Amazon consumer CEO Dave Clark led the company’s push to persuade the US Postal Service to install a controversial temporary mailbox outside Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, during a recent union election, multiple outlets reported Monday.
“Please let me know where we stand on this — this is a highly visible Dave Clark initiative,” Becky Moore, an Amazon senior manager, said in a January email to USPS officials presented at a National Labor Relations Board hearing Monday, according to Bloomberg.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Jay Smith, a USPS official in charge of managing major accounts including Amazon, also testified to the NLRB that it was the first time he was aware of the agency installing such a mailbox at the request of a private company, Bloomberg reported.
Photos of the mailbox showed that modifications made by the USPS to accommodate more outgoing ballots could potentially have allowed a recipient assigned to an adjacent incoming mailbox to access the outgoing mail, according to Bloomberg.
Last week, Amazon employee Kevin Jackson testified that he saw the company’s security guards use keys to access that outgoing mail slot, but Amazon denied those allegations, Bloomberg previously reported.
Amazon’s employees voted against unionizing in April. But the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, under which employees would have unionized, filed official objections to the NLRB, claiming Amazon violated labor laws during its anti-union campaign.
Amazon previously told Insider the box was an effort to allow workers to vote more easily.
The Washington Post reported last month that the USPS only decided to install the mailbox after repeated requests from Amazon corporate employees, but testimony and evidence presented during the multi-day NLRB hearing has shed more light on Amazon’s tactics.
Smith also testified that the USPS explicitly told Amazon not to place anything around the mailbox that suggested it was where employees needed to vote, CNBC reported. Yet Amazon proceeded to place a tent around the mailbox that read: “Speak for yourself! Mail your ballot here.”
“I was surprised because I was asked, ‘Can anything physical be put on the box?'” Smith said, according to CNBC, adding: “I said no. I did not want to see anything else put around that box indicating that it was a vote.”
The vote count, which finished last Friday afternoon, showed that 1,798 employees had voted against unionizing and 738 had voted for the union. While over 500 votes were challenged and 76 votes were voided, 70.9% of the valid votes were against the union.
In his letter, Bezos said he feels Amazon’s direct relationship with employees is strong, but that the company needs “a better vision for how we create value for employees – a vision for their success.”
“Does your Chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t,” Bezos wrote. “I think we need to do a better job for our employees.”
Bezos also indirectly discussed the controversy surrounding Amazon’s Twitter spat last month. In response to a tweet from Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan about working conditions at Amazon, Amazon’s Twitter account wrote: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.”
The tweet sparked an uproar among employees, mostly Amazon delivery drivers, who said that peeing in bottles is an “inhumane” yet common part of the job. Insider also spoke with several drivers who said that they’ve had to poop in bags and struggled to change menstrual pads during their shift, in addition to peeing in bottles.
In his letter, Bezos called news reports about how Amazon employees are treated inaccurate, claiming that workers are portrayed as “desperate souls” and “robots.” He highlighted the informal break time that employees are able to take during their shifts to “stretch, get water, use the rest room, or talk to a manager,” which he said don’t impact performance. These breaks are in addition to a lunch break and other break workers get during their shifts, Bezos said.
Bezos also pushed back against the notion that employees are held to unachievable performance goals, which was a main theme in the union push: Workers told Insider they were unfairly punished for taking “time off task,” or time away from their workstations.
But Bezos said that performance is evaluated over a long period of time and employees are provided with coaching if they’re not meeting their goals.
“We don’t set unreasonable performance goals,” he said. “We set achievable performance goals that take into account tenure and actual employee performance data. Performance is evaluated over a long period of time as we know that a variety of things can impact performance in any given week, day, or hour.”
The company thanked employees for taking part in the election, and said in the end, 16% of workers in the warehouse voted for forming a union. A total 55% of the warehouse’s 5,800-strong workforce took part in the union election. The final tally counted 1,798 votes against unionizing and 738 votes for the union.
Amazon pushed back against allegations made by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) that it illegally tampered with the election by intimidating workers.
“It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true. Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us,” Amazon said.
The RWDSU announced Friday it has filed official objections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) about Amazon’s tactics during the election, which ran from February 8 to March 29. “We demand a comprehensive investigation over Amazon’s behavior in corrupting this election,” RWDSU president, Stuart Appelbaum, said in a statement.
Pro-union Amazon employees told Insider about the various tactics Amazon deployed to convince its employees to vote no, including mandatory anti-union meetings, sending employees texts, and putting up anti-union signs in the bathrooms.
In its statement, Amazon also took the opportunity to lobby for a national minimum wage of $15.
“We welcome the opportunity to sit down and share ideas with any policymaker who wants to pass laws ensuring that all workers in the U.S. are guaranteed at least $15 an hour, health care from day one, and other strong benefits,” its statement reads.
Thank you to employees at our BHM1 fulfillment center in Alabama for participating in the election. There’s been a lot of noise over the past few months, and we’re glad that your collective voices were finally heard. In the end, less than 16% of the employees at BHM1 voted to join the RWDSU union.
It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true. Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win – our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union. Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace. We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.
We hope that with this election now over, there’s an opportunity to move from talk to action across the country. While our team is more than a million people around the world and we’ve created 500,000 new jobs since COVID-19 began, we’re still a tiny fraction of the workforce. There are 40 million Americans who make less than the starting wage at Amazon, and many more who don’t get health care through their employers, and we think that should be fixed. We welcome the opportunity to sit down and share ideas with any policymaker who wants to pass laws ensuring that all workers in the U.S. are guaranteed at least $15 an hour, health care from day one, and other strong benefits. Our employees have seen tremendous benefit from what we offer and we think every American family deserves the same. We believe that we can work better together instead of against each other to pass those important laws, and we hope that’s what will happen in the months and years ahead.
In the meantime, for anyone who’s interested in meeting some members of our team and seeing what it’s like to work inside one of our buildings, we encourage you to sign up for a tour at www.amazonfctours.com. It’s an incredible operation, supported by a world-class team, and we’d love for you to see for yourself.
After one of the most high-profile union – and anti-union – campaigns in recent history, Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, voted overwhelmingly against unionizing, with the National Labor Relations Board confirming Friday that 71% of eligible ballots were cast in opposition.
But eight labor experts told Insider that focusing on the vote tally misses the bigger takeaway from this saga: that American workers are demanding better workplaces and a voice on the job, and America’s current labor laws simply aren’t designed to help them accomplish that goal.
Still, they said, Bessemer put a spotlight on how stacked the deck is against workers, and that the broad, diverse public support for the union drive showed the US labor movement is gaining more steam than it has in decades.
Amazon, which had aggressively opposed the union effort, undoubtedly won a significant battle this week (pending likely legal challenges from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union). But it may have put a target on its back that could prove costly in what’s likely to be an ongoing war over how companies treat their workers, the experts said.
The fight was never going to be fair
Amazon responded to the vote Friday by saying its “employees made the choice to vote against joining a union” and that it was glad their “collective voices were finally heard.”
But experts said that misrepresents what has happened since November, when Bessemer employees officially asked the NLRB to hold a union election.
“The result reflects the imbalance in current US labor law, rather than any genuine expression of whether workers would like to have more of a voice in their workplace,” Rebecca Givan, an associate labor and employment professor at Rutgers University, told Insider.
“This demonstrates just how hard it is for workers to gain a voice on the job when the employer has unlimited resources, full access to workers all day long, and very few legal constraints on what it can do or say,” she said.
In Bessemer, workers had a much tougher road to travel.
“Unions lose in 90% of the cases when management opposes the organizing effort,” which Amazon’s management did, Tom Kochan, a professor of management at MIT, told Insider.
That’s depite a surge in pro-union sentiment in the US in recent years. Kochan’s research in 2017 found that around 48% of non-union workers would join one if they had the opportunity, while a Gallup poll from August found that 65% of Americans approve of unions – the highest percentage in nearly 20 years.
But under US labor law, companies have lots of tools at their disposal to try to prevent employees from unionizing, from forcing them to listen to anti-union messaging in “captive-audience” meetings, to having a significant say over which employees are eligible to unionize in the first place. Even when companies violate those laws, the NLRB, which oversees union elections, lacks the power to issue fines, which experts said gives companies little incentive to play fair.
“The most important story is not the fact that the union didn’t win. Rather, it’s that they got as close to winning as they did,” Erin Hatton, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Buffalo whose research focuses on work and labor movements, told Insider.
“Through legal coercion and illegal tactics, employers spend a great deal of money to keep unions out and it usually works. So this outcome isn’t all that surprising. And yet the workers were incredibly successful in so many ways,” she said.
Anti-union tactics in the spotlight
One of those successes, experts said, was bringing attention to Amazon’s industry-standard, but still aggressively anti-union tactics.
“Amazon’s tactics during the campaign and voting process were successful for them but now are being questioned legally and in the public view,” Lynne Vincent, an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University, told Insider.
Once employees took their union drive public, Amazon enlisted expensive “union avoidance” consultants to help kick its union-busting tactics into overdrive. Amazon pushed its anti-union message through websites, t-shirts, frequent texts to employees, and midnight “education” meetings, which labor experts told Insider were fairly typically in union campaigns like this.
But the company also sought to shape the voting process itself.
The NLRB has allowed mail-in voting in union elections since March 2020 due to the pandemic, but Amazon (twice, unsuccessfully) tried to get the NLRB to hold an in-person election. When that failed, it reportedly pressed the United States Postal Service to install a mailbox outside the Bessemer warehouse.
An Amazon spokesperson previously told Insider that the USPS installed the mailbox “for the convenience of our employees.”
But the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union – under which Amazon’s Bessemer employees would have unionized if the vote had passed – accused Amazon of using the mailbox to intimidate workers and plans to file unfair labor practices charges with the NLRB that, if serious enough, could cause the NLRB to throw out the election result.
John Logan, a labor and employment professor at San Francisco State University who specializes in companies’ union avoidance strategies, told Insider that the mailbox’s placement likely gave employees an impression that “Amazon was playing some kind of direct role in monitoring and even perhaps in counting the votes, which clearly creates an atmosphere of pressure and potentially unlawful intimidation.”
Vincent said that companies who use a similar anti-union playbook to Amazon “may see validation in the effectiveness of the tactics,” but that the Bessemer campaign may also cause politicians to reexamine and ultimately outlaw some of those tactics.
What’s next for American workers?
Kochan said the Bessemer union drive was “another clear indication that [US] labor law is broken, perhaps in its current form, beyond repair.”
But many of the experts who spoke to Insider said the massive amount of attention and public support it generated suggest there may finally be an appetite to begin those repairs.
Under the Trump administration, the NLRB “systematically rolled back workers’ rights,” according to an analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. President Joe Biden has already signaled he intends to be much more pro-worker than his predecessor, releasing a video in support of unionization efforts and against corporate “anti-union propaganda” – as Amazon employees were voting.
“Given the pro union sentiment in many areas, as well as the clear backing of the current administration, it would still not be surprising to see successful efforts to unionize businesses in other areas, and eventually, even at Amazon itself,” Joseph Seiner, a labor and employment law professor at the University of South Carolina, told Insider.
Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings who researches how technology impacts workers’ lives, said that the Bessemer vote may push regulators to look more closely at how giant tech firms like Amazon exert power over workers.
“A lot of regulatory focus has hinged on anti-trust regulation-the need to break up Amazon because of its significant market power-but the truth is, Amazon also exerts monopsony power in labor markets. In areas where Amazon warehouses exist, wages go down, not up,” Dubal said.
The COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice protests following George Floyd’s death last May have also forced Americans to reckon with how race plays a role in the workplace. That became a focus in Bessemer, where the RWDSU estimated that 85% of Amazon’s employees are Black, according to The New York Times.
“The core issue in the campaign was not about specific concessions but worker power. And in this case, it can’t be distinguished from the struggle for racial equity,” Premilla Nadasen, an associate professor of history at Barnard College who researches alternative labor movements, told Insider. “Black people are being disenfranchised electorally and subject to systemic violence. So, the struggle for economic control over matters more.”
“Official union membership figures aside,” she said, “more and more working-class Americans are recognizing the need to have a collective voice.”
Votes against forming a union at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, lead by a more than 2-1 margin after the first day of counting ballots.
The National Labor Relations Board paused its public counting of Amazon employees’ ballots shortly after 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday with the anti-union votes leading 1,100 to 463.
The NLRB plans to resume counting ballots again on Friday morning at 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time.
While the remaining ballots are likely to be counted Friday, it could take the NLRB several weeks to announce the official outcome of the vote due to likely challenges from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union – the labor group under which Amazon’s Bessemer employees would unionize if the vote passes.
“Our system is broken, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign. But make no mistake about it; this still represents an important moment for working people and their voices will be heard,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told Insider in a statement.
Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story.
Per NLRB rules for union votes, both Amazon and the RWDSU can file objections within five days of the conclusion of the count. The NLRB then decides whether the objections are serious enough to warrant a hearing where it will determine whether the vote results should be set aside.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Amazon pushed the United States Postal Service to install a mailbox outside the Bessemer warehouse at the start of the voting period in February, which the RWDSU previously argued violates labor laws by intimidating workers and implying Amazon plays a role in collecting and counting ballots.
“This mailbox – which only the USPS had access to – was a simple, secure, and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less,” Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox told The Post.
Before Thursday’s public vote count, both Amazon and the RWDSU also had the opportunity to challenge employees’ eligibility to cast a ballot. Hundreds of ballots were challenged, mostly by Amazon, according to the RWDSU, which could potentially impact the outcome as well.
This year Amazon appealed to change the NLRB’s practices. In February, Insider reported that the NLRB had denied Amazon’s request to conduct an in-person union election, saying that the company must allow mail-in voting. And after the close of voting on March 29, the NLRB denied a request by Amazon for increased surveillance on the room where ballots were stored in the labor board’s Birmingham, Alabama, headquarters.
A total of 3,215 employees at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, cast ballots in a closely watched vote over whether to unionize, according to a press release from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
The warehouse has more than 5,800 employees, meaning roughly 55% of employees voted.
The RWDSU, under which Amazon’s warehouse workers would unionize, said the National Labor Relations Board has cleared all unchallenged ballots, but that “hundreds of challenged ballots” remain, most of which were challenged by Amazon, and that “more issues could impact the final results.”
The NLRB will likely start its public count of the votes via video conference on Thursday afternoon or Friday morning Eastern Time, according to the RWDSU.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
In the contentious union vote, Amazon has repeatedly contested aspects of the voting process to the NLRB, which denied the company’s request to install cameras monitoring the ballot room in the NLRB’s Birmingham office.
Union organizers have also complained about Amazon’s tactics, which have reportedly included enlisting local police to monitor organizers and requesting that traffic lights near the warehouse be reconfigured to limit the amount of time organizers have to speak with employees entering and leaving the facility.
“It may be the most important union vote in decades,” Lynne Vincent, an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Whitman School, told Insider. “It represents the conversation in our nation regarding economic and racial disparities that are embedded in our systems and structure and how power is distributed.”
“This is the richest man in the world against workers,” Wilma Liebman, who served on the National Labor Relations Board under Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton, said.
According to experts who spoke with Insider, workers in Bessemer could provide a roadmap for employees at Amazon and other companies across the country on how to effectively unionize. After decades of declining labor union membership, Amazon’s high-profile unionization efforts could play a part in reversing the trend.
“If they are able to win a union for themselves in such a broken system, then I think that is so encouraging to other Amazon warehouse workers, but also workers across other industries and at other retailers,” said Celine McNicholas, the director of government affairs at the Economic Policy Institute.
“If we cannot have a system whereby working people are able to trigger some gains for themselves, when they’re working in such shameful conditions, then – we’ve never needed reform more,” McNicholas added.
Amazon is following an anti-union playbook that has worked for decades
Workers in Bessemer are in the process of voting to form a union, with the vote scheduled to finish on March 29.
Over the past weeks, Amazon has worked to dissuade employees from supporting the union. Anti-union strategies range from distributing “Vote No” pins to a texting workers saying “the union can’t promise you anything.”
Insider’s Isobel Asher Hamilton and Annabelle Williams report that, in late January, Amazon hired an outside firm to run meetings to discuss unionizing, spreading what some workers felt was a “misleading” anti-union narrative. A mysterious mailbox appeared outside the warehouse in late February, representing a stark shift from Amazon’s previous opposition to workers voting by mail.
“I think that a lot of people, unfortunately, are scared of them, and they’re scared that they could lose their job,” Catherine Highsmith, who works at the warehouse, told Insider.
While experts says that Amazon’s actions are “aggressive,” they also say they follow a familiar anti-union playbook. (Amazon did not respond to Insider’s request for comment on its anti-union strategy.)
Nearly all union drives face fierce opposition from employers. In fact, US employers are charged with violating federal law in a whopping 41.5% of union election campaigns, according to EPI. These aggressive tactics have contributed to the decline of labor union membership in the US, according to McNicholas, which has dropped by 50% since 1983.
Many employers fear that unions will cut into profits and impact companies’ autonomy. Because the consequences for violating federal labor law are minor, McNicholas said, companies often believe it to be their best interest to do whatever it takes to prevent workers from unionizing.
Take, for example, Walmart. McNicholas notes that a decade ago, Walmart was the poster child for union opposition. The company’s anti-union efforts helped bring about mainstream awareness that companies were engaging in more sophisticated campaigns against unionization, helping create a “niche industry” of union avoidance.
“Amazon is just kind of following the course that was charted by Walmart,” McNicholas said.
An Amazon warehouse unionizing could have a massive impact
While the Bessemer warehouse accounts for a minuscule percentage of Amazon’s 560,000 employees worldwide, the union vote could have a major impact.
A vote in favor of the union would still only be the first step in Amazon workers’ union being recognize. But, experts said, it could help show other workers that unionizing is possible at Amazon and beyond. More than 1,000 workers have already reached out to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in recent weeks, exploring unionizing their own workplace, according to the Washington Post.
“The conversation regarding economic and racial disparities is growing,” Vincent said.” This is not just about Amazon, and the effects extend beyond Amazon.”
Amazon workers’ unionizing efforts have been heavily covered by the media, and drawn support from high-profile figures including President Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders.
“Given this momentum and high-power public support, labor union membership could increase even if the Bessemer distribution center does not unionize,” Vincent said.
Outside of Bessemer, some Amazon employees are optimistic about what a union could mean for workers.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has turned down an opportunity to testify before the Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday, according to CNN.
The world’s richest person declined an invite from Sen. Bernie Sanders to speak at a hearing on wealth and income inequality, a spokesperson for Sanders told the media outlet.
An Amazon representative said that while Bezos is unavailable to appear before the committee, he supports Sanders’ efforts to address inequality.
“We fully endorse Senator Sanders’ efforts to reduce income inequality with legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers, like we did for ours in 2018,” the spokesperson told CNN.
Sanders responded to the invite snub on Twitter. “It’s unfortunate Mr. Bezos won’t join our hearing,” he wrote. “While he’s become $78 billion richer during the pandemic, families are struggling to survive, so why is he spending a whole lot of money to stop workers from organizing a union at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama?”
At the hearing, Amazon employee Jennifer Bates will speak. She is part of an effort to form a union at one of the company’s warehouses in Bessemer, Alabama.
If workers at the warehouse vote in favor of unionization, this would be the first Amazon workers’ union in the US.
Amazon has aggressively targeted workers and encouraged them to vote against unionizing, Insider’s Isobel Asher Hamilton previously reported. Banners and fliers have been put up in bathrooms and anti-union adverts on Twitch were published, Asher Hamilton reported.
“What you are seeing right now in Bessemer is an example of the richest person in this country spending a whole lot of money to make it harder for ordinary working people to live with dignity and safety,” Sanders told The Washington Post.
Sanders has a history of criticizing Bezos, who is worth over $180 billion. Before the news that the billionaire would not testify, Sanders told CNN that he is “in many respects emblematic of the unfettered capitalism that we are seeing in America today.”
“What you are seeing right now in Bessemer is an example of the richest person in this country spending a whole lot of money to make it harder for ordinary working people to live with dignity and safety,” Sanders told the Post.
If the union is established, it would be the first Amazon union in the US. President Joe Biden addressed the vote in a video earlier this month, in which he said there should be “no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.”
“If they can win, I think that will send a message to workers all over this country that if you are prepared to stand up and fight, you can win a union, you can win better wages and better working conditions,” Sanders told the Post.
“Bezos has become a symbol of the unfettered capitalism that we are living under right now, when the very, very rich are doing phenomenally well while ordinary working people are struggling to put food on the table,” Sanders told the Post.
Amazon was not immediately available for comment when asked by Insider whether Bezos would be taking up the invitation to testify.
Do you have experience of unionization efforts at Amazon? Contact this reporter at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.