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Unionizing Amazon Workers in Bessemer Have No Shot. Or Do They?


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Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP

On the Clock is Motherboard’s reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama will get a chance to vote on whether to unionize with the Retail Warehouse and Department Store Workers Union for a second time in a year next week. Last year, Amazon warehouse workers voted 2-to-1 against unionization, but the election results were thrown out after the National Labor Relations Board found that Amazon violated labor law and ordered a second election. 

Although the odds of the union winning the election against the e-commerce giant are still slim, there are a few factors, experts say, that could shift the results. 

These factors include the vaccination status of workers compared to the last time, the high turnover rate at Amazon, mail-in voting, the union’s new publicity campaign, and reinforcements from other unions.

The overwhelming majority of the time—95 percent of the time, according to one study—unions lose re-elections because the employer has been given significantly more time to persuade workers against unionization. But according to RWDSU, close to 50 percent of the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer’s 6,143 employees who are eligible to vote in the upcoming election were hired since the last election. 

“It’s a different environment in comparison to the last election. The key difference is approximately 50 percent of the warehouse is new and didn’t participate the first time around, and now the union organizers have the ability to connect with those workers off site,” a union avoidance consultant with many years of experience, including working at Amazon, told Motherboard. Motherboard granted the consultant anonymity to talk about sensitive industry issues.  

“In this case, with a heavy loss in the first election, it’s actually beneficial to the union that a large number of employees are no longer there,” said John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University. 

The union may have some other advantages with newcomers and veteran workers. Some workers who voted “no” last time said they regretted their decision after they cast their ballots. Those workers could vote for the union this time around, though it’s unclear how large that voting bloc is. Other pro-union workers in the area, such as Braxton Wright, a striking Warrior Met coal miner, have signed up for jobs at Amazon’s Bessemer facility since last year. 

Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, said that even with high turnover, many of the barriers to unionizing still remain. “It’s mostly difficult to win reelection because of the reasons it’s hard to win the first time around,” she said. Employers have unlimited access to workers and the ability to intimidate them and scare them. The workers and the unions don’t have equal time or access in general. Any revote is giving the employer more time to sharpen and hone their message.”

The largest difference this time around, experts say, is that union organizers have more access to warehouse workers than they did last year during an earlier stage of the pandemic when few people had received a COVID-19 vaccine. The union organized workers by handing out brochures outside the warehouse during shift change, but they did not visit workers in homes because of COVID.

This time, though, the union is doing home visits and knocking on doors, tactics that union organizers say are crucial for gaining the support of workers at a giant anti-union employer like Amazon. They also have help from other national unions with records of leading the most sophisticated union organizing drives in the country, such as the Service Employees International Union, SEIU, which has sent organizers to Bessemer, according to three sources familiar with the Amazon union drive in Bessemer. 

RWDSU declined to say whether they have more organizers on the ground in preparation for this election than last year’s, but a source with knowledge of the campaign told Motherboard that the campaign’s leaders are different this year.

Like the first election, the second election in Bessemer will also be conducted with mail-in ballots, which labor experts say benefits the union because voting takes place off company property and free from surveillance. Employers are required to stop holding anti-union meetings once ballots have been mailed out, whereas unions can continue to visit workers at their homes and off-site, giving them the advantage during the election period. 

“If I were an organizer, that’s exactly what I’d be doing,” the union avoidance consultant with experience working at Amazon told Motherboard. “I would make sure I get more reinforcements out visiting workers once the ballots go out. That’s when people vote and lots of people forget to vote.”

The union has also shifted tactics in its publicity campaign, posting public endorsements of the union from dozens of workers. RWDSU has embarked on an Instagram campaign—posting photos of dozens of workers holding signs listing the reasons they are “voting union yes”—”I want to reduce the imbalance of power,” “I want a better life,” “I deserve dignity, respect, and a living wage.” Last year, only a handful of workers publicly supported the union. Labor experts say these public endorsements of the union from workers are a crucial way for unions to assess and build their support. 

“When you’re organizing a union, you want to assess how likely workers are to vote. Taking a risk and public stand is an important assessment of whether a worker is going to vote to unionize,” said Givan. “This means doing something publicly like posting a statement and taking pictures, signaling to coworkers that you’re not afraid and want people to know how you’re voting. It’s clear this time around many many more workers are willing to speak publicly. There’s a big contrast from last time compared to this time.”

“We’re doing more education,” said Jennifer Bates, an Amazon warehouse worker at JFK8 who has been vocal with her support of the union drive since last year, in a press conference last week about the re-election. “We’re encouraging more of those who support the union to help us advocate because we realized during last year’s election that Amazon is a huge facility and it was hard to reach all of those people with the few people we had who were doing the advocacy. Now we have a large group of employees who we divided up to help get the word out, get the education out, and get on the ground. I don’t have a number but we have a huge [worker] committee. Huge.”

As for Amazon’s union busting tactics, the company is pulling many of the same stops as last year’s election, although it removed a giant powder blue banner from the building that said “Vote No.” Last month, Amazon began holding mandatory anti-union meetings at the facility, but paused them after workers started interrupting the meeting’s leaders, Amazon warehouse workers said during a press conference last week. “We got more employees standing up and speaking out,” said Daryll Richardson, an Amazon warehouse worker in Bessemer. “Every meeting lately we have employees shutting [Amazon] down, so it’s looking really good now.” Amazon also has still not removed the USPS mailbox installed in its warehouse parking lot, which NLRB officials said violated labor law by creating the impression of surveillance during last year’s election. 

Logan, the professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University who researches the union avoidance industry, said that he can only imagine Amazon’s union busting tactics to be more sophisticated during this election than last year’s. “Amazon is a really smart firm and lots of people who are smart work for them,” Logan said. “I would only expect them to get better at executing an anti-union campaign with experience like they do with everything else,” he said.

“Part of the problem with Amazon’s anti-union activity is that we don’t have any idea of the full extent of what they do,” he added. “That will always remain out of view. They’re using surveillance tech and data analytics. We’re probably only seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

Amazon workers have seven weeks to vote. Ballots must be received by March 25. 



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