At long last, Amazon has a unionization vote on its hands, the first and only since 2014. Today, 5,800 Alabama warehouse workers have been sent mail-in ballots and can begin voting on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). If they vote in favor, RWDSU will be the first union to gain a foothold in the nation’s second-largest employer, a company that’s famously been associated with grueling and hazardous workplace conditions. The votes will be counted March 30th.
The push is happening in the majority-Black city of Bessemer, Alabama at Amazon’s BHM1 warehouse, which opened at the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020. Employees there have told the American Prospect that—in addition to the standard coercion to meeting lofty productivity goals—management has threatened to fire workers engaged in organizing the warehouse. A former stower told American Prospect that “they work you to death,” and a current worker said that they need the union “badly” to fix “horrible” working conditions.
Amazon has reportedly deployed a propaganda blitz, plastering BHM1 in posters and text messaging workers in an attempt to sway employees against organizing. The company has also implied that workers will be forced to pay dues, which is at best a gross misrepresentation. (Alabama is a right-to-work state.)
An image of a workplace bathroom placard, shared with Gizmodo, warns workers to “Remember everything you already have without giving any of your money to the RWDSU.” In a text message, the company implored workers not to “let the union divide us.” A follow-up text “from BHM1 leadership” more ominously claims that workers might come out of a contract negotiation “with less.” The text links to the notoriously cringe-worthy “Do It Without Dues” website, a cartoon-adorned photo roll of smiling Amazon managers with such entreaties as: “There’s so much MORE you can do for your career and your family without paying dues.” (This, alongside an DJing corgi and an orange Amazon package emanating animated hearts.)
“By no means will the union be taking dues from workers without their request,” RWDSU spokesperson Chelsea Connor told Gizmodo. Connor named a litany of issues the union could address, including Amazon’s draconian monitoring of workers’ bathroom time and the ability to fight unjust firings. At the moment, she said, workers’ communication with management is characterized by impersonal, top-down robotic emails.
Workers have told the labor advocacy media outlet More Perfect Union that the company is texting them five times daily, has put up banners in the warehouse, and that managers are pulling them aside for one-on-ones about unions. They even suspect that Amazon has gotten the city to recalibrate traffic lights outside the warehouse so that employees won’t stop to talk to each other at a red light. According to internal documents obtained by Motherboard, the company has retained the services of Pinkerton operatives to act as anti-union spies across the company’s global logistics network. Amazon was not available for comment.
In National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filings, Amazon has tried to stall the vote by asking for time to review the mail-in ballot process, with weak quibbles that preparing ballots would take a prohibitively long time and confuse voters. The NLRB quickly overturned the motions.
“Jeff Bezos’ business model for Amazon was feasting on public subsidies, paying little or no taxes and dehumanizing and mistreating his employees,” Stuart Appelbaum, President of the RWDSU said in an emailed statement after the NLRB allowed the mail-in vote to proceed. “The appropriate legacy for him should be workers coming together in Bessemer, Alabama and organizing a union and creating change in Amazon’s model of employee relations. Bezos’s model for treating workers must not become the model for the future of work.”
If the union wins, Amazon might finally face its hour of reckoning, albeit after Jeff Bezos safely jets off to build space colonies, if an off-world environment designed by the creator of hellworld sounds appealing.
Update 2/9/2020 8:35 am ET: In an email to Gizmodo, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox addressed reports and allegations made by workers. Knox didn’t explicitly confirm that “Do It Without Dues” is an Amazon website but described it as an “educational site which helps employees understand the facts of joining a union.”
In addition to claims that Amazon already offers generous compensation and benefits with opportunity for career growth, Knox also emphasized that management maintains open lines of communication. “Direct dialogue is essential to our work environment in which we encourage associates to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team with the goal of quickly improving the work environment and challenging leadership assumptions,” Knox said.
In response to the allegation that the City of Bessemer recalibrated the traffic light outside of the warehouse, Knox sent a tweet from the city stating that it does not maintain the road outside of the Amazon facility.
On the report that Amazon has retained Pinkerton agents to monitor union activities, Knox said:
“While we don’t comment on our business partner relationships, like many businesses, we work with third party companies when we need additional support. However, to suggest Amazon or the third party companies we work with are doing something nefarious is irresponsible and incorrect.”