Amazon faces a reckoning with Alabama union vote

2 Apr 2021417 Views

Image: © Mike Mareen/Stock.adobe.com

Ballots have been cast in the tense campaign for warehouse workers in Bessemer to unionise, which could arouse more unions efforts in the US.

Votes are being tallied in Alabama for a union vote among Amazon workers, the results of which could have a profound effect on the tech giant’s employment practices.

Workers at a fulfilment centre in Bessemer are voting on whether to join up with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, in what would be the first unionisation of Amazon warehouse workers in the US.

The campaign has attracted many high-profile supporters including Bernie Sanders and Danny Glover, hoping to establish a precedent for workers in Amazon’s warehouses, while Amazon has stood in opposition.

Up to 5,800 employees are casting their ballots on the union vote, with the results expected next week. But it hasn’t been an affable affair.

Amazon has been stern in its rebuttals against unions and promotes its $15 an hour minimum wage, which more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

However, the stories of workers in Bessemer and other warehouses brought up discontent with reports around docking an hour’s pay for being a few minutes late, insufficient break times and curbs on taking toilet breaks.

These are all claims that Amazon has refuted and firmly pushed back against. Recode reported that Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos was angry over the criticisms being repeatedly lobbed at the company and urged executives to push back more aggressively.

This may partially explain a bizarre scenario where one of Amazon’s Twitter accounts began publicly firing back missives at critics, namely Elizabeth Warren. The Amazon News Twitter account also took issue with allegations that Amazon delivery drivers urinate in bottles while on their shifts because they can’t take toilet breaks.

Meanwhile, a slew of allegedly fake Twitter accounts that supported the company were unearthed.

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It was amid this tense backdrop that Bessemer workers cast their ballots. The National Labor Relations Board is currently counting up the votes which, with ongoing health restrictions, were cast by mail. Amazon had requested that cameras be installed to monitor the boxes being opened and counted but this was denied.

Ripple effects

Whatever the outcome of the vote in Alabama, the campaign has caused a stir once again for the tech giant. Other unions and workers will be watching keenly. If the campaign is successful, some workers in other states will surely follow suit. If it is unsuccessful, it may provide a playbook of sorts on what did and didn’t work.

The vote in Alabama may be the first of its kind in the US but Amazon is facing increasing union efforts in Europe, which have intensified over the last year.

The issue became particularly tense in France last May when workers protested Covid-19 safety protocols in warehouses, where people are typically working in close proximity to each other.

Last September, a collection of trade unions in Europe that represent 12m workers wrote to the European Commission demanding an investigation into Amazon’s practices.

And in the last two weeks, warehouse workers in Germany and Italy led strikes over conditions. In Germany, employees across six sites have gone on strike.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is seeking to represent the Alabama employees, expressed solidarity with the German strikes.

“It’s not just workers in Alabama, it’s workers everywhere who are saying to Jeff Bezos that enough is enough,” he said. “No matter what language they speak, Amazon workers around the globe will not stand for the working conditions they’ve been forced to endure for too long.”

For Jeff Bezos, it’s one last headache for one of the world’s richest men as he prepares to step down from his role as chief executive after 27 years at the helm, steering Amazon into the behemoth it is now.

For his successor Andy Jassy, the headaches may be just beginning.

Jonathan Keane is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Dublin

editorial@siliconrepublic.com