Alabama Amazon Workers Reject Union, but Organizers Say the Fight Isn’t Over

Rapper Killer Mike rallied union organizers days before the Amazon union vote in Bessemer, Alabama ended. (Photo by Stephen Bisaha, Gulf States Newsroom)

Workers at the Amazon plant in Bessemer have voted against unionizing, dealing a major defeat to labor organizers hoping for a galvanizing victory in the South.

The final vote tally was 1,798 against unionizing and 738 in favor. About 500 challenged ballots were not counted, according to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, with most challenges coming from Amazon. Those disputed ballots are not enough to change the results.

Nearly 6,000 workers are employed at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, about 20 minutes west of Birmingham. The center opened just over a year ago on March 29.

The union says it will object to the results with the National Labor Relations Board and said Amazon intimidated and coerced workers into voting no.

“Our system is broken and Amazon took full advantage of that,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, said in a virtual press conference Friday.

Applebaum said the results are not a validation of Amazon’s working conditions and the way it treats its employees and that RWDSU will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable.

“Moving forward, I would just say keep the faith,” said Linda Burns, a worker at the Amazon facility in Bessemer. “It’s not over with and we’re just going to keep fighting.”

Amazon made an anti-union push against the campaign. The company held mandatory meetings at the warehouse, suggesting workers vote no. Signs were posted across the building warning that a union would be bad for workers. Amazon argued a union would just lead to union dues being drawn from their paycheck. Workers in Bessemer start at $15 per hour, almost double the minimum wage.

In a statement, Amazon denied intimidating workers and said there’s now an opportunity to work on raising the minimum wage to match Amazon’s starting wage of $15 an hour.

But pro-union workers said their issues weren’t with pay but work conditions, high packaging quotas and strict limits on breaks. They spoke about grueling quotas and limited breaks.

“I know the outcome is not … what a lot of people may want to hear, but today I want to encourage the Amazon workers to let them know how proud I am of them,” said Mike Foster, vice president of an Alabama RWDSU chapter. “This is the foundation for something great that’s about to happen all over the world.”

Experts agreed that unionizing the Amazon warehouse was a long shot. While Southern labor campaigns have been successful at small workplaces in the past, this would have been the first with more than 1,000 workers to unionize in Alabama since 2012. Union membership has been declining in the state, sitting at 8% last year. The national average was 10.8%.

Amazon’s union-backing employees got support from national figures. Actor Danny Glover stopped by in February. A Congressional delegation visited in March. Pro-labor activists hoped a win here would inspire more union organizing across the country. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said Amazon workers from other sites now interested in unionizing reached out before the final vote tally in Bessemer.

Before the Amazon voting ended, experts said the campaign already had left a mark.

“No matter what happens it has offered tremendous inspiration to labor activists around the country,” said John Logan, a labor historian at San Francisco State University.

Union victories do happen in the Deep South every year, despite its anti-union reputation. But they’re normally limited to smaller job sites, usually with less than 100 workers. The Amazon Bessemer warehouse would have been the largest workplace to unionize in the region in at least a decade.

Organizers also wanted more say in who gets fired, which Amazon said would restrict their ability to staff up and down with seasonal demands.

No worker would have been required to pay union dues. Alabama is one of 27 states with a “right-to-work” law, which prohibits unions from collecting fees from non-union employees in the workplace. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the PRO Act, which would undo those laws.