Amazon workers in Alabama vote against forming a union

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Amazon.com Inc. employees in Alabama voted not to unionize, according to a Wall Street Journal tally, handing the tech giant a victory in its biggest battle to date against labor-organizing efforts after the contest fueled national debate over working conditions at one of the nation's largest employers.

With 72% of ballots counted, about 71% of the Bessemer, Ala., warehouse workers voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, according to a Wall Street Journal tally of votes. The number of votes against a union exceeds 1608, the total needed to reach a majority of the 3,215 mail-in ballots sent in by workers. The National Labor Relations Board continues to count the votes live on a broadcast and hasn't yet declared an official winner.

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Each side has about a week to contest results before the NLRB certifies the outcome, and the union is expected to appeal the vote and accuse Amazon of violating legal restrictions governing unionization campaigns. Amazon has said it followed the law in its communication with employees before and during the election.

The Bessemer facility employs fewer than 1% of the roughly 950,000 Amazon employees in the U.S., but the vote emerged as a watershed moment for a company that hired at a faster pace than almost any private corporation in history last year.

Union workers rallied in downtown Los Angeles Monday morning in support of unionizing Alabama Amazon workers on March 22, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA.  ((Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images).)

Supporters contrasted Amazon's reputation for growth, profit and innovation with the working conditions for rank-and-file employees, some of whom have complained both publicly and to the company about the physical demands of the job. They also compared the wealth of Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos to the experience of hourly warehouse workers.

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Some employees in Bessemer said they wanted to unionize to negotiate over issues including their compensation, the pace of their work and the amount of break time they have per shift. One worker in Bessemer said he is expected to pick roughly 300 items per hour and at times doesn't have enough time to take a bathroom break without potentially getting in trouble. Amazon has said employees can take bathroom breaks when needed.

Amazon told workers unionization is unnecessary, saying it pays double the minimum wage in Alabama and offers what it says are generous healthcare benefits to workers. The company highlighted the cost of union dues and said employees were better off without organizing. Company executives also pushed back against criticism by noting that Amazon's pay far exceeds the federal minimum wage.

Some workers who voted not to unionize said they ultimately didn't see how a union would improve their pay or working conditions.

AMAZON TAKES EARLY LEAD AS UNION VOTE COUNT GETS UNDERWAY

"A lot of us are in agreement that we don't need anybody there to speak for us and take our money," said Cori Jennings, 40, who works at the Bessemer facility and voted against unionizing. Ms. Jennings said she and many of her colleagues were also eager for the national attention to fade. "We want our lives to go back to normal."

The election marks an important victory for Amazon, which has grown rapidly in the past year as consumers and companies leaned on its services during the pandemic. Amazon had $386.1 billion in sales in 2020 and saw its share price rise about 76%. As Amazon grew inundated with orders, it hired more than 500,000 people globally to keep up with demand.

As those employees worked to keep up with the orders, some workers complained that the company didn't do enough to protect them from Covid-19. Amazon said it changed hundreds of processes to help prevent the spread of coronavirus in its warehouses. The company said last year that more than 19,000 employees were known to have contracted the virus, below what it expected based on the infection rate of the general population.

The Bessemer union drive began last summer, when a group of workers contacted a branch of the RWDSU. Union representatives and members from nearby warehouses, poultry plants and nursing homes started meeting with the workers in restaurants and hotels. In October, they began their outreach campaign to other employees.

As the election began earlier this year, politicians in both parties and celebrities rallied for pro-union employees. Supporters painted the election as a battle that transcended traditional workplace disputes over pay and benefits. Some on the pro-union side came to see the vote as a check on the company's growing power and a barometer for organized labor in the U.S., where the share of workers in labor unions has fallen in recent decades.

WHAT AMAZON’S ALABAMA UNION VOTE MEANS FOR THE COMPANY AND WORKERS

The union's defeat in Alabama is a setback for labor activists and for organizing efforts at the nation's second-largest private employer. Amazon has successfully beat back previous efforts. In 2018, an effort by Whole Foods Market employees to unionize failed to gain traction, and four years earlier a small group of Amazon workers in Middletown, Del., rejected a union push.

Even in defeat, pro-union workers have achieved a significant milestone, said Arthur Wheaton, a scholar of labor relations at Cornell University who has consulted for unions. The election cast a light on workers' experience, Mr. Wheaton said.

The union drive in Bessemer "has provided a pathway" for employees everywhere, he said.

Guru Hariharan, a former Amazon manager who runs the e-commerce analytics company CommerceIQ, said the company will continue to grow regardless of how its labor battles play out. Amazon's advantage "is based on its technology, and that will continue to be the case regardless of incremental productivity level shifts in fulfillment-center workers."

Inti Pacheco and Paul Ziobro contributed to this article.

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