For over a year, a group of workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have been campaigning to unite their warehouse under the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), hoping to force the retail giant to negotiate collectively with its warehouse workers for the first time. . That hope came to an abrupt end on Friday. In a unit-wide election, warehouse workers voted against unionization by a margin of more than 2-1, with 738 votes in favor and 1,798 against.
It is a devastating loss to the RWDSU and the labor movement in general. The union is still fighting the outcome – filing objections and arguing that Amazon’s campaign violated labor law – but those challenges are unlikely to change the outcome. Having dreamed of a domino effect that could unite Amazon warehouses across the country, organizers are now fighting to keep that dream alive.
But while the skewed result came as a surprise to many, it is part of a long, frustrating history for American labor organizers. In simple terms, not many American workers are unionized, and organizers are used to fighting hard at unifying new workplaces. Off government jobs, just 6.3 percent of US workers belong to a union, a number that has fallen slightly in the last 10 years. Southern industrial workers have been a particularly painful issue for the labor movement, with similar motives failing a Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga in 2019 and a Nissan factory in Mississippi in 2017. In that context, the loss of Bessemer is less of a surprise win for Amazon, but rather a depressing return to the norm.
“It’s a blow to the labor movement, but it’s part of a pattern that’s been going on in corporate America for a long time,” said Professor Dan Cornfield, a labor sociologist at Vanderbilt University.
Another force opposing organizers is US labor law, which gives employers plenty of leeway to promote an anti-union message in the workplace. Amazon had aggressively campaigned against the union in recent months, posting anti-RWDSU flyers in warehouse bathrooms and bombarding workers with targeted text messages. But while the organizers viewed these tactics as dirty fighting, they all fall within the bounds of current law.
“Our labor law is directed against the people it is meant to protect,” said Rebecca Kolins Givan, associate professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “It’s extremely difficult for workers to unionize and ridiculously easy for employers to bully them out.”
Tactics such as the “captive audience” gathering – where employers force employees to attend anti-union workshops as part of their job – are particularly controversial among labor activists. “Part of the problem is that the law gives the employer too much leeway to intervene,” said Benjamin Sachs, professor of Labor and Industry at Harvard Law School at Kestnbaum. “So the union cannot challenge much of what Amazon did, such as meetings with a captive audience, because the law is that the employer has the right to do that.”
Some also point to tactical missteps during the campaignOrganizers minimized home visits with employees due to the pandemic, but focused on reaching employees in the area immediately outside the warehouse. There was also great confusion about the unit itself, with organizers underestimating the number of eligible workers by thousands in the early stages of the campaign. While the margin of 1,060 votes may seem daunting, it is overshadowed by the thousands of internal workers who did not vote at all, either because of indifference or intimidation.
For Cornfield, the main strength was the region’s economy. Like much of the country, The unemployment rate in Alabama rose during the pandemic, from 2.6 percent to 13.6 percent from March to April. It was a huge economic shock to the region and may have cast a dark cloud over the union effort.
“When an employer is acting aggressively and a large part of the workforce has faced recession-level unemployment,” Cornfield says, “that is a deadly combination for workers who would otherwise see the benefits of unionizing.”
Now that the Bessemer struggle is over, many workers’ groups can do to level the playing field. Above all, there is hope that, under Biden, the National Labor Relations Board will change the rules around captive audience meetings and other tactics. The PRO law, currently awaiting a vote in the Senate, would go even further, including establishing monetary sanctions for executives who circumvent labor laws. But in the meantime, future efforts to organize Amazon warehouses will face much greater opportunities.
“I know the result is not what a lot of people wanted to hear,” Michael Foster, one of the leading RWDSU organizers in Bessemer, said at a news conference on Friday. “But I believe this is the basis for something great … this is certainly not the end.”