What happens inside a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, could have major implications not just for the country’s second-largest employer but the labor movement at large.
Organizers are pushing for some 6,000 Amazon workers there to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union on the promise it will lead to better working conditions, better pay and more respect. Amazon is pushing back, arguing that it already offers more than twice the minimum wage in Alabama and workers get such benefits as health care, vision and dental insurance without paying union dues.
The two sides are fully aware that it’s not just the Bessemer warehouse on the line. Organizers hope what happens there will inspire thousands of workers nationwide — and not just at Amazon — to consider unionizing and revive a labor movement that has been waning for decades.
“This is lighting a fuse, which I believe is going to spark an explosion of union organizing across the country, regardless of the results,” says RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum.
The union push could spread to other parts of Amazon and threaten the company’s profits, which soared 84% last year to $21 billion. At a time when many companies were cutting jobs, Amazon was one of the few still hiring, bringing on board 500,000 people last year alone to keep up with a surge of online orders.
Bessemer workers finished casting their votes on Monday. The counting begins on Tuesday, which could take days or longer depending on how many votes are received and how much time it takes for each side to review. The process is being overseen by the National Labor Relations Board and a majority of the votes will decide the final outcome.
What that outcome will be is anyone’s guess. Appelbaum thinks workers who voted early likely rejected the union because Amazon’s messaging got to them first. He says momentum changed in March as organizers talked to more workers and heard from basketball players and high-profile elected officials, including President Joe Biden.
For Amazon, which employs more than 950,000 full- and part-time workers in the US and nearly 1.3 million worldwide, a union could lead to higher wages that would eat into its profits. Higher wages would also mean higher costs to get packages to shoppers’ doorsteps, which may prompt Amazon to raise prices, says Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
In a statement, Amazon says it encouraged all its employees to vote and that “their voices will be heard in the days ahead.”
Any push to unionize is considered a long shot, since labor laws tend to favor employers. Alabama itself is a “right-to-work” state, which allows workers in unionized shops to opt out of paying union dues even as they retain the benefits and job protection negotiated by the union.
Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, says companies in the past have closed stores, warehouses or plants after workers have voted to unionize.
“There’s a history of companies going to great lengths to avoid recognizing the union,” he says.
Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and biggest private employer, has successfully fought off organizing efforts over the years. In 2000, it got rid of butchers in 180 of its stores after they voted to form a union. Walmart said it cut the jobs because people preferred pre-packaged meat. Five years later, it closed a store in Canada where some 200 workers were close to winning a union contract. At the time, Walmart said demands from union negotiators made it impossible for the store to sustain itself.
The only other time Amazon came up against a union vote was in 2014, when the majority of the 30 workers at a Delaware warehouse turned it down.
This time around, Amazon has been hanging anti-union signs throughout the Bessemer warehouse, including inside bathroom stalls, and holding mandatory meetings to convince workers why the union is a bad idea, according to one worker who recently testified at a Senate hearing. It has also created a website for employees that tells them they’ll have to pay $500 in union dues a month, taking away money that could go to dinners and school supplies.
Amazon’s hardball tactics extend beyond squashing union efforts. Last year, it fired a worker who organized a walkout at a New York warehouse to demand greater protection against Coronavirus, saying the employee himself flouted distancing rules. When Seattle, the home of its headquarters, passed a new tax on big companies in 2018, Amazon protested by stopping construction of a new high-rise building in the city; the tax was repealed four weeks later.