When Graham Brooks received his ballot in early February and asked if he would like to unionize the Amazon warehouse in Alabama where he works, he didn’t hesitate. He checked the NO box and sent in the ballot.
After nearly six years as a reporter for nearby newspapers, 29-year-old Brooks makes about $ 1.55 more an hour on Amazon and is optimistic he can move up.
“Personally, I didn’t see the need for a union,” he said. “If I had been treated differently, I might have chosen differently.”
Mr Brooks is one of nearly 1,800 employees who gave Amazon a runaway victory in the company’s toughest battle to keep the unions out of its warehouses. The result, announced last week, in which 738 workers voted to form a union, dealt a severe blow to workers and Democrats as conditions seemed ripe for progress.
For some employees in the warehouse, such as B. Mr. Brooks, the $ 15 an hour minimum wage is higher than previous jobs and has provided a strong incentive to side with the company. Amazon’s health insurance, which begins on day one of employment, also boosted loyalty, workers said.
Carla Johnson, 44, said she learned she had brain cancer just months after starting work at the warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Amazon’s health care covered her treatment.
“I was able to come with benefits on day 1 and that could potentially have made the difference in life or death,” Ms. Johnson said at a press event that Amazon organized after the vote.
Patricia Rivera, who worked at Bessemer’s camp from September to January, said many of her employees in their twenties or younger spoke out against the union because they felt pressured by Amazon’s anti-union campaign and considered wages and benefits felt solid.
“For a younger person, it’s the most money they’ve ever made,” said Ms. Rivera, who would have voted for the union had she stayed. “I give them credit. You get started and you get insurance right away. “
Ms. Rivera left Amazon because she felt she was not being adequately compensated for the time she had to withdraw at work during quarantine after exposure to Covid-19, she said.
In a post-election statement, Amazon said, “We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and we will keep working to get better every day.”
Other workers said in interviews that they or their employees did not trust unions or had faith in Amazon’s anti-union message that workers could transform the company from within. In explaining their position, they often reiterated the arguments Amazon had put forward in mandatory meetings in which it emphasized its pay, cast doubts about what a union could guarantee, and said benefits could be reduced if those broke Union workers.
When a union representative called her about the vote, Ms. Johnson said he was unable to answer a specific question about what the union could promise.
“He hung up,” she said. “If you’re trying to sell me something, you have to be able to sell this product.”
Danny Eafford, 59, said he took every opportunity to tell workers at the warehouse that he was firmly against the union, arguing that it would not improve their situation. He said he told colleagues how a union abandoned him when he lost a job at the Post years ago.
His job ordering cardboard, tape, and other supplies did not entitle him to vote. But when the company offered “VOTE NO” needles, he liked to put one on his safety vest.
“The union’s job is not to keep you – it’s to keep everyone,” he told colleagues. “If you’re looking for individual help, it won’t be there.”
JC Thompson, 43, said he believed in a management commitment to improving the workplace over the next 100 days, a promise made during the company’s campaign. He, along with other anti-union employees, had urged Amazon to better educate employees and train managers in anti-bias techniques.
“We will do everything we can to address these issues,” said Thompson. He performed with Ms. Johnson at the Amazon event.
Pastor George Matthews of New Life Interfaith Ministries said many members of his ward had worked in the camp just a few miles away and thanked them for the work. But he was still surprised and disappointed that more were not voting for union formation, even in the traditionally anti-union South, given how hard they described the work.
Speaking to community members, Mr. Matthews said he had come to believe that workers are too fearful to push for more and risk what they have.
“You don’t want to turn the proverbial apple cart over because those apples are sweet – bigger than the apples I had before – so you don’t mess with them,” he said.
With its mandatory meetings and constant news, Amazon took advantage of its assets to run a more successful campaign than the union, said Alex Colvin, dean of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“We know campaigns change their position,” he said.
Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the retail workers’ union that led the organizing effort, cited several factors to explain the loss, which goes beyond Amazon’s anti-union efforts.
He noted the high turnover rate among employees and estimated that up to 25 percent of Amazon employees who would have been eligible to vote in early January had left by the end of the vote in late March – possibly more than the company’s total profit margin. Mr. Appelbaum suspected that people who left were more likely to have supported the union because they were generally less satisfied with their work.
Mr Brooks said last Friday he saw eight or ten new faces in the area where he worked.
“I was told they were Day 3 employees,” he said, “and I noticed a few more today.”
Many of the employees in the warehouse have complaints about Amazon because they want shorter working hours or less intrusive monitoring of their production. Mr. Brooks and others said they wish their 10 hour shift had a break time of more than 30 minutes because in the huge warehouse they could spend almost half of their break just walking to and from the dining room.
Turnout was low, with only about half of all eligible workers, suggesting that neither Amazon nor the union had overwhelming support.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, said in his annual letter to investors Thursday that the Bessemer result had brought him no “consolation”.
“I realize we need a better vision of how we create value for employees – a vision of their success,” he wrote.
Michael Corkery contributed to the coverage.