The union vote that could change Amazon forever

Last week, President Joe Biden had a message for Amazon: I’m watching.

“Workers in Alabama — and all across America — are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace,” he tweeted, along with an accompanying video. “It’s a vitally important choice — one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers.”

Biden didn’t name the employer involved, but it was clear to anyone paying attention to one of the biggest union battles in recent US history that he was talking about the e-commerce giant Amazon.

Through the end of March, 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in north-central Alabama have the chance to cast votes by mail to decide whether to unionize. These employees are just a tiny fraction of Amazon’s 500,000-plus front-line US workforce, but this union vote could reshape the company’s labor practices — and maybe the future of warehouse work in America as well.

The union vote at BHM1, a four-story Amazon warehouse the size of 15 football fields located in Bessemer, Alabama, is the first attempt to unionize a large US Amazon facility in the tech giant’s 25-year history. If a majority of the workers who choose to vote opt for unionization, they’ll earn a right to bargain for a contract with Amazon under the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents retail staff at department stores like Macy’s and H&M, as well as thousands of poultry plant workers.

A union victory in Bessemer would mark a historic win for US labor organizers who have long failed to crack Amazon, which is the second-largest private-sector employer in the US and has been accused of demanding a punishing pace of work and surveilling its workforce too aggressively. It would also likely set off a union push at other Amazon facilities across the US. Such a scenario once seemed like a pipe dream, but now seems, at a minimum, plausible. And it’s something Amazon executives have long feared because of how it might upend the speed and agility of warehouse operations; typically, the faster Amazon pushes warehouse workers, the quicker the company can get orders out the door to customers. And the express shipping options that come with an Amazon Prime membership are one of the key reasons shoppers choose the tech giant over competitors.

The Amazon BHM1 employees who support unionizing aren’t necessarily demanding better pay or benefits; the company pays employees a starting wage of at least $15.30 per hour at the facility, and it offers medical benefits for full-time employees and some part-time workers. Rather, the workers in favor of unionizing want a variety of changes that Jennifer Bates, who trains new workers at BHM1 as a full-time “learning ambassador,” sums up this way:

“Being heard.”

Inside Amazon’s corporate headquarters, company leaders are treating the vote as a crisis, according to an Amazon source. The company is pushing hard to convince workers to vote against unionization — convening mandatory in-person meetings during worker shifts to stress the upside of the current work environment and the downsides of unions, sending frequent texts to workers with anti-union messages and encouraging them to vote no, and even posting anti-union flyers on employee bathroom stall doors.

“It’s overkill,” said Bates, who told the union she was willing to speak to the press. “Sort of like a stalker.”

In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox highlighted the company’s benefits to employees and said Amazon does not believe that RWDSU’s views represent those of the majority of employees at the warehouse.

“We work hard to support our teams and more than 90% of associates at our Bessemer site say they would recommend Amazon as a good place to work to their friends,” Knox said. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs,” she said.

While this is the first union vote of this size at Amazon in the US, it’s been a long time coming. Here’s how we got to this point, and what’s at stake.

Amazon’s union history, briefly explained

Regardless of its outcome, the Bessemer vote marks a turning point for Amazon. While unions have succeeded in organizing some of Amazon’s European workforce, no Amazon facility in the US has been unionized. In fact, very few Amazon employees have ever attempted to unionize before. Amazon closed down a call center in 2001 that was the focus of a unionization attempt, and the last union drive, in 2014, ended with 21 of 27 Amazon technicians at a Delaware warehouse voting against unionization.

Despite the minimal unionization efforts until now, Amazon has spent more than a decade preparing for a vote like the one happening at BHM1.

Recode previously reported that in Amazon’s early years, the company began tracking the potential for unionization at each of its warehouses, building a heat map in Excel to identify “hot spots” in its fulfillment network. This calculation was based on dozens of metrics, including employee survey data, the safety record of the facility, and the financial strength of local unions, according to a former senior HR manager.

According to this employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Amazon tracked these details to determine “where do we swoop in to figure out if there’s a problem with leadership, or maybe there’s one particularly toxic employee who is really causing chaos.” Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired in 2017, now employs a similar union tracking system, Business Insider reported in April.

Recode also reported last year that Amazon planned to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for new software to better analyze and visualize data on unions around the globe, alongside other non-union “threats” to the company related to factors like crime and weather. Out of 40 or so data points listed in a memo outlining the initiative and viewed by Recode, around half of them were union-related or related to employee issues, like mandatory overtime and safety incidents.

Such revelations have only emboldened labor activists and progressive politicians to make more noise about the need for union representation at Amazon. In the last couple of years, Sen. Bernie Sanders has been pushing for labor organizing at Amazon warehouses as some workers have spoken out about punishing performance goals, insufficient break time, and having their every move at work tracked by computers. Sanders pressed Amazon in years past to raise its minimum hourly pay to $15, and praised CEO Jeff Bezos when the company did.

The labor scrutiny spiked in 2020 after Amazon fired some warehouse workers who spoke out about what they said were insufficient or inconsistent enforcement of safety measures in some warehouses during the early months of the pandemic. New York’s attorney general sued Amazon in February for failing to adequately protect its workers from Covid-19 at two New York warehouses, and for the alleged unlawful firing of a former assistant manager named Christian Smalls who protested working conditions at the time. The country’s racial reckoning that followed the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans also added fuel to the movement; union organizers say at least 80 percent of Amazon’s Bessemer workers are Black, and that Amazon’s overall front-line workforce in the US is disproportionately composed of people of color. Amazon hasn’t publicly released the demographics of its front-line workforce since 2016, when it reported that about half of “laborers and helpers” at the company were not white.

“We see this as much a civil rights struggle as it is a labor struggle,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told Recode in an interview. “The highlighting of racial injustice during the past year and the Black Lives Matter movement have inspired people to stand up for their rights and dignity. … In the South, a union has been as much about civil rights as it has been about labor rights.”