Amazon has won the first round in its fight to squash a union in its Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse. Hundreds of contested ballots remain, but Amazon has reached the minimum threshold of 1,608 “no” votes needed to prevent workers from joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The public count of uncontested ballots has concluded at 1,798 no votes to 738 votes in favor.
The good news is that a roughly 30% portion of “yes” votes signals a minor victory, in the opinion of some labor experts. The union will keep fighting, and workers have made headway.
Today, the union announced that it plans to ask the NLRB to overturn the results of the election, alleging that Amazon illegally “created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice.” In a statement shared with Gizmodo, RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum cited Amazon’s mandatory lectures “filled with mistruths and lies”; anti-union ads that “flooded the internet”; and “lying” about union dues. (Amazon has misleadingly suggested throughout the election that voting in favor of a union would force workers to join and pay dues.)
Appelbaum also pointed to the mailbox which the USPS installed on the warehouse premises at Amazon’s behest.
On Thursday, More Perfect Union published heavily redacted emails, obtained by the RWDSU, showing that the USPS specifically altered and installed the mailbox for Amazon. The box materialized around the same time that Amazon reportedly mailed employees instructions on how to “VOTE NO.”
“Amazon is reaching out to me today about the status as they wanted to move quickly on this,” a USPS strategic account manager wrote to local USPS employees.
While they confirmed that the box must be “USPS-approved,” one sent photos of the box with custom alterations “to make room for more letters.”
This arguably defies an NLRB order specifically stating that Amazon can’t install its own ballot dropbox.
“The use of equipment clearly belonging to the Employer, such as pass-through boxes or vending machines, likewise implies a problematic amount of Employer involvement in election proceedings,” the NLRB had told Amazon, per its request to install a private ballot box outside the warehouse.
“While the Employer’s creativity in seeking new ways to protect the health of election participants is laudable,” NLRB Regional Director Lisa Henderson wrote, “I agree that, in practice, utilization of the Employer’s extensive resources would tend to give the appearance to voters that the Region is accepting benefits from the Employer and is no longer a neutral party.”
RWDSU echoed these complaints against the allegedly unauthorized mailbox, arguing in an email to media that it was effectively a way for Amazon to flex its power and, in turn, intimidate workers into voting the way the company wanted.
“Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU, said in a statement. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers. We demand an investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting the election.”
In an email to Gizmodo, Amazon reiterated its previous claims that the box was installed to expand voting access and that only the USPS could access it. “We said from the beginning that we wanted all employees to vote and proposed many different options to try and make it easy,” the company said. “The RWDSU fought those at every turn and pushed for a mail-only election, which the NLRB’s own data showed would reduce turnout. This mailbox—which only the USPS had access to—was a simple, secure, and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less.”
A USPS spokesperson didn’t deny that the box was selected for Amazon’s needs. “The box that was installed – a Centralized Box Unit (CBU) with a collection compartment – was suggested by the Postal Service as a solution to provide an efficient and secure delivery and collection point.”
Here’s more on the NLRB procedures for disputing election outcomes. If all else fails, the union can run an election again.
You may still be wondering how Amazon possibly won so many votes to begin with—didn’t the RWDSU claim that, 3,000 workers out of 5,800 signed cards expressing interest in the election? Actually, three labor experts who’d spoken in conversations leading up to the count told Gizmodo that a loss wouldn’t surprise them.
First, many of the employees who signed the cards may have left the company. Amazon’s warehouses run on a breakneck turnover rate; the Seattle Times has found that turnover was 100% for Amazon’s frontline workers during the pandemic, and workers constantly report that they feel that management is constantly out to fire them.
More importantly: outsiders’ social media feeds look entirely different from the information bubble Amazon workers are living in.
As has been widely reported, Amazon workers have been confined for several hours a day with a team of higher-ups hell-bent on coercing them not to unionize. The company festooned the toilet stalls with propaganda; sent incessant text messages to workers; employed experienced union-busting consultants; reportedly photographed workers’ badges if they countered Amazon’s claims; disingenuously presented unionization as a sure path to lower-income; and held captive audience meetings subjecting workers to videos and presentations. And this is just what slipped past the non-disclosure agreements. In a press call this afternoon, RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum confirmed that Amazon “was telling people the facility might close if the union won the election.” (Though its legal case for shuttering a single warehouse is likely wobbly.)
“We have not said that,” an Amazon spokesperson told Gizmodo this afternoon. In a press release, the company also said that it is “easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true.” It went on to state that employees had heard far more “anti-Amazon messages” from “the union, policymakers, and media outlets,” but it did not address the individual accounts from its own employees who were quoted by the media and others.
Workers were under tremendous pressure.
“It seems to me that there’s always this disconnect,” prominent labor author Nelson Lichtenstein told Gizmodo over the phone, before the results of the vote. He was referring to the public’s impression that media attention equates to successful union organizing—something he observed of organizing attempts at Walmart in the mid-2000s.
“There’s a large, liberal pro-union sort of public. And then inside the store or distribution center or the factory—it’s a different world because there’s a monopoly of information by the management. And people who aren’t denizens of the web, that’s what they know. That’s always been part of the problem.”
Prior to the outcome, Harvard labor researcher Benjamin Sachs told Gizmodo that even securing a third of the vote should be considered a win. “Given how voraciously Amazon has fought this campaign, to get 30 or 40% of the vote would be a sign that organizing Amazon really may be possible,” Sachs said. He added that a defeat “should serve as a wake-up call to all of us—including Democrats now in power in Washington—that we need a new labor law, one that actually protects workers’ rights to form a union.”
Workers in Bessemer energized that push at a critical moment. Current legislation, the PRO Act, could specifically make it far easier for workers at other warehouses to unionize. (It passed the House last month; see more details on the PRO Act’s union-related provisions here.) The Bessemer union drive is the perfect hook for Democrats to hang their hat on; it’ll be a lot harder for anti-Big Tech Republican senators, like squirrelishly not-not pro-Amazon union Marco Rubio, to defend “no” votes.
At the moment, the loss is disheartening for Bessemer employees, who’ve likened the warehouse to a sweatshop whose management allegedly works them “to death” and blows through laborers like they’re disposable.
Like countless entry-level Amazon employees, workers in Bessemer have repeatedly described being treated like machinery. When Sen. Bernie Sanders visited the warehouse last month, one person said that a woman collapsed with a heart attack in the extreme heat, despite employees’ pleas for air conditioning. Others said that they lose an hour of pay if they’re one minute late. They said they’ve been told that wage raises permanently “tap out” at less than $17 per hour. Echoing years of the same claims, they say they lose large chunks of their break time walking across the vast warehouse to a break station or bathroom. And then there’s the surveillance system which tracks them down to the second, fomenting constant fear of retribution.
America just spent a year watching struggling workers put their lives on the line to fulfill Amazon orders, for $15 an hour, throughout the pandemic. During the same time, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, has been picking up a billion here and a billion there like sidewalk change; $13 billion in a single day, more than the GDP of a small country. Overall, he accumulated approximately $74 billion in additional net worth since March 2020. The Institute for Policy Studies found that Bezos could have paid every one of his 876,000 workers a $105,000 bonus, just with the extra profits he made during the pandemic.
To put it another way, that’s roughly enough dollar bills stacked on top of each other to reach the moon and back. You’ve probably heard these sorts of comparisons on TikTok, but it is an amount of money that is offensive to think about. He’ll be blasting some of that money into space, it seems.
Amazon has lost something—if a decent reputation counts as a valuable asset. The company passed up the pandemic opportunity to scrub its image as a psychotic mercenary willing to break its workers’ bodies for its bottom line. Instead, Amazon blew it spectacularly, and Bezos reportedly directed his underlings to go ballistic on Twitter.
If you are one of the thousand Amazon workers who’ve contacted the RWDSU about a unionization effort: do not stop. Persistence wins. And if you ultimately succeed, you could help recalibrate wealth inequality, which has risen in almost precise inverse proportion to union membership. You could help stop the churn of entry-level workers throughout the country that keeps wages low. (As of November, Amazon employed around 810,000 people in the United States, though due to its rabid turnover rate, the number of people who have been employees is likely astronomically higher.) You could even help wrest power to decide our planet’s fate.
Update 4/9/2021 11:08 a.m.: This post has been updated to include the RWDSU’s announcement that it plans to file objections to the election.
Update 4/9/2021 11:30 a.m.: This post has been updated to reflect the final tally of uncontested ballots.
Update 4/9/2021 1:22 p.m.: We’ve amended the post with RWSDU president Stuart Applebaum’s claim that Amazon threatened to shutter the warehouse. A previous version of this post suggested the possibility that the company might threaten to shut down facilities, as it has in France.
Update 4/9/2021 2:40 p.m.: This post has been updated with Amazon’s response to Applebaum’s claim.