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Amazon defeats union in Alabama warehouse, union claims illegal interference

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Amazon (AMZN) has clinched victory against a union drive at its warehouse in Alabama, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) said Friday, striking a blow to labor organizers in a vote that captured national attention.

The NLRB, which tallied the ballots, found that 1,798 votes were cast against the union and 738 were cast in favor. While 76 ballots were void and 505 were challenged, Amazon's victory was decisive.

The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, said on Friday that Amazon illegally interfered with the vote with an aggressive anti-union drive that intimidated and manipulated employees. The union is filing official objections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claiming that Amazon interfered with its workers' right to vote in a free and fair election.

“Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees. We won’t let Amazon’s lies, deception and illegal activities go unchallenged, which is why we are formally filing charges against all of the egregious and blatantly illegal actions taken by Amazon during the union vote," RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement on Friday.

A challenge by the union at the NLRB could stretch on for months but, if successful, would decertify the results and require a second election.

In a statement following the vote, Amazon said it was glad that its workers' voices were heard, noting that just 16% of employees voted in favor of unionizing.

"It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true," the company said. "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."

In its statement, Amazon touted its job creation efforts since the start of the pandemic, and noted that it offers $15 as a starting salary and health benefits.

"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," the company said. "We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day."

A high-stakes vote that captured national attention

The outcome concludes a high-profile, months-long labor battle that unfolded as the COVID-19 pandemic drove record sales for the e-commerce giant but exposed its warehouse employees to life-and-death safety risks.

The result marks a significant victory for Amazon, the nation’s second-largest private sector employer, which has faced heightened criticism in recent months over the conditions in its vast warehouse network. Meanwhile, the tally strikes a blow to the labor movement, which had been eager to reverse decades of union decline and gain a foothold in the growing tech sector.

Votes were cast by 3,200 Amazon employees at the facility in Bessemer, Al., roughly 55% of the workers eligible to participate, according to the RWDSU. 

Workers criticized grueling conditions enforced by digital devices that they say track them every minute. Employees also claimed inadequate safety protections heightened stress and health risks tied to COVID-19. But Amazon strongly rebuked such claims, citing a host of safety measures implemented during the pandemic and a compensation package that includes benefits and entry-level pay of $15.30, more than double the federal minimum wage.

Union organizer Steve (no last names given) stands outside an Amazon fulfillment center on March 27, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama. - Amazon Alabama workers are trying to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in Birmingham, as clashes intensified between lawmakers and the e-commerce giant ahead of a deadline for a vote that could lead to the first union on US soil at the massive tech company. The visit marks the latest high-profile appearance in the contentious organizing effort for some 5,800 employees at Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer which culminates next week. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
Union organizer Steve (no last names given) stands outside an Amazon fulfillment center on March 27, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Paul Clark, Director of Penn State's School of Labor and Employment Relations, said prior to the final vote tally that it's plausible Amazon may have violated labor law in its anti-union campaign.

"There's a lot of evidence that employers often do violate because the penalties just don't provide an incentive to abide by the law," he says. "The union appeals, maybe the board does find irregularities, in which case they might rerun the election."

Amazon made its anti-union position known in an aggressive campaign carried out through multiple avenues, including mandatory meetings and a website that warned of onerous dues payments. But federal labor law permits employers wide latitude in dissuading workers from supporting a labor drive.

In February, Amazon told Yahoo Finance that it has abided by all NLRB rules and guidelines as it relates to union campaigns, and believes it is important for all employees to understand all sides of the union election.

‘Outsized’ meaning for both sides

Erik Loomis, a labor historian and professor at the University of Rhode Island, said on the last day of voting, March 29, that the outcome would carry “huge symbolic meaning” for Amazon and the labor movement.

“On the face of it, the stakes for either side shouldn’t be that big — it’s one warehouse,” says Loomis. But “the symbolic meaning of this union vote is outsized for both sides.”

“The labor movement has struggled in recent decades to transition to the new economy and this is a chance to turn the tides,” he adds. “For Amazon, it’s about control over the workplace.”

The union drive has drawn intense interest from top officials on both sides of the aisle in Washington D.C. President Joe Biden released a video in early March defending the right of workers to unionize and made reference to "workers in Alabama" without mentioning Amazon, widely perceived as an allusion to the labor battle at the tech giant.

Vote signage hangs outside the Amazon.com, Inc. fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama on March 26, 2021. - Senator Bernie Sanders joined the drive March 26, 2021, to unionize Amazon workers in Alabama with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) in Birmingham, as clashes intensified between lawmakers and the e-commerce giant ahead of a deadline for a vote that could lead to the first union on US soil at the massive tech company. The visit marks the latest high-profile appearance in the contentious organizing effort for some 5,800 employees at Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer which culminates next week. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
Vote signage hangs outside the Amazon.com, Inc. fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama on March 26, 2021. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

For years, Amazon has withstood persistent criticism over the conditions at its warehouse network, which has grown to at least 110 fulfillment centers in North America. In recent years, criticism of the working conditions focused on demanding quotas and digital surveillance that employees say penalized them for taking breaks.

The company instituted a $15 wage floor three years ago, and last month backed legislation that would gradually raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour. But national interest in the Bessemer union drive spurred more than 1,000 Amazon employees across the U.S. to contact RWDSU about potential labor organizing efforts, the union said in March.

“We all tend to think unions are about wages and benefits,” says Ileen Devault, a professor of labor history at Cornell University and director of the school’s Worker Institute. “More than that, unions are a way for workers to have a voice in their workplaces.”

“Why should an algorithm push people beyond their physical endurance, especially in a time of a global pandemic?” she asks.

The novel coronavirus has fueled record e-commerce revenue for Amazon as hundreds of millions of Americans have been forced into their homes, prompting the hiring of hundreds of thousands of workers and plans to expand its warehouse network. But it has also elicited a new set of grievances around health risks and inadequate compensation tied to the pandemic. By last October, 19,816 employees had tested positive or been presumed positive for COVID-19, Amazon said that month.

“Just because you’re getting paid, it doesn’t mean you’re being treated fairly,” says Derrick Palmer, 32, an employee at the company’s Staten Island warehouse who traveled to the Bessemer facility in February to support the union drive.

Palmer said he and some coworkers at the Staten Island facility have discussed restarting a union drive that failed at the site two years ago; he has heard from workers at other facilities who want to begin their own unionization efforts.

Before he knew the outcome of the election, Palmer said its impact was already clear.

“It will inspire other workers to organize,” he says.

Editor's note: This story was updated with the final results from the National Labor Relations Board.

Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.
Dan Howley is the tech editor at Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @DanielHowley.

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