After months of campaigning, weeks of voting, and hours of counting thousands of green ballots by hand, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) delivered Amazon an apparent win on Friday afternoon against the most significant labor union drive the retail giant has faced in its 26-year-history.
In the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, 1,798 employees voted to oppose unionization through the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), and just 738 voted in favor of it. (Roughly 500 contested ballots were not counted, but they would not have changed the outcome.)
The battle isn’t over. The RWDSU has already announced it is submitting objections to Amazon’s conduct to the NLRB, alleging that Amazon “interfered with the right of its Bessemer, Alabama employees to vote in a free and fair election.” The regional NLRB office will investigate the claims and decide whether they require a hearing. Either party could then still file an appeal with the national NLRB office, spurring a protracted battle that might not produce a definitive outcome for months.
But whatever the ultimate result, the large number of workers who voted against unionizing in the initial count signifies the sheer power and resources that Amazon can leverage to win labor battles—and the relatively low risk large companies face in pushing the boundaries in these fights.
While more than 3,000 workers signed cards indicating support for the RWDSU representing them last fall, Amazon spent months unleashing a slew of controversial tactics that some labor activists argue were designed to suppress union support before the seven-week voting period began. (An unknown number of those 3,000-plus employees who indicated initial support have since left the company.) The downward trend in support for the union between the petitioning stage and the actual vote count is common in union fights against powerful companies, says Mark Gaston Pearce, a visiting professor and executive director of the Workers’ Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center and former chair of the National Labor Relations Board under the Obama Administration. “Oftentimes unions start out with a majority of support,” he says. “And then when the employer starts working over the employees, you have a loss of support, either through coercion or through fear or other means.”
Whether Amazon did coerce employees is for the NLRB to decide. But the company has enormous power at its disposal to fight against unionization: It is one of the world’s largest publicly traded companies, was founded by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, and boasts a $1.7 trillion market cap.
In the run-up to the unionization voting period that began in February, Amazon mandated employees attend anti-union meetings; created a website warning workers about perceived pitfalls of unionizing, including the expense of dues that workers in right-to-work states like Alabama are not obligated to pay; hung fliers discouraging workers from unionizing around the plant, including in the bathroom stalls; and, according to emails obtained by the labor movement media group More Perfect Union, pressured the United States Postal Service—which counts Amazon as one of its largest customers—to install a ballot drop box outside the plant, despite an NLRB ruling that such a setup might imply “a problematic amount of Employer involvement in election proceedings.” (In a statement to the Washington Post, an Amazon spokesperson said the mailbox was intended to make it easy for employees to vote and only the USPS had access to it.)
The RWDSU says some of these tactics violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which forbids employers from restraining or coercing employees from engaging in union activity. “Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees. 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,” RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said in a press release on Friday.
But Amazon says it acted within the law and that the vote represents its employees’ wishes. “It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” the company wrote in a blog post on April 9. “Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us.”
The criticism of Amazon surrounding the union vote comes after a raft of bad public relations for the company, including a February settlement with the FTC over charges it withheld tips from contracted delivery drivers; a March change to its app store logo after cell phone users complained it resembled Adolf Hitler’s infamous mustache; and an April apology for asserting its employees don’t pee in bottles when many of its drivers have to do so.
Yet Amazon maintains a tight grip not just on its employees, but on major facets of American life. For some Americans, boycotting Amazon and its subsidiaries might mean losing their grocery store, Whole Foods; losing their pharmacy, PillPack; losing access to one of the thousands of websites that use Amazon Web Services to store their data, like Pinterest and Netflix; and of course, losing access to millions of products that can arrive at their doorstep via Amazon Prime in two days or less.
“You can’t escape the gravitational pull of Jeff Bezos and Amazon,” says Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of business who studies how social influence impacts consumer behavior.
“We already have basically everything”
While workers fighting to unionize in Bessemer drew support from prominent national figures like President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, many employees worried organizing a union might do more harm than good.
Amazon already pays its warehouse employees at least $15 an hour, plus full healthcare, vision, and dental insurance, and 50% 401K matches. The rate is more than twice the federal minimum wage, and it can be especially attractive in Alabama, the fifth poorest state in the country. “The things that Amazon already offers are things that most unions have to fight for: paid time off, vacation, medical, dental, vision,” says J.C. Thompson, a process assistant at the plant who voted against unionizing. “We already have basically everything, in my opinion.”
But other Bessemer employees felt the work—which entails 10-hour shifts, mandatory overtime, and efficiency surveillance—warranted more money and power over their working conditions. “[We] work for the richest man in the world and [he] doesn’t want to pay employees what they deserve. We only get two breaks out of 10-11 hours,” says Darryl Richardson, a Bessemer warehouse employee who approached the RWDSU about unionizing last summer. “It’s just unfair.”
The fight Richardson initiated will continue. But even as the RWDSU challenges the outcome of the Bessemer vote, in the absence of stronger enforcement mechanisms for alleged labor law violations, it will remain difficult for labor groups to take on companies as large as Amazon and win. The NLRB does not have the authority to levy traditional fines against a company that commits unfair labor practices. The Board can order companies to remedy the violation, such as by reinstating wrongly terminated employees or by posting notices of workers’ rights under the NLRA, but most large employers can consider the relatively minor punishments “a cost of doing business,” says Pearce.
Democrats in Congress are trying to strengthen labor laws. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which recently passed in the Democratic-led House, would establish monetary penalties for companies violating labor laws and ban employee interference—such as mandatory company-sponsored meetings against unionizing—during union elections.
Meanwhile, Amazon continues to grow. In 2020, while millions of Americans were losing their jobs to the pandemic-induced economic recession, the retail giant announced in February that it increased its net sales the year by 38%. Its net income nearly doubled too, increasing from $11.6 billion in 2019 to $21.3 billion.
The ongoing labor fight in Bessemer is unlikely to move the needle on consumer habits in 2021 either, says Adam Galinsky, a professor of leadership and ethics at the Columbia Business School. “The short term cost for Amazon coming across as a jerk during the lead up to vote count, I think it’s going to have very little consequence,” he says. “If people in your community think that Amazon is problematic, but there’s nothing close to the cost-convenience ratio that Amazon offers, I don’t think those concerns are going to override it.”