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Interference with Right to Vote? Amazon Workers Vote No to Union

Despite the endorsement of several heavy hitters, a chapter of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store (RWDS) Union will not be coming to the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama after all. 

Earlier this month, Amazon employees voted against unionizing by a 1,798 to 738 margin. The results of the mail-in election, intensified by the confines of the pandemic, came after the likes of President Joe Biden, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, actor Danny Glover, NFL Labor Union president and Cleveland Brown Center J.C. Tretter, and several U.S. senators ranging from Bernie Sanders to Marco Rubio, all put their weight behind the RWDS Union.

Packages are sorted by amazon workers on conveyor

If the workers, 5,800 in all, chose to unionize, they would have made history. It would have been the first union for Amazon workers in the United States. It also would have broken with tradition in the Deep South, where workers are renowned to labor under “right to work’’ status. 

On the winners’ side, CEO Jeff Bezos, whose net worth is an estimated $196 billion, applauded the election outcome. While on the losing side, Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the RWDS Union, cried foul. Appelbaum was swift in announcing the union’s plan to file objections to Amazon’s conduct during the election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

“Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees,’’ Appelbaum said. 

Here are several reasons why Appelbaum believes an investigation into Amazon’s actions are warranted: 

  • Leading up to the election, Amazon held meetings at the warehouse where employees were given anti-union information. The meetings were mandatory and had the potential to pressure workers. In the statement, Appelbaum said the meetings included “mistruths and lies.”
  • Amazon “flooded’’ employees with what Appelbaum identified as “misinformation” through flyers and posters and through “the Internet, the airwaves and social media.’’ The misinformation, he said, included “…lying about union dues in a right to work state.’’
  • Amazon “union busters’’ were sent into the warehouse and pressured workers while spreading controversial information about unions.
  • Despite being denied by the NLRB to do so, Amazon officials placed a postal drop box on warehouse property. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.”

Meanwhile, on April 15, in his annual letter to shareholders, Bezos mentioned the Alabama election. However, he did not acknowledge the accusations made by the union head of misconduct. Bezos wrote: “Does your chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t. I think we need to do a better job for our employees. “

He also took a swipe at the media. “If you read some of the news reports, you might think we have no care for employees. In those reports, our employees are sometimes accused of being desperate souls and treated as robots,’’ he said. “That’s not accurate. They’re sophisticated and thoughtful people who have options for where to work.’’

It was back in March of 2020 when the Amazon warehouse first opened that talk of whether workers should unionize. While Amazon, which has 800,000 workers across the U.S., was considered an economic blessing for the area, at the same time, Covid-19 exploded across the globe. With the pandemic, stay-at-home orders were put in place, and one of the results was people started shopping from home. With online consumer shopping increasing, so did the work for Amazon employees.

There was already concern that workers, who already spent long hours on their feet packaging and shipping orders, were not getting enough protection from their employer. And, concerns for workplace safety were voiced not only in Alabama but by Amazon workers worldwide. 

No matter how much pro-union workers promoted the benefits of collective bargaining, Amazon constantly reminded the Alabama workers of the company’s basic healthcare and retirement benefits and how its minimum wage was more than twice as high as the state’s minimum. Amazon starts its workers out at $15 an hour. Alabama’s minimum wage is $7.25.

Related: David and Goliath: Will Amazon Workers Unionize?

President Biden’s labor secretary, Marty Walsh, recently spoke to The Wall Street Journal about the union effort and acknowledged that he too has heard of worry over employee safety at Amazon warehouses. “The stories coming from the workers right now in the Amazon conversations are disturbing. We’ll see at the end of the day what the way forward is there,’’ he said.

Walsh also discussed his thoughts on what lies ahead for labor unions in the United States. He stressed that the defeat for labor in Bessemer does not mean attempts at labor organizing at e-commerce giants and other large corporations won’t continue. “I don’t think one vote can determine the fate of labor,” Walsh said.

While he made it clear that he respects the outcome of the election and respects the right of workers to come to their own conclusions about whether to join a union or not, workers “…deserve a seat at the table, to be able to discuss workplace conditions and policies.”