Amazon Workers Defeat Union Effort in Alabama

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The vote could lead to a rethinking of strategy inside the labor movement.

For years, union organizers have tried to leverage growing concerns about low-wage workers to break into Amazon. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union had organized around critical themes of supporting Black essential workers in the pandemic. The union had estimated that 85 percent of the workers at the Bessemer warehouse were Black.

The inability to organize the warehouse also follows decades of unsuccessful and costly attempts to form unions at Walmart, the only American company that employs more people than Amazon. The repeated failures at two huge companies may push labor organizers to focus more on backing national policies, such as a higher federal minimum wage, than unionizing individual workplaces.

Democrats in Washington, who put their full weight behind the union effort, said the loss showed that they needed to push for changes to labor and antitrust laws. The House of Representatives passed an expansion of worker protections this year, but it is unlikely to be approved in the Senate.

“Workers cannot organize to scale in America absent labor law reform, full stop,” Representative Andy Levin of Michigan, who had visited Bessemer, said in an interview.

The Amazon warehouse, on the outskirts of Birmingham, opened a year ago, just as the pandemic took hold. It was part of a major expansion at the company that accelerated during the pandemic. Last year, Amazon grew by more than 400,000 employees in the United States, where it now has almost a million workers. Warehouse workers typically assemble and box up orders of items for customers.

The unionization effort came together quickly, especially for one aimed at such a large target. A small group of workers at the building in Bessemer approached the local branch of the retail workers’ union last summer. They were frustrated with how Amazon constantly monitored every second of their workday through technology and felt that their managers were not willing to listen to their complaints.

Organizers appeared to have strong support early on, getting at least 2,000 workers to sign cards saying they wanted an election, enough for the National Labor Relations Board, which conducts union elections, to approve a vote.

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