picking, packing, and stowing to meet quotas, or “make rate.” Too much TOT is grounds for termination. Workers fear that if a family member falls ill or some bad lunch meat necessitates extra bathroom breaks, that could be it for their job. Human frailty seems “like a kink in their system,” says Brewer. Grievance procedures, which would allow workers due process and union representation in responding to discipline, rank high on workers’ list of demands, as do more frequent, scheduled rest periods.

Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty contends that “Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry-leading pay, comprehensive benefits from the first day on the job, opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern, and inclusive work environment. At Amazon, these benefits and opportunities come with the job, as does the ability to communicate directly with the leadership of the company.”

Although Amazon’s benefits and $15 minimum wage exceed industry averages, workers at fulfillment centers across the country have long bemoaned the relentless pace of work under the company’s ever-surveilling eye. A September Reveal investigation of Amazon warehouses uncovered a serious injury rate of 7.7 percent in 2019, nearly double the most-recent industry average. The physical toll can lead to high turnover. One 2020 study of California warehouses by the National Employment Law Project found the average turnover rate in counties with Amazon warehouses was 100.9 percent in 2017 (meaning more workers left than started), compared to just 38.1 percent in 2011, the year before Amazon dropped anchor in the state. Amazon calls the study misleading, saying its attrition rate is on par with industry average, although the company didn’t share specific numbers.

The pandemic highlighted worker safety at Amazon in new ways and spurred an unprecedented level of labor actions. As the virus emerged inside warehouses in the spring, workers complained that the company had been slow to implement safety measures. In April, hundreds of workers staged a sick-out in protest. Although the company used its cameras and radar to enforce social distancing, some workers complained that punishments were unevenly applied. Amazon says it only doles out warnings to employees who intentionally violate social distancing guidelines. Two warnings are grounds for termination. Meanwhile, the pandemic increased reliance on ecommerce, and Amazon’s profits soared; CEO Jeff Bezos personally gained an estimated $70 billion in 2020, according to Bloomberg. Amazon introduced a $2-per-hour pay bump for warehouse workers in March but discontinued it in June, just as case counts in Alabama and many other states began to climb.

Lighty said that “nothing is more important than the health and safety of our teams,” citing the billions of dollars the company spent last year on safety measures, including expanding its health and safety team, investing in technology and education, such as programs that guide workers through physical and wellness exercises, and providing personal protective equipment, floor tape, and enhanced sanitization to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Workers at the Bessemer facility began organizing shortly after last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, highlighting the pandemic’s disproportionate harm to people of color. Upwards of 80 percent of the Bessemer workers are Black, and the majority are women, and the RWDSU framed the campaign as a civil rights issue. The union has had Black leadership since its founding in the 1930s, a time when some unions excluded Black workers, and its members organized alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington. In 1968, the union became the first to secure a contract designating King’s birthday a paid holiday.

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When the union went public on October 20, a week after Amazon’s annual Prime Day event, its organizers had their work cut out for them. Efforts to unionize Amazon’s US facilities have thus far lurched and sputtered, stymied in part by the company’s aggressive opposition. The only other union election at a US Amazon facility took place in 2014 among a small group of technical workers in Delaware; while half initially signed cards, signaling support to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, higher-ups mounted a counter-organizing campaign that saw such bizarre stunts as a manager theatrically sharing what The New York Times found to be a likely fabricated story about his father’s union abandoning their family when his dad fell down dead. When it came time to vote, the union lost, 21–6.

Companies in the US are also buoyed by the country’s employer-friendly labor laws. Most countries in Europe, for example, permit sectoral bargaining, agreements that cover entire industries rather than individual workplaces; this has helped workers at Amazon’s European warehouses to unionize. The US National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) allows only what’s called enterprise-level bargaining, meaning unions must organize on a workplace-by-workplace basis. The arrangement pits one colossal David of a company against pint-sized, atomized Goliaths. “The movement to organize Amazon, like Walmart before it, has been going on for 20 years,” says Patricia Campos-Medina, codirector of Cornell University’s Worker Institute. “Every time there’s a challenge, the entire corporation puts its massive resources into defeating the union drive. Until we change that framework, every time workers deal with a massive corporation they are going to be the underdog.”

Employers’ anti-union playbook is well worn, says Rutgers labor studies professor Rebecca Givan: Hire union-busting consultants; bar organizers from the workplace; hold “captive audience meetings” where on-the-clock employees must listen to anti-union talking points. “And, of course, the employer always has more money, so they’re able to spend huge amounts on trying to persuade employees to vote no.”

As the election at the Bessemer facility loomed, Amazon rolled out the “gold package” of anti-union tactics, says an RWDSU spokesperson. According to the union, managers have been pulling workers into what they call “classes,” where instructors introduce themselves as former union representatives who are there to give them the inside scoop about the perils of organized labor. They’ve pulled up RWDSU contracts from nearby poultry plants with pay rates slightly lower than Amazon’s, without mentioning that wages were even lower before the plant unionized. When some workers have challenged these arguments, RWDSU says, they’ve been called to the front of the room where their badges were photographed. Lighty acknowledged that the company “hosts regular information sessions” because “it is important that all employees understand the facts of joining a union and the election process.”

The messaging blitzkrieg has grown relentless; workers receive texts multiple times a day and face eye-level anti-union signs when they go to sit on the toilet. In January, the company launched a widely mocked anti-union website, #DoItWithoutDues, suggesting that the union could force workers to pay dues, potentially shrinking their take-home pay. Since Alabama is a right-to-work state, however, dues are voluntary, and dues-paying doesn’t begin until a contract is approved by a majority of the unit.

Amazon has also tried to delay the election or force workers to vote in person despite the pandemic. In January, over the company’s protests, the labor board ordered a mail-ballot election, based on a requirement that countywide Covid-19 case counts not exceed 5 percent for an in-person election to take place. The rate in Jefferson County, where Bessemer is located, was north of 17 percent. Amazon had argued that the board should use the case count at the warehouse, where 2.9 percent of workers had tested positive for Covid-19, and offered to rent out an entire hotel wing for NLRB representatives. They declined. On Friday, the NLRB rejected Amazon’s appeal and motion to delay the election, allowing the mail ballot election to proceed as planned.

Roberto Clack, an organizer with Warehouse Workers for Justice, a Chicago-based worker center that advocates for the rights of warehouse workers, sees Amazon as a standard-setter for working conditions across the industry. He says corporate giants with big logistics operations have every incentive to make unionizing difficult. “They understand that if this workforce was organized,” he says, “they would have leverage over some of the richest corporations in the entire world. With a few strategically positioned warehouses, if you had workers moving at the same time, you could shut down giants like Amazon. You could shut down Walmart. The list of Fortune 500 companies goes on. Warehouse workers could actually be immensely powerful in the labor force.”

This may be why Amazon has taken so many steps to fend off unions across the company. A leaked 2018 training video, which Amazon says it has stopped using, shows cartoons schooling managers on how to spot and report “warning signs of potential organizing,” including the use of such inflammatory phrases as “living wage.” The cartoons gave tips on how to threaten without threatening (indirectly suggest that a union could “threaten the building’s continued existence”) and spy without spying (“Establish routine patterns of associate engagement” so workers aren’t weirded out when you hover) to stay within the bounds of labor law. In November, Vice reported that the company had hired the notoriously union-hostile Pinkerton spy agency to track worker organizing and follow organizers on social media.

“Like any other responsible business, we maintain a level of security within our operations to help keep our employees, buildings, and inventory safe,” says Lighty, the Amazon spokesperson. “That includes having an internal investigations team who work with law enforcement agencies as appropriate, and everything we do is in line with local laws and conducted with the full knowledge and support of local authorities.”

Even if companies do run afoul of the NLRA, punishment amounts to a slap on the wrist, says Givan. “The issues with the current law are twofold. The law doesn’t really protect the right to organize. And even in places where there are protections on the books, the punishment is not meaningful enough to act as a deterrent. In fact, most employers just consider it part of the cost of doing business.” In November, the NLRB alleged that Amazon had illegally fired a worker for protesting unsafe working conditions, a decision Amazon is contesting. If the company loses, the penalty is that the worker is reinstated, with back pay.

Many workers are hopeful that they’ll be better able to flex their power now that President Biden, who’s widely seen as strongly pro-union, is in office. Topping many organizers’ agenda is passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which cleared the House of Representatives in 2019 and was reintroduced Thursday. It would beef up protections for organizers by, for instance, imposing civil penalties for illegal firings and banning captive audience meetings. The US Chamber of Commerce has already voiced its opposition, and the bill faces a tough road in the Senate. To overcome a filibuster, Democrats would need 10 Republican senators to join them in voting yes, a long shot.

For now, all eyes are on a big facility in a small town in Alabama. And they’ll be watching for a while. Ballots are due March 29, nearly double the usual timeframe due to the large unit size, says Terry Combs, assistant to the regional labor board director in Atlanta. The count begins March 30. More than 3,000 of the 5,800 workers signed cards authorizing the RWDSU to represent them, although some have since left, and others could have a Delaware moment and change their minds, so the outcome is far from assured.

Win or lose, Brewer says the attention has inspired “a ton” of outreach from warehouse workers inside and outside of Amazon interested in unionizing their workplaces. He’s gobsmacked by the solidarity, from NFL players to politicians, but most of all from the local community. Organizers have a tent set up near the warehouse, and snacks never run out. “We haven’t had to buy doughnuts, coffee, or food for four months,” the RWDSU organizer says. “Local unions are always coming by the tent, feeding our organizers. There’s very much a brotherhood and a sisterhood here of union people.”

Each day since October 20, RWDSU member workers from local retail, health care, and poultry shops have stood outside the fulfillment center, often from 3:30 am to 8 pm, talking to Amazon workers. The only days they’ve taken off were Christmas and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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