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Amazon workers vote against union at Alabama warehouse

AFP via Getty Images

Amazon has defeated a union drive that would have established the company’s first US union.

The vote count against unionization totaled 1,798, surpassing the simple majority of 1,608 needed for either side to prevail, on Friday. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is behind the Bessemer union drive, announced it plans to file objections and unfair labor practice charges with the labor board. According to the final tally reached Friday afternoon, 738 workers voted in favor of the union.

Meanwhile, 505 ballots are being challenged; however, the vote lead held by Amazon is greater than the total number of challenged ballots.

The union election, which took place by mail over a nearly two-month period due to the pandemic, received national attention, with celebrities, politicians — including President Joe Biden — and employees at other Amazon facilities all lending public support to workers driving the unionization effort.

“There’s been a lot of noise over the past few months, and we’re glad that your collective voices were finally heard,” Amazon said in a blog post published shortly after the final tally. “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.”

In a statement Friday, president of the RWDSU Stuart Appelbaum announced it would file formal objections to the election process. “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.”

The RWDSU says it will request an NLRB hearing to determine if Amazon “created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice.”

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported on emails showing that Amazon had urged the US Postal Service to install a mailbox outside the facility ahead of the election, something the union alleges was an intimidation tactic. An Amazon spokesperson has refuted that claim, stating: “We said from the beginning that we wanted all employees to vote and proposed many different options to try and make it easy.”

Amazon, which has previously fended off unions in the United States, waged an online and offline campaign to combat the drive, including posting signage in bathroom stalls and pulling workers into meetings before the start of the election to convey its anti-union stance. The company’s messaging around how it pays and treats its workers only grew more aggressive in public in the final days of the election, with the company feuding on Twitter with Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin.

For Amazon, and its workforce, the stakes of the vote were incredibly high. A successful union drive in Bessemer could have encouraged Amazon employees around the country to make similar pursuits, potentially changing how Amazon works with many of its 950,000 US-based employees.

According to the RWDSU, the NLRB received 3,215 ballots. About 500 of the ballots are being challenged by either the NLRB, the union or Amazon, the union told CNN Business while noting that Amazon challenged ballots at a rate of nearly 4 to 1. The public tally of the votes, which was conducted at the NLRB’s Birmingham, Alabama office and broadcast over Zoom to select viewers including press, began Thursday afternoon after more than a week of reviewing the ballots for possible challenges over factors including improper job classification, ineligibility based on dates of employment, and more.

Some Amazon workers in Europe are unionized, but this was the largest effort by US-based Amazon workers to unionize thus far. In Delaware, a small union election was held at a warehouse in 2014 but resulted in workers rejecting representation. The Bessemer union election, however, was much larger in scope, with nearly 6,000 warehouse workers at the one-year-old facility were eligible to vote.

The effort was galvanized by a group of employees at the Amazon facility, as well as unionized workers from other local plants and facilities, including poultry workers, who are already represented by RWDSU.

It was an uphill battle from the start. Not only did the workers take on the second largest employer in the United States but they are based in the South, where union representation is lower than in other parts of the country.

While the pandemic has been a boon for Amazon’s business, safety precautions related to the virus, as well as general workplace conditions, have been a factor behind a more general employee uprising at its facilities. Workers at Bessemer were also motivated by the ongoing racial justice movement, according to Appelbaum, who said roughly 85% of the workforce is Black. “This campaign has been as much of a civil rights campaign as it has been a labor campaign. We’re talking about basic dignity for working women and men,” Appelbaum said in February.

The Bessemer union push once again cast a harsh light on the realities of working for Amazon, including from recent testimony by one of the facility’s workers before the Senate Budget Committee. Jennifer Bates, a vocal organizer behind the union effort, described “grueling” work conditions.

“We take employee feedback seriously, including Ms. Bates’, but we don’t believe her comments represent the more than 90% of her fulfillment center colleagues who say they’d recommend Amazon as a great place to work to friends and family,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement following Bates’ testimony. The spokesperson added that Amazon employees “earn at least $15 an hour, receive comprehensive healthcare and paid leave benefits.”

Outside of its Bessemer workforce, the company continues to face pressure from its workers at home and abroad. Last month, unionized workers in Italy went on strike over working conditions; a German union went on a four-day strike over wages. In the United States, more than 1,000 warehouse workers have contacted the RWDSU union in recent weeks, Appelbaum has said, amid all the attention on the Bessemer effort.

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