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How union organizers are chipping away at Amazon

The effort to unionize the Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse may have fallen short. But labor organizers aren’t giving up on Amazon.

How union organizers are chipping away at Amazon
[Illustration: Chris Van Rooyen]

When the 100,000- member Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union filed to hold an election at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, in November 2020, it was a potentially epochal moment. The labor movement was eager to capitalize on the rise of worker activism during the pandemic and establish a beachhead within the country’s second-largest private employer. Labor leaders rallied to the cause. President Biden offered a message of support. And Amazon pulled out all the stops to squash the campaign. The result: Workers voted against unionizing, 1,798 to 738.

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But it’s not over yet. The National Labor Relations Board’s regional director is considering whether Amazon violated labor law with tactics like having a special mailbox set up to collect ballots. If the results are voided, the RWDSU will have to decide whether it wants to re-vote (though the company’s high turnover rate means a potentially different pool of voters).

A vote to unionize would be historic, but replicating it across other warehouses would be difficult, given the atomized nature of Amazon employment. “Even if you won a couple of Amazon facilities, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to sweep in,” says Erik Loomis, author of A History of America in Ten Strikes. “It’s not as if we’re talking about a situation where there are tens of thousands of employees in one place, or a situation like in auto or steel, where you had a dense concentration [of workers] in particular cities.”

Other unions still see the company as an organizing opportunity. The Teamsters—which represents 1.3 million logistics employees, most notably at UPS—recently announced a plan to focus its efforts on Amazon. Randy Korgan, the Teamsters’ national director for Amazon, says that the union will employ a spectrum of tactics, like continuing the work it’s done to block local tax breaks for Amazon facilities over the past year, to inspire workers to take action in their workplaces. He cites Amazon’s recent starting-wage increase—it’s now paying an average of $18 an hour—as evidence that the company is paying attention.

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Even without the support of an established union, Amazon workers have shown a growing appetite for activism, fueled by anger about conditions in the warehouses. Employees at a Staten Island facility, for example, are currently attempting to form a new, independent union. Amazon may have won the battle in Bessemer, but its workers are starting to capture headlines elsewhere—putting all of corporate America on notice.

Read more about how Amazon is upending business, from A to Z

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About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Impact section, formerly FastCoExist.com. Have an idea for a story? You can reach him at mclendaniel [at] fastcompany.com

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