Amazon, Stuart Appelbaum notes, according to the New York Times has a 150-percent annual turnover rate, which while not the ideal way to run a business does a good job of stymieing union-organizing attempts.
To gain the right to a union election, organizers must present the National Labor Relations Board with the signatures of at least 30 percent of the workers in the potential bargaining unit. Ideally, most organizers shoot for at least 50 percent of those in the unit as a safeguard against management challenges and shifts in personnel from the time signatures are first sought to the point when they are submitted as part of the election petition.
Chris Smalls, a former employee at Amazon's Staten Island warehouse, recently had his lone-wolf bid to gain a unionization vote for what he called the Amazon Labor Union rejected when he submitted 2,000 signatures—which he thought comprised 30 percent of the facility's workers—only to be informed by the NLRB that the package-delivery leviathan produced documentation that more than 9,600 people were employed there.
The pumped-up employment figure didn't surprise Mr. Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union who said during a Nov. 18 interview in his Midtown office that at the start of its organizing campaign early this year at Amazon's Bessemer, Ala. plant, the facility employed 2,200 workers; by the end of the seven-week campaign, the number had grown to 5,800.
"They were flooding the unit," he said. "It's a common tactic in union-busting. You bring in people who have not heard from the union yet. Regardless of what they say to the [new] workers, it's going to be an extraordinary hurdle for the union to overcome."
Amazon Won; Cheating Helped
Slightly more than half those listed as employees cast ballots, and after disqualifications, the final tally was 1,798 to 738 against unionization. The RWDSU quickly filed a complaint against Amazon, claiming multiple improper actions were taken by the company to tilt workers against joining.
The company installed a voting drop-box at the Bessemer distribution center, in violation of ground rules set out by the NLRB.
"There was constant surveillance," Mr. Appelbaum said. "People were sure Amazon would know how they voted. People were told they had to vote by March 1; the deadline was actually March 29."
He said Amazon officials misled workers as part of an effort to prod them to vote early before the union could get out its message and counter what the company had told them at what he called "captive-audience meetings"—sessions at the facility that employees were required to attend where company officials and outside consultants warned them of the negative consequences if they voted to unionize.
"They had told people directly that the facility could close if the union came in," Mr. Appelbaum said. "They were told if the union came in, they were going to be forced to pay a lot of money" in dues.
This claim was blatantly false, and for the same reason that organizing the employees was such a challenge in one of the reddest of Red States that was long known for its hostility to unions.
"Alabama's a right-to-work state," Mr. Appelbaum said. "You would only be paying if you chose to" join the union.
Pandemic Hurt Cause
Early in the organizing push, he said, "What hurt us was we weren't able to go door-to-door campaigning" at workers' homes, because of the combination of the pandemic, the lack of a vaccine at that stage and one of the highest infection rates of any state. But as the vaccine began to be available in the early months of the year and the RWDSU was able to contact more of the employees, "There was a sense by the end of the campaign that the atmosphere had shifted and was more pro-union," Mr. Appelbaum said.
Management also seemed to think so, he continued. "They challenged every single vote that was received on the last day of the campaign," he said. "They knew the atmosphere had changed."
Even in defeat, he said, he was convinced the drive had a significant impact. Part of this was due to the demographics of those in the bargaining unit: 85 percent of the employees when the drive started were African-American, a solid majority of them women, and that didn't change even after the influx of additional workers Amazon brought on late in the election battle.
"There was a revival of the alliance between the union movement and the civil-rights movement," Mr. Appelbaum said. "What we were saying in Bessemer was that the union coming in was a way of ending systemic racism in the workplace," an argument that persuaded Black Lives Matter officials to get involved as part of the push.
The union also highlighted the disparity between Amazon's immense wealth as the second-largest employer in the U.S.—trailing only another historically anti-union firm, WalMart—and that of its owner. A week after voting concluded at the end of March, Forbes Magazine released its list of the world's richest men, and Amazon owner Jeff Bezos topped it with a net worth of $177 billion. This was, Forbes noted, a jump of $64 billion from a year earlier.
"If he had given every one of Amazon's employees a $100,000 bonus," Mr. Appelbaum said, "he still would have been richer than he was at the beginning of the pandemic."
A Hard Look at Amazon
The RWDSU had also trained a spotlight on how little workers at the company benefited from its success.
"The campaign initiated a global discussion of how Amazon operates and that Amazon would go to any lengths to crush union organizing," Mr. Appelbaum said. "It was about the power of tech companies; it was about the blatant disregard of workers' health and safety, particularly during the pandemic."
And, he noted, Mr. Bezos made a spectacularly tin-eared move after briefly earning some positive public-relations at the start of the pandemic by raising the salaries of company employees by $2 an hour as recognition for their continuing to come to work despite the health risks caused by the coronavirus. By June last year, Mr. Appelbaum pointed out, Mr. Bezos rescinded that increase, saying it was no longer necessary because the worst of the crisis had passed.
This had the unintended effect, Mr. Appelbaum continued, of forcing a harder look at Amazon's defense amid criticism by people like Chris Smalls before he was fired at the Staten Island plant, in what he said was retaliation and the company claimed was because he had violated its safety policies.
"Amazon likes to say, 'We pay good wages,' " the RWDSU president said—typically $15-an-hour or more at a time when the national minimum wage is still mired at a dismal $7.25. "But they're below the median wage in Alabama, and substantially less than for other warehouse workers in Alabama. And if the wages are so good, why is the turnover 150 percent?"
He answered his own question, pointing to unsafe job conditions, including excessive hours—issue Mr. Smalls raised at the Staten Island facility before he was fired last year—and the sense workers were given that they were disposable.
'People Feel Like Robots'
"Some Amazon warehouses have ambulances stationed outside, with the expectation that they'll be needed for workers who collapse at work," Mr. Appelbaum said. "And you're managed by an algorithm, you get your assignments from an app on your phone. People feel like robots managed by other robots. And that's why they leave."
He said the RWDSU got its first insight into just how determined Mr. Bezos was to keep full control of Amazon's operations by preventing a union from getting a foothold during the negotiations over a deal several years ago involving the city and state to have Amazon create a new corporate headquarters in Queens. While Mayor de Blasio and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo had quickly agreed to terms that Amazon said would create at least 25,000 more jobs, the RWDSU and some progressive elected officials insisted further negotiations had to be held, involving everything from unionization at the new headquarters to added accommodations for the area, which figured to have far greater congestion due to the flood of new workers.
While U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then in her second month in the job, misstated the nature of the tax benefit Amazon was due to receive under the agreement, Mr. Appelbaum noted, "Amazon has a business model of feasting on public subsidies and paying next-to-no taxes."
On Feb. 13, 2019, he recalled, Mr. Cuomo held a meeting that included some of those objecting to the deal, including union officials, and top Amazon executives from both its home base in Seattle and from Washington, D.C., to present proposals he hoped would resolve the conflict.
Among them was a stipulation that management would not interfere in a union-organizing drive that would include workers at the Staten Island warehouse as well as those who would be coming to Queens. Another was that neither side would say anything derogatory about the other, meaning the RWDSU would have to focus on the good things a union might produce without talking about any of the onerous conditions that had made Amazon a ripe target for organizing.
Under the proposal, Mr. Appelbaum said, "We couldn't say you need a union in Staten Island because people are getting injured."
Bezos Walked Away
The next morning, he said, Mr. Bezos called off the entire deal, something the union leader said was prompted by his fear that he would wind up having a union in the city that would open the door for incursions at other Amazon facilities throughout the U.S., where most of its 1.3-million workers are employed.
"He did not want to get to an election," Mr. Appelbaum said. "It was after that that we decided it was crucial to get an election."
Even before the favorable ruling from the NLRB hearing officer that paved the way for a re-run of the Bessemer contest, that organizing effort paid dividends that went beyond this nation, Mr. Appelbaum said.
"For 27 years, we were talking about how bad Amazon was," he remarked. "After Bessemer, you see real organizing taking place."
That includes the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has begun looking at organizing in some U.S. locations while also pressing for representation elections in Canada, he said. Mr. Appelbaum is chairman of the Global Amazon Alliance, with unions from more than a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany, taking part.
"Amazon is a global behemoth," he said. "It's going to take a multi-union, multi-year, multi-faceted effort to change the way Amazon operates."
Encouraged by 'Hope'
Mr. Smalls has said he plans to begin a new organizing push at the Staten Island warehouse, although he still lacks the kind of "strong organizing infrastructure" that Mr. Appelbaum said is necessary to succeed against an employer with Amazon's might.
But, the RWDSU president said, "Staten Island doesn't discourage me. What excited me was to see there was so much engagement and so much hope" before the Amazon Labor Union fell way short on signatures—a possibility that will remain in the future if the pattern of many employees not staying long in their jobs diminishes the number of up-to-date cards expressing. interest in a union.
Initially, Mr. Appelbaum had thought that the full NLRB would schedule a new election in Bessemer by early fall, but now he is marking time and marshaling resources for whenever a date is set.
"We have a lot more organizers on the ground than we did during the first go-round," he said. "We have plenty of legal resources available—whatever is needed," to counter tactics Amazon may use to scare employees away from choosing a union.
Such maneuvering has already begun, he said. "In recent weeks, there've been a couple of walkouts" from management "captive-audience" meetings with employees. "We were taking them over, agitating against them," he said, prompting management to discontinue the gatherings.
'The Most-Important Fight'
"I think the Amazon fight is the most important fight for organized labor in recent times," Mr. Applebaum said, because the company is so huge and is both gaining control of a larger share of the workforce and changing the way employees are treated in the process.
"We can't build the labor movement we need if Amazon continues to operate non-union," he said. "It's going to take a lot more than even winning an election to get Amazon to change. But you have to start somewhere."