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Big Union Loss At Amazon Warehouse Casts Shadow Over Labor Movement

Pro-union Amazon warehouse worker Jennifer Bates vows at a rally in Birmingham to keep fighting to unionize the Amazon Bessemer warehouse.
Stephan Bisaha for NPR
Pro-union Amazon warehouse worker Jennifer Bates vows at a rally in Birmingham to keep fighting to unionize the Amazon Bessemer warehouse.

After a nearly two-month-long union election, Amazon warehouse worker Carla Johnson is ready to move on.

"I'm glad it's over," Johnson said. "Now I can stop getting the emails, the phone calls, you know, from the union reps."

Results from last week showed Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted more than two-to-one against joining a union. Johnson voted to keep the union out because she trusts Amazon – the company treated her well during her recent battle with brain cancer. She also just doesn't believe the union could deliver on promises to raise pay and improve work conditions.

She hopes her co-workers can leave the idea of unionizing behind, but she doubts they will. And she's right.

"We're not running away with our tails behind us because there was no victory," said Amazon warehouse worker Jennifer Bates at a rally on Sunday at the union's Birmingham headquarters. "There was illegal things taking place and fear tactics that was done to people who didn't have any idea about what a union could do for them."

Union backers were hoping for a labor movement renaissance inspired by Alabama workers trying to create the first unionized Amazon workplace in the United States. Instead, the union's crushing defeat continued the decades-long decline of unions.

The defeat shows just how difficult it is for unions to get a foothold into one of the country's massive employers when the company is willing to fight back. Now Amazon's workers and the labor movement are trying to find a path forward after adding Bessemer to a long list of disappointments.

Labored Movement

At Sunday's rally, pro-union workers described the loss as a punch to the stomach.

But admissions of disappointment were preambles to pledges to keep fighting. They blamed the loss on Amazon's aggressive, anti-union campaign. The Retail, Wholesale And Department Store Union promised legal challenges. Organizers told stories of election victories following initial defeats.

Some labor experts say all the attention the Bessemer election brought to the labor movement was a good thing, regardless of the outcome. The union claimed that workers from other Amazon warehouses said they were inspired by what was happening in Bessemer and were interested in unionizing.

And despite the loss, there are several factors in favor of unions today. President Joe Biden sent out a Twitter video in February extolling unions and denouncing anti-union tactics.

"You might say, 'oh so what? He tweeted a video,'" said John Logan, the director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. "This was a really big deal. I mean, this was like the most pro-union presidential statement in history."

The pandemic also relabeled low-skilled jobs. Those workers were now called heroes, front-line workers and essential. A Gallup poll from September found 65 percent of Americans approve of unions.

But none of that matters if unions can't actually win in places like Bessemer. While unions do still pull off small victories, even in the traditionally anti-union South, they rarely happen at workplaces with more than 100 union-eligible workers. Over the past two decades, union membership in the private sector has been cut nearly in half, down to 6.3 percent last year.

"Unions are polling almost two-thirds support from American workers," said Wade Rathke, the chief organizer of United Labor Unions Local 100 in New Orleans. "Yet we're losing badly in places like Bessemer. That's a disconnect,".

While workers stayed defiant at the Birmingham union rally, pro-union worker Kevin Jackson said the atmosphere inside the warehouse is still tense.

"Everybody is still standing on eggshells," Jackson said. "People just don't talk about it. But it's like you can feel it."

The Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala.
Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
The Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala.

Law And Reform

Unions blame weak labor laws for much of their troubles. While the National Labor Relations Board has rules meant to protect workers trying to organize, experts call the board toothless. If Amazon is found guilty of intimidating workers, it likely won't lead to anything beyond a few mandated posters at the Amazon warehouse.

"It takes so much, so much to prove that the company is retaliating against the employees," said Rose Turner, a United Food and Commercial Workers organizer. "You have to have strong people."

Even once a union wins, it can take years for unions to get to a first contract with the employer, if they manage that at all.

Democrats hope to change that with the Pro Act. The bill would let unions seek arbitration to help when a first contract stalls. It also adds teeth to existing laws, letting the NLRB fine companies that violate workers' rights. Mandatory, anti-union meetings like the ones held at Amazon's warehouse would be illegal.

The House approved the bill in March and now waits on the Senate. But Democrats have been trying to pass major labor law reform since the Carter Administration without any success.

For the workers at Amazon, they will have to wait another year before holding another union election, unless the NLRB orders a rerun. But campaigning against a big company like Amazon is expensive, a cost the union might be reluctant to take on after losing by such a wide margin.

"If I were the union I would think twice if I wanted to put the resources into a second election in the very near term," said Michelle Kaminski an associate professor of labor law at Michigan State University.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

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Stephan Bisaha