Sometimes, a David versus Goliath battle doesn’t end with the underdog prevailing. In the case of the recent unionization push by Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, the mega-corporation has emerged victorious.
After months of aggressive campaigning from both sides, 1,798 warehouse workers ultimately rejected the union while 738 voted in favour of it, according to the U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is overseeing the process.
While the AP piece admits that the chances of the union vote succeeding were “a long shot,” due in part to the size and clout of Amazon as a corporation (it is second only to Walmart in the U.S. in terms of its number of employees) and in part to the fact that Alabama has historically been anti-union, there have been claims from the U.S. Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union of corporate interference on the part of the online behemoth. According to The Guardian, “Union leaders alleged ‘egregious and blatantly illegal’ conduct by Amazon during the closely watched vote.”
Despite what Business Insider called “a growing chorus of support” in the run-up to the vote – including backing from U.S. president Joe Biden, senators Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders, and actor Danny Glover – the company is accused of engaging in “anti-union tactics” including managerial meetings intended “to dissuade workers from voting yes,” one of which allegedly concluded with a manager taking a photo of an employee’s ID badge, something the employee “interpreted as an attempt at intimidation.”
Amazon has also been accused of disseminating misinformation, taking out anti-union ads on a streaming platform the company itself owns, and having the timing of the streetlights outside the Bessemer plant changed to prevent employees from speaking with union representatives while stopped at a red light.
In a statement posted to its website, Amazon denies these claims:
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. Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace. We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.
Regardless, the tactics employed by Amazon in its drive to prevent employee organization are largely legal in the U.S. Grace Pezzella and Sejal Singh write in Slate:
Amazon also barred union organizers from coming into the warehouse to talk to workers (legal), forbid workers from promoting the union during working time (legal), and hired cops as private security to keep union supporters and organizers out of a warehouse where the large majority of workers are Black (legal).
Writing in The New York Times, Greg Bensinger conjures images of Amazon executives “popp[ing] champagne corks” in the wake of the no vote. Bensinger goes on to write:
Sure, collective bargaining threatens to bring Amazon new headaches in the form of increased compensation, but after 2020’s blowout profits ($21.3 billion!), the company can certainly absorb new costs. Far more frightful for the company, however, would be union-negotiated job classifications in Amazon’s tightly controlled warehouses and clearer rules about break time or bathroom use and how easily the sites can be staffed up for peak periods, like Christmas, and pared back during leaner ones.
That $21.3 billion profit can be explained in part by a shift in consumer shopping online due to restrictions imposed in jurisdictions around the globe as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic; even without a worldwide lockdown, Amazon’s profits have made its founder and outgoing CEO, Jeff Bezos, the richest man alive. In part, this has been accomplished on the backs of the very front-line workers who were fighting for more humane working conditions in Alabama.
The RWDSU is in the process of filing a legal objection to Amazon’s tactics, according to Alina Selyukh at NPR, but whether or not the challenge results in a new vote, the implications of the recent defeat are more important for what they say about the ability of workers to stand up to big corporations in the gig economy: ” ‘We’re really seeing how the balance is always tipped in favour of employers,’ said Rebecca Givan, a labour studies professor at Rutgers University. ‘Organizing a union under current labour law is extremely challenging — the odds are always stacked against you.‘ ”