The closely watched vote, which involved thousands of workers at a Bessemer, Ala., warehouse deciding whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, had been seen as a potential spark for organizing campaigns at Amazon facilities around the world.
The unionization effort quickly mushroomed into a high-profile, high-stakes labor battle after workers filed their notice to hold a unionization vote last November. Amazon barraged the 5,805 workers eligible to vote with text messages, mandatory anti-union meetings, and even fliers posted on doors inside a bathroom stalls. Meanwhile, the union stationed organizers outside the warehouse to answer questions and handout leaflets to workers as their ended their shifts.
By late February, the fight even drew the attention of President Biden, who tweeted a video late saying workers, specifically mentioning those in Alabama should be able to make their decision in union elections without pressure from their employer, though he never mentioned Amazon by name. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) invited a union-supporting worker to testify before the Senate Budget Committee, last month, and then visited Bessemer to support the union in the waning days of the election.
The union said it will challenge the outcome, saying it will move to set aside the tally by filing unfair labor practices claims with the National Labor Relations Board, which is overseeing the vote.
“Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees,” RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement Friday. “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.”
The union, for example, complained about a mailbox that popped up in front of the warehouse just after voting started, a tactic it believes could have signaled to workers that Amazon has a role in the running of the election and affected their vote.
Those challenges could prompt weeks of legal battles before a final outcome is determined.
Those antiunion tactics also demonstrate the difficulty unions face in organizing drives, said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. She called the apparent union loss “lopsided, but not surprising.”
“It’s really, really hard to win an organizing drive,” Givan said. “The employer has almost unlimited resources and the ability to bombard workers with messages of fear and uncertainty.”
Amazon countered the union drive in Bessemer with banners at the warehouse and even fliers posted inside bathroom stalls. The company also set up an anti-union website — DoItWithoutDues.com — to discourage workers from joining the union drive. And prior to the voting period, it held mandatory meetings for workers on company time, so-called captive-audience sessions, to show videos and run through PowerPoint presentations that disparage unionization.
The union’s likely defeat caps a more-than four-month campaign to turn the Alabama warehouse into a union shop. A win was expected to set in motion unionization at Amazon operations throughout the country, where more than 1,000 workers have already reached out to the RWDSU find out what it might take to launch campaigns at their facilities.
The election process also evolved into a reflection on the times. Rather than voting in-person at ballot boxes as is typical of union balloting, workers voted by mail, over a seven-week period, a decision by the NLRB to protect Amazon workers and its staff from contracting the coronavirus. And while some workers supported unionization over concerns about a brutal pace of work, the RWDSU also framed the fight around issues of respect and dignity, saying the battle is as much a civil rights struggle as a labor one.
While many of Amazon’s European warehouse workers are organized, the company has faced only one other union vote in the United States, that was in 2014, when a small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at its warehouse in Middletown, Del. Those workers ultimately voted against forming a union, following a drive led by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.