SEATTLE — A worker who picks items from the shelves of an Amazon warehouse in the area here was recently inspired to unionize.
“It would help very much if Alabama votes yes,” said the worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by a company that has been accused of firing workers for speaking out. “The chances that we’ll do something increases.”
The interest shows how seeds of unionization efforts at one U.S. warehouse could blossom into organizing drives at its other facilities and force Amazon to adopt workplace rules it finds restrictive. Among other problems, unions could dent the company’s flexibility, limiting its ability to rapidly hire and cut workers to meet shopping demands that spike and recede throughout the year, said former company executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal policy.
And it explains why Amazon is fighting aggressively to defeat the union drive in Alabama, as well as quieter ongoing workers’ efforts at facilities from Iowa to the United Kingdom. That’s a strategy it has followed throughout its 27-year existence, including using hard-nosed tactics from a well-worn playbook to stop the Alabama drive.
Veterans of Amazon labor fights say the company will use whatever methods are available to prevent a new union at its operations. In 2019, the United Kingdom’s GMB Union filed documents to form a collective bargaining unit at Amazon’s warehouse in Rugeley, near Birmingham, England. But Amazon mounted a successful campaign before the country’s labor regulator to challenge the number of workers the union claimed supported it, a tactic the union had never before encountered, said Mick Rix, GMB’s national officer.
“We know Amazon will leave no stone unturned to beat you,” Rix said. “It was a harsh lesson to learn.”
Many of the 5,805 employees in Bessemer who are in the middle of a seven-week mail-in voting period to decide whether they want the RWDSU to represent them receive four or five emails a day from the company to discourage unionization. The vote ends March 29. The company has pressed its anti-union case with banners at the warehouse and even fliers posted inside bathroom stalls.
The RWDSU has recently cited a mailbox popping up on company property that could signal to workers that it has a role in the running of the election, as well as a financial offer luring unhappy workers to quit as questionable tactics by a company hellbent on crushing the union.
The company opposes unionization, noting that it often pays more than its peers, and offers health-care, vision and dental benefits, a retirement plan, and opportunities for advancement, Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox said.
“For over 20 years Amazon employees have chosen to maintain a direct relationship with their managers, which may be because Amazon already offers what unions are requesting,” she said in an emailed statement.
Knox declined to comment on past unionization efforts at the company.
(Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Amazon sees unionization as a threat to its ability to bring technical innovations to its warehouses that reduce reliance on workers, such as robots, one of the former executives who discussed management thinking about unions said. Another former executive said Amazon leadership worries that organized labor could scuttle expansion plans, forcing the company to negotiate the terms of hiring, laying off staff, as well as the number of temporary workers it could take on, the executive said.
“Unionizing definitely impacts overall flexibility and workforce management,” the former executive said.
Union success in Alabama could fuel organizing drives in Washington state and beyond, triggering nascent collective worker movements Amazon has quelled in recent months at facilities in Minnesota and New York. The fear for Amazon’s leadership is that it could be bound by rigid contracts across the country that limit its agility, the executive said.
“That economic thing becomes fundamental,” the executive said.
But labor’s momentum from Alabama may be building. The Bessemer fight has sparked organizing ambitions of Amazon workers at other facilities.
“More than 1,000 Amazon workers from around the country have reached out to the RWDSU seeking information about unionizing their workplaces,” union spokeswoman Chelsea Connor said.
And local organizers for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters told the Des Moines Register in February that they’ve approached 400 to 500 workers at Amazon facilities in Iowa to organize. While on-the-ground organizers suggested that Amazon’s Iowa staff might strike to try to persuade the e-commerce giant to recognize the union they want to form, the union’s national leaders said that is just one possible tactic.
“What’s happening in Iowa is happening in a lot of other areas,” said Randy Korgan, director of Amazon Project, a Teamsters organizing initiative. “It’s happening in all corners of the country.”
Although many of Amazon’s European workers are members of unions, largely because organized labor is part of the cultural fabric of those countries, the company hasn’t yet faced a successful unionization threat in the United States. The closest was a bid by a small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at its warehouse in Middletown, Del., in 2014. Those workers ultimately voted against forming a union, following a drive led by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
Amazon has been fending off unsuccessful union bids for decades. In 2000, the Communications Workers of America tried to persuade 400 Amazon call-center workers in Seattle to unionize. In an era in which Amazon couldn’t pepper workers with texts as it does in Bessemer, managers harangued workers with regular one-on-one meetings, said Marcus Courtney, who worked on the organizing drive. The messages then were the same as now: A union will cost them in terms of dues and the direct line they have with managers.
“They were very aggressive, going right up to the edge” of what labor law allowed, he said. “That’s very intimidating for an employee.”
Amazon’s campaign paid off then as support for the organizing drive withered, Courtney said. Within a few months, the dot-com bubble that fueled the rise of Amazon burst, and the company shut down the call center.
The company’s effectiveness at stopping unionization drives is one reason the potential for success in Bessemer is so alluring to labor activists. Amazon is the emerging face of the nation’s blue-collar workforce. The company added 500,000 employees to its payroll in 2020, bringing its total worldwide employment to 1.3 million workers. It’s the second-largest private employer in the United States behind only Walmart, which also has worked successfully for years to stave off unionization in its U.S. operations.
The drive got an enormous boost late last month from President Biden, who tweeted a video saying workers should be able to make their decision in the election without pressure from the company. Although Biden didn’t name Amazon in the video, he made it clear that he supports the union drive.
“Today and over the next few days and weeks, workers in Alabama, and all across America, are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace,” Biden said. “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.”
Despite past failed attempts at organizing Amazon workers, the RWDSU has reason to think this campaign has a shot at succeeding. The union claims more than 3,000 workers have signed cards authorizing the RWDSU to represent them, although it acknowledges that some of them may have left the company. That’s more than half of the 5,805 workers the National Labor Relations Board determined can vote in the union election.
The Bessemer workers who support the union complain about aggressive productivity goals Amazon sets for them, targets that can be exhausting for employees racing to stow, pick or pack goods at the massive warehouse. Many of the employees remain concerned about catching the coronavirus at the facility, where the company has noted in a filing that 218 of the 7,575 employees of Amazon and third parties who work at the facility tested positive for the virus in the two weeks preceding Jan. 7. And some want Amazon to restore the $2-an-hour bonus it instituted at the start of the pandemic but eliminated at the end of May.
Almost as soon as its Bessemer workers filed paperwork in November with the NLRB to hold a vote to join the RWDSU, Amazon began a campaign to thwart that bid.
Now that the seven-week mail-in voting period has begun, Amazon has stopped the mandatory meetings, which are proscribed during the voting period. But it has engaged in other anti-union tactics that have riled the union.
In a January filing with the NLRB, the company suggested conducting in-person balloting in a tent set up in the parking lot outside the warehouse, committing to agency rules to avoid creating “the impression that any party controls employee access to the Board’s election processes.” The NLRB rejected that proposal, instead calling for mail-in ballots to protect workers, as well as agency staff, from the spread of the coronavirus.
But just as the mail-in voting began, a mailbox appeared in the parking lot in front of the warehouse, inside a tent.
“Speak for yourself! Mail your ballot here,” reads a banner on the tent.
The mailbox — the type of unmarked units with individually locked compartments and a mail slot that are common in apartment and condo buildings — doesn’t have U.S. Postal Service markings. But the Postal Service owns the box and suggested putting it at the warehouse, Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said. He declined to elaborate on why the agency, which counts Amazon as its largest corporate client, decided to install the mailbox at the start of the mail-in election, or what led it to put the mailbox on Amazon property.
In a text to Bessemer employees, Amazon wrote that only the Postal Service has the key to access outgoing mail.
“As we have said all along, every employee should have the opportunity to vote in this important decision,” Knox said in an emailed statement. “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.”
But placing a mailbox on company property with company signage could lead workers to think that Amazon has some role in collecting and counting ballots, which could influence their votes, said Craig Becker, the AFL-CIO’s general counsel and a former NLRB member appointed by President Barack Obama.
“They are trying to assert control over the mechanics [of the election] in a way that has already been rejected by the regional director and the board,” Becker said.
The union is also concerned about an Amazon initiative to pay unhappy warehouse workers to leave. In late February, the company extended what it calls “The Offer.” It’s a bonus, starting at $1,000, to quit.
Amazon began the initiative in 2014 and extends the offer to all its warehouse staff in North America. Only full-time workers who have been with the company for a year qualify. That limits the number of eligible workers at the Bessemer warehouse, which opened at the end of March 2020, to employees who transferred there from another Amazon facility, company spokeswoman Rena Lunak said. She declined to disclose the number of Bessemer workers who do qualify.
But the union expects the election to be close and sees The Offer as a way to weed out Bessemer workers who might have otherwise sided with them, because the ballots of ex-employees won’t count.
“They are trying to get people who are not happy workers to quit because they know unhappy workers are the ones who will vote for the union,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said. “They know perfectly well what the impact would be in Bessemer.”
One Bessemer worker has filed an unfair labor practices claim with the NLRB about Amazon’s anti-union website — DoItWithoutDues.com. The site falsely argues that workers would have to pay dues in Alabama, a “right-to-work” state where dues-paying isn’t required with unionized employers. In a handwritten filing on Feb. 11, the worker, whose name the NLRB redacted when it released the document, accuses the company, through the website, of trying to “restrain” employees from forming a union.
“The statements on the site aim to intimidate employees and coerce them into not organizing, and thus interferes directly with the proposed formation” of the union, the filing claims.
Lawmakers, too, have raised questions about Amazon’s tactics to thwart unionization. Last fall, four senators, including Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), sent a letter to Bezos asking him to respond to a report in Vice that the company infiltrated private social media groups to track employee discussion of unionization, and a report by Recode that it invested in technology to track union organizing.
The company doesn’t track individuals who participate in “protected activities,” such as union drives, Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, wrote in reply.
“Amazon does not discourage workers from organizing,” Huseman wrote. “Rather, Amazon recognizes all of our associates’ rights to decide whether union representation is right for them.”
In the United Kingdom, the GMB Union is targeting two other Amazon facilities in the country after coming up short at Rugeley, the union’s Rix said. He declined to name them. But this time, Rix said, the union is pressing to get more than half of the proposed bargaining unit at the Amazon sites to pay membership dues, which is how the country’s regulators determine their support for an organizing drive. It’s a much harder task, but one that might preempt Amazon’s anti-union efforts, Rix said.
“We’ve got to do the job in a harder way,” Rix said.
Amazon is fighting a different set of workers in Canada. The United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Local 175 accused the company’s Canadian subsidiary in a filing to the Ontario Labour Relations Board of illegally orchestrating a union-busting campaign at the subcontractors who deliver packages in the province. The union claims Amazon pushed to fire union organizers at the delivery companies, many of whose workers wear Amazon uniforms and exclusively deliver Amazon packages. Amazon also cut business to delivery services with unionized drivers, ultimately putting them out of business, according to the union’s filing.
“Amazon has engaged in a course of conduct intended to defeat unionization by contracting shell companies or subcontractors to supply it with courier drivers over whom Amazon has complete direction and control,” the union alleges in its filing, which is still pending.
The tactics have discouraged drivers, many of whom are recent immigrants to Canada, from unionizing, said Tim Deelstra, a spokesman for two UFCW locals in Ontario.
“It sent a chilling effect throughout the community,” Deelstra said.
When a group of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Shakopee, Minn., walked off the job during the company’s Prime Day yearly sales event in 2019, the company hired more than a dozen off-duty city police, stationing them inside and outside the facility, said Tyler Hamilton, a 24-year-old trainer at the site.
“That’s very intimidating,” Hamilton said, noting that many of the warehouse workers are recent East African immigrants. “That’s a show of force.”
He supports the union drive in Bessemer, in part, because he thinks it will send a message to Amazon, and to its workers globally.
“That would set a precedent,” Hamilton said. “That starts opening doors.”