Soul Searching After Union Vote Ends in Defeat At Amazon

It seemed like such a certain thing. Yet, here we are with Amazon employees suffering a major defeat after the union vote was rejected.

Anger, desperation, worry, anxiety, and disappointment. Those are some of the emotions running through people’s minds right now. On the leadup to the potentially historic vote, it seemed that Amazon employees had every reason to unionize. Story after story after story of bad working conditions just kept pouring out of the woodwork.

As a result, Amazon pushed an aggressive anti-union campaign by openly attacking critics among other things. Observers pointed out these aggressive tactics and concluded that Amazon was very worried about how this will all play out. Even after admitting that some of the more notorious stories were actually true, Amazon fought hard right up to the very end to block the move to unionization – even challenging hundreds of votes in the process.

While expectations were that history was about to be made, it turned out to be a result that wasn’t going to be. NPR is reporting that the employees lost the vote as it resulted in rejection:

Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama will not be forming a union.

The vast majority of votes cast by Amazon’s workers in Bessemer, Ala., were against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in a stinging defeat of the union drive. The final tally showed 1,798 votes against unionizing and 738 votes in favor of the union.

That means Amazon has withstood the largest union push yet among its U.S. workers despite celebrity endorsements, including implied solidarity from President Biden. Building on years of successfully fighting off labor organizing, the company avoided the prospect of its first unionized warehouse in America.

The retail union is now filing a legal challenge to the election and charges of unfair labor practices against Amazon. It’s requesting a hearing by the National Labor Relations Board “to determine if the results of the election should be set aside because conduct by the employer created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice.”

Indeed, we’ve heard of a number of tactics employed by Amazon that certainly raised a lot of red flags. One example that we are aware of is that, despite objections, Amazon set up a mail box right outside its office to monitor who was voting. Other stories included posting anti-union posters in bathroom stalls among other locations while forcing those who support the union to meet off the premises. So, it was no secret that the vote was being held under hostile conditions that we know of.

Some speculated on why the results went the way they did. Some of the speculation revolved around Stockholm syndrome or otherwise being fine with what some would consider unacceptable. Others were thinking that employees received enough intimidation and thought that if they voted to unionize, there would be reprisals. Others think that some employees figured that if they did unionize, then Amazon would simply shut down the whole facility and lay everyone off.

Some accusations we’ve seen floating around say that Amazon engaged in voter suppression beyond just the challenging of votes. We didn’t see any evidence of this ourselves, but we don’t exactly have close connections to the facility in question either. So, we really can’t say for certain that this is what actually happened.

In the process, we’ve seen some misinformation about what unionization means along with the benefits that come about because of it. We’ve seen the suggestion that unionization means wage suppression. It’s a pretty safe bet that this would be news to a lot of people in the labor movement because unions generally push for higher wages, not lower.

Another message we’ve seen is that seniority is terrible because it inherently promotes laziness. The reality is that seniority actually benefits every employee. Seniority can be handled in a multitude of ways. It can be measured in hours worked or when the employee got hired to name two ways. In union environments, if employees are not performing in acceptable ways, the company isn’t simply out of options. Employees can still be fired in such an environment in more extreme examples. There can very easily still be performance expectations in such an environment. A lot would depend on what rules are in place in a given environment. Of course, in this case, we’ll never know because the vote to allow the union to even exist at all was, for now, rejected.

Others are taking a more holistic approach to trying to figure out why the vote went the way it did. In America, there is a long history of average people ending up voting against their interests on a whole pile of issues. Some are simply against unions no matter what and frequently side with those who try and crush unions as a result. Generally, for broad stroke political reasons.

For those who supported the unionization movement here, the mood is reportedly deflated. Still, the fight is going to carry on. From CP24:

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the retail union, struck a grim tone in a statement Thursday night as the initial results rolled in, signalling that the union will put up a legal fight if the vote doesn’t go its way.

“Our system is broken, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labour board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behaviour during the campaign,” he said, without specifying any allegations. “But make no mistake about it; this still represents an important moment for working people and their voices will be heard.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

Both sides had launched a spirited campaign to win over workers. Amazon hung anti-union signs throughout the warehouse, including inside bathroom stalls. It held mandatory meetings to convince workers why the union was a bad idea and also argued that it already offered more than twice the minimum wage in Alabama plus benefits without workers having to pay union dues.

Meanwhile, union organizers stood outside the warehouse gates trying to talk to people driving in and out of work. They also had volunteers call all of the nearly 6,000 workers, promising a union will lead to better working conditions, better pay and more respect.

Richard Bensinger, a former organizing director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and the United Automobile Workers, noted the large number of workers who didn’t vote in Bessemer: “To me, that’s all about the paralysis, the fear. They don’t want to be supportive of the company but they are afraid to stand up for the union.”

Bensinger, who said he is involved in early unionization efforts by Amazon workers the U.S. and Canada, spoke to a couple of those workers Thursday night “trying to tell them what happened so they wouldn’t be discouraged.”

MSN is noting that the result may have come about because of the harsh conditions the union movement has had to endure in recent years:

The e-commerce company campaigned for weeks, plastering the warehouse and even a bathroom stall with anti-union notices, stopping work for mandatory employee meetings on the election, and bombarding staff with text messages criticizing the RWDSU.

In one of the messages seen by Reuters, warehouse leadership warned that collective bargaining could result in workers losing benefits – something the union has disputed. “Everything is on the table,” the text declared.

And in one of the mandatory meetings, presentations asserted union leaders used membership dues for improper purposes such as expensive cars and vacations, a former employee at the company’s warehouse told Reuters. The union did not immediately comment on the claim.

But some labor advocates including U.S. Representative Andy Levin of Michigan said the power imbalance between the workers and the company was just too much to overcome.

“The pressure a company like Amazon builds up against you can feel like a 1,000 lb weight on your chest,” Levin wrote on Twitter. “The company’s goal is to create so much pressure, anxiety and fear — and to make workers feel that pressure will never go away as long as the union is around.”

The setup of Amazon’s warehouse itself may have tipped the vote in the retailer’s favor. The size of many football fields, it was not a space for social gathering, let alone union organizing discussion.

It’s really hard to characterize this as anything other than a win for Amazon, the corporation. They got what they wanted and employees will have to continue on without any real representation. It’s a really unfortunate development, but one that employees will have to deal with now.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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