Monday is the final day for ballots to be received by the National Labor Relations Board in order to be counted in the election. The vote — a tally of which will begin Tuesday — will determine whether the Bessemer workers form the first US union in Amazon’s 27-year history.
The heated back-and-forth around the union election intensified in the final days of the vote. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has long been critical of the e-commerce giant — over such issues as how much it pays in federal taxes and how it compensates warehouse workers — rallied with workers at the union headquarters in Birmingham on Friday as part of a last-minute push that also included the Atlanta rapper best known as Killer Mike.
“The reason Amazon is putting so much energy to try to defeat you is they know if you succeed here, it will spread all over this country,” Sanders said at the rally. “A union is not going to solve it all but what it does do is allow you a seat at the table. When you go against one of the largest corporations in the world and you do it alone, you have no power. But when you stand together in solidarity with each other you can negotiate for a better work day.”
While there’s been a drumbeat of support from well-known figures in recent weeks, it’s unclear what influence that may have had on workers. For Jennifer Brown, a training ambassador at the Bessemer facility, not even the actor and activist Danny Glover, who campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote outside the fulfillment center in late February, could sway her decision to vote ‘no.’ “Amazon has been great for me,” she told CNN Business. “I haven’t had any real problems.”
For others, the messages may have reached them too late, given the length of the election period and the chance to change their mind. The outcome of the vote remains uncertain but one thing seems clear to union organizers and labor experts: the vote tally likely won’t mark the end of this high-profile fight.
“We’ve always known that this campaign is just a beginning no matter what the result is. It is about a lot more than Bessemer,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is conducting the union drive for Amazon workers at the Bessemer facility. “What we have done — which is crucial — is we have opened the door to union organizing at Amazon, we’ve gone further than anyone else has come close to in the past … and Amazon never anticipated it.”
Workers in other locations are watching
The workers at Bessemer are just a fraction of the company’s hundreds of thousands of US-based warehouse employees. While the pandemic has been a boon for Amazon’s business, safety precautions related to the virus, as well as general workplace conditions, have also been a factor behind a more general employee uprising at its facilities.
In recent months many of the same frustrations that Bessemer workers are hoping to improve with the help of union representation have similarly been expressed by Amazon workers at other facilities. The issues involved include adequate break time, better procedures for filing and receiving responses to grievances, higher wages as well as protection against Amazon wrongfully applying policies like social distancing to discipline workers.
More than 1,000 warehouse workers around the country have contacted the RWDSU union, according to Appelbaum, as well as others outside the United States. “Some workers from South Africa even recently contacted us to know if we can help them organize. It is not something we do, but it really tells us that this campaign has struck a chord with people everywhere,” he said.
Tyler Hamilton, a warehouse worker who has worked at Amazon’s Shakopee, Minnesota, facility since 2017, called the Bessemer workers “ahead of the pack.”
“Normally it takes time for people to figure out the system — how Amazon works, and to get pissed with it,” he said, adding that the Bessemer workers pushing to unionize have changed the conversations amongst workers at his facility. “Ultimately I think it is inevitable that Amazon warehouses — maybe not all of them, but I’m sure a good number of them — will become unionized.”
The Bessemer union push has also once again cast a harsh light on the realities of working for Amazon, including from recent testimony by one of the facility’s workers, Jennifer Bates, before the Senate Budget Committee. Bates, a vocal organizer behind the union push, described “grueling” work conditions, including 10-hour shifts with just two 30-minute breaks that are “not long enough to give you time to rest” given the facility’s expansive size.
“It’s not just workers in Alabama, it’s workers everywhere who are saying to Jeff Bezos that enough is enough,” Appelbaum said in a statement on Monday.
What happens after the vote
Rebecca Givan, a labor expert and associate professor at Rutgers University, said she doesn’t expect either side to give up — whatever the outcome of the vote. “We can already start to see the legal strategy on both sides depending on the outcome,” she told CNN Business.
“You can’t just shut down a plant and reopen it somewhere else non-union; that’s called a runaway shop. But you have much more leeway as an employer to change your business, in this case, saying you’re not going to be butchering anymore,” said Hirsch. He called the comparison notable given Walmart was “sort of the Amazon of its day” and similarly had staunchly fought unionization, but dissimilar in that the Walmart union only applied to a small group of workers doing a certain type of job.
To avoid the runaway shop problem, according to Hirsch, Amazon needs a legitimate reason and to be able to “convince the NLRB that it’s really the reason and not just pretext to avoid the union.” (Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox declined to comment on “hypotheticals” to CNN Business, including a question about whether it would accept the results of the vote count.)
If the union vote falls short, Givan said the union may seek to file unfair labor practice claims against Amazon, including around a mailbox that has popped up outside the facility.
Amazon’s Knox told CNN Business in a statement that “the USPS recently installed a mailbox onsite for the convenience of our employees.”
“As we have said all along, every employee should have the opportunity to vote in this important decision. This mailbox is enclosed in a tent making it convenient, safe, and private for our employees to vote on their way to and from work if they choose to, or use it for any of their other mailing needs. Only USPS can collect the outgoing mail from this box or put incoming mail into it,” the statement continued.
The NLRB declined to comment on the situation.
For some workers at Bessemer, the conclusion of the months-long union fight comes too late. Shelia Ross, who started working at the Bessemer facility in September 2020 only lasted about six months before deciding she’d had enough. Ross, who said she was previously undecided about the union effort, told CNN Business she voted in favor of representation only to resign this month.
She said “the place isn’t for the workers,” but that she’s hopeful it gets better for the people still employed by the company.