Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama rejected a union drive. What happens now for the online retail giant?

People protest in support of the unionizing efforts of the Alabama Amazon workers, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 22, 2021. Photo by REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama voted against unionization on Thursday night. It was a big win for Amazon, the second largest employer in the U.S. after Walmart. The vote drew national attention as organizers pushed to create the first union at an American Amazon facility.

“What you heard is tales of incredibly bad working conditions, people who are disrespected and they want a union to represent them,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders told MSNBC last month after meeting with Amazon warehouse workers. “So obviously if they win that organizing union drive — and I hope they do — it will not only be important to Amazon workers in Birmingham, it will spread all over this country to other Amazon warehouses. And I think it will be a shot in the arm for union organizing all across this country.”

Early tallies show that about 70% of workers voted against the action.
But the fight isn’t over. The head of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU) plans to file a formal complaint, alleging Amazon aggressively campaigned against the union and used intimidation tactics against workers.

Many tactics used by Amazon, including placing flyers in bathrooms and holding mandatory anti-union meetings during work hours, are legal, according to Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers University.

On the election results, she says, “It's not a huge surprise, not because these workers don't want or need a union, but because this is typically how it goes under current labor law, as a result of the large anti-union campaign that Amazon and other employers tend to mount. What we have is workers voting after receiving these messages of fear and uncertainty all day long.”

Givan says a union would give Amazon workers the ability to safely advocate for their workplace rights.

“These workers feel like they're treated as robots, or often worse than the robots in the fulfillment centers. They feel that they have no ability to speak up around health and safety issues. These jobs are extremely physically grueling, with very high injury rates. And the workers would have a voice and be able to speak up without fear of retaliation around these issues.”

She adds that this isn’t the end to unionizing efforts in Bessemer. According to Givan, the mailbox that appeared outside the Bessemer facility was the result of lobbying from Amazon, and might be at the center of the RWDSU charges.

“[Amazon] encouraged workers to mail their ballots from that mailbox, implying that they were being watched. Because turnout is important. They wanted perhaps to put pressure on the workers to cast about as opposed to not voting at all,” Givan says.

She predicts warehouse workers might continue to organize, in the form of public demonstrations and walkouts.