Throughout this year, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) organizers and volunteers encouraged Amazon workers at the warehouse to vote “yes” for a union. Amazon pushed back strongly in a campaign that included the launch of website, DoItWithoutDues.com, to warn against the drive.
The facility opened in March of last year just as the pandemic began. According to RWDSU communications director Chelsea Connor, the workers experienced immediate frustrations, including limited break times and fear of reprisal for speaking out against conditions. On November 20th, they filed for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Despite employee welfare concerns, the company appears to have got what it wanted. “I think there's no doubt that Amazon's anti-union campaign had a devastating impact,” said Professor John Logan, Director of the Labor and Employment Studies Department at San Francisco State University.
“The RWDSU submitted over 2,000 signed union cards to NLRB in December but ended up with fewer than half that total in votes. US unions usually face aggressive anti-union campaigns, but Amazon's was exceptional – the company really threw everything at the anti-union effort, and it paid off,” he noted.
The RWDSU’s president goes further in his criticism: “Amazon knew full well that unless they did everything they possibly could, even illegal activity, their workers would have continued supporting the union,” Stuart Appelbaum said in a press statement. “That’s why they required all their employees to attend lecture after lecture, filled with mistruths and lies, where workers had to listen to the company demand they oppose the union. That’s why they flooded the internet, the airwaves and social media with ads spreading misinformation. Amazon’s conduct has been despicable.”
But the company defends its actions in a statement, describing the website it launched as an “educational” tool “which helps employees understand the facts of joining a union”. Amazon spokesperson Leah Seay said if the union vote had passed, it would have affected everyone at the warehouse. “It’s important that our employees understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”
The RWDSU said in a statement of its own that it had filed 23 objections to the NLRB, claiming Amazon interfered with the right of the Bessemer employees to vote in a free and fair election. The NLRB offered no comment but if it finds that Amazon did act unlawfully, it could demand a new vote. This process could take several months.
“The fight isn’t over,” said Darryl Richardson, an Amazon worker at the Bessemer facility. “I felt like the union can bring in job security, safety, well-being, or employees not getting fired just ‘cause,” he explained.
The controversy at Amazon comes amid an increase in employee activism at other US tech companies. Earlier this year, workers at Alphabet and Google formed the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU). More than 800 people have joined so far.
“Workers have faced retaliation and even firing for trying to take these stands within Google,” said Xavid Pretzer, a software engineer at Google’s Cambridge office and AWU member.
Pretzer said the employees at their office wanted Google to address concerns related to the ethical use of its technology, specifically with regard to contracts with the military and Customs and Border Patrol. According to Pretzer, one of their colleagues was fired for raising these issues, which made them realize there was a pressing need for a union.
“We needed an organization that could be a consistent force for raising issues and for supporting each other,” said Pretzer. “And so to me, that's a lot of why the union’s necessary – to have the ability to support coworkers, support everyone in Alphabet, and to be able to raise concerns and agitate for change safely.”
Unionists hope tech workers will become more willing to speak out. “They have said this is the biggest labor movement in the last 25, 30 years,” said Michael Foster, an RWDSU organizer. “I believe this is evidence for people across the world to see that you can form a union. It’s your right to be able to form a union. And I think by the people here in Alabama and Bessemer, it is allowing the light to shine, to be able to let the rest of the world know, hey, you can do this, too.”