June 17, 2021

Amazon “Broke the Law”: Union Seeks New Election After Alabama Warehouse Organizing Drive Fails

8 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: The largest union drive in the history of Amazon ended Friday with the company, led by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, on top. After a months-long battle, ultimately 738 workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse voted to unionize, and 1,798 voted no. Ballots from another 505 workers were challenged, mostly by Amazon.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union that led the drive says Amazon illegally interfered in the vote, and it plans to file unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
Democracy Now! co-host Juan González tweeted in response to the vote, “How do more than 2,000 workers sign union cards at Amazon’s Alabama plant but only 700 vote yes? And why did only half of workers vote when 3/4 normally vote in such elections? Try examining employer intimidation,” he said.
Indeed, Amazon spent millions to defeat the closely watched election, and even got a private mailbox installed — that’s a U.S. postal mailbox installed — at the warehouse so it could pressure workers to mail their ballots from work, and monitor votes.
Amazon responded to the claim in a statement, saying, quote, “It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true,” they said.
Meanwhile, the David-and-Goliath fight in Bessemer has added pressure on Senate Democrats to follow their peers in the House and pass the PRO Act, which stands for Protecting the Right to Organize and would ban many of the tactics Amazon used to crush the organizing drive.
For more, we go to Birmingham, Alabama, not far from Bessemer, to speak with Stuart Appelbaum. He’s the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, recently wrote a piece for Newsweek headlined “Unionizing Amazon Workers Have Already Won.”
Welcome back to Democracy Now! Stuart Appelbaum, can you talk about what happened? Your reaction to the vote lost for unionizing Amazon, though you see, ultimately, what happened as a victory?
STUART APPELBAUM: Thank you, and good morning.
I think that it’s important that people don’t misread the results of this election. People were not saying that they were satisfied with Amazon’s working conditions in any way. They were saying that they were afraid to vote for the union.
And I also think that although the results were clearly not what we wanted, we still believe that a lot of powerful things have been accomplished in this vote and that this election is far, far from over. We had a very exciting meeting last night with the committee, the organizing committee, and we’re going to be filing objections this week to the vote, and we’re going to be looking for a new election.
Look, you have to look at what happened. This is the first time ever that there has been an election at an Amazon warehouse any place in the United States, and that’s important. I think it opens the door to further organizing. I think that we put a stoplight on the way Amazon treats its workers, and people around the world were astounded to hear about the conditions there. I think that we have become an important argument for the PRO Act, because we exposed what it is that employers like Amazon do to try to crush union organizing. And I think that this election has received more attention than elections for a union in decades. And part of the result is that a recent poll showed that 77% of Americans supported the Amazon workers seeking a union.
And I look at the alliances that have been created. There was a powerful, powerful, powerful community involvement in this campaign. I know — I believe another one of your guests didn’t understand the community involvement, but she hadn’t spoken to any of the organizers involved in the campaign. We’re proud of the partnership with the Black Lives Matter movement. We saw this as much a civil rights struggle as a union struggle. We think that we breathed new life into the labor movement at the same time. And I think we also showed an inclusive way of organizing. So, we see a lot of positive things that came out of this vote.
If I could just mention two things quickly. More votes were cast for a union in this election than in all union elections in Alabama in the year before. And I think that’s really important.
AMY GOODMAN: Stuart, can you talk about the numbers? I mean, you had 5,800 workers at the Amazon warehouse. Less than half of them voted. Seven hundred-plus voted for the union. Around 1,500 voted against, apparently, according to the certified count. So, in fact, less than half of the voters voted?
STUART APPELBAUM: Actually, I think it was about 55% that voted. I’d also say that at least 400 of the votes that Amazon challenged, for ridiculous reasons — they would say they couldn’t read a signature of a union supporter’s vote. And so, I think that the numbers really don’t reflect how people voted.
Also, you have to understand the extraordinary turnover at Amazon facilities. You have a turnover of over 100% a year, which meant that we had no choice but to move fast in this election. It’s not like organizing at a nursing home or in other places where there is more stability in the workplace. But a lot of people were not even working at Amazon. People who were working there in January, a lot of them were no longer there by the time the vote started on February 9th.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re taking — you’re filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board?
STUART APPELBAUM: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: On what grounds?
STUART APPELBAUM: Oh, they broke the law in so many ways. They had union-busting consultants telling employees that if the union were voted in, Amazon may have to shut down the warehouse.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about that for a minute. The Intercept reported Amazon paid a consultant with ties to the Koch brothers $3,200 a day to thwart the unionization drive, also required workers to attend these anti-union captive audience meetings. Can you talk about them?
STUART APPELBAUM: Sure, of course. And also it was many consultants, many. They brought in about 200 people to walk the floors. And a lot of people were paid $3,200 a day. Amazon left no stone unturned in trying to thwart this effort.
And at the captive audience meetings, people would be forced, at an hour at a time, several times a week, to listen to consultants telling them why unions are bad, and they didn’t need to union, and they should vote against it. And if someone questioned them, a photograph would be taken of their employee badge, and they’d be expelled from the meeting.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to one Amazon warehouse worker, Joseph Jones, speaking on Democracy Now! about the meetings.

JOSEPH JONES: With one of the meetings, one of their biggest points that they were trying to get us outraged about was: “Look at this balance sheet of this union. They spent $140,000 on vehicles last year! Can you believe it?”

So I raised my hand. And in this setting, no one talks, right? Because they always open it up for questions, but who’s going to speak out to the company, unless you just don’t care? So, my question was: “OK, so let me understand your position. You want me to be outraged at the fact that this union spent $140,000 on qualified business expenses, as it seems, that you’re showing us, but Jeff Bezos makes 150 grand every single minute of every single day. But I’m supposed to be outraged at this?” They were like, “Yeah. Yes. Aren’t you mad?” It’s crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Joseph Jones. Your response?
STUART APPELBAUM: Well, it’s just — I agree with Joseph. And I’d also point out I don’t even own a car. I don’t have a car from the union. But our union representatives, whose job it is to travel from workplace to workplace, need vehicles.
They just complained about anything they could to make people afraid to vote, you know, like they lied. They lied about dues. We explained to people that we want you to pay dues, we hope you will want to pay dues, but it’s going to be your choice. Alabama is a right-to-work state. We also know, by the time a contract could be negotiated, it would be probably a mostly new workforce, and we’d be doing a dues campaign. But Amazon lied to people about whether or not they’d be compelled to pay money, hundreds of dollars, and that they should spend the money instead on dinners and gifts for friends.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, I wanted to get your response to the Teamsters union, which has 1.4 million members, saying they’re also working on organizing Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers. In These Times labor reporter Hamilton Nolan ran a story last month headlined “The Teamsters Hint at a Combative National Project to Organize Amazon.” The union has said it’s taking a different approach than RWDSU, your union, Stuart. The secretary-treasurer of a Teamsters local in Iowa told The New York Times, “We’re focused on building a new type of labor movement where we don’t rely on the election process to raise standards.” Your final response?
STUART APPELBAUM: I would say that I welcome my sisters and brothers throughout the labor movement to get involved. I think this needs to be a project of the entire labor movement. But I question whether or not you’re going to be able to compel Amazon to deal with a union other than through an election and achieving majority status, because we saw in New York City, when we defeated Amazon in their attempt to build a second headquarters in New York City, that we had incredible leverage at that point, and yet it made no difference. And we’ve seen people talking about maybe instead of having elections, we should sign petitions, or we should have small walkouts. I think, at the end of the day, that’s not going to be sufficient. You’re going to need to get an expression of majority support in the workforce in order to compel Amazon to deal with you. But I welcome — I welcome unions everywhere to be involved in this effort to organize Amazon workers. We have no choice but to challenge Amazon’s way of treating its employees and doing business.
AMY GOODMAN: Stuart Appelbaum, I want to thank you for being with us, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, speaking to us from Alabama.