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Amazon defeated the biggest union push in the company’s history, raising questions for labor advocates nationally

Union organizers drummed up support outside the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., last month.
Union organizers drummed up support outside the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., last month.PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama overwhelmingly voted against unionization, it was announced Friday, ending a high-profile campaign that would have organized US employees at the e-commerce giant for the first time.

Workers in Bessemer, Ala., cast 1,798 ballots against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and 738 ballots in favor, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

The union said it plans to file an objection charging Amazon with illegally interfering with the vote, creating an “atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals” and spreading disinformation about the union effort.

“Amazon has left no stone unturned in its efforts to gaslight its own employees,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU, said in a statement. “We won’t let Amazon’s lies, deception, and illegal activities go unchallenged.”

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In a blog post, Amazon denied intimidating employees: “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.”

Amazon is the country’s second-largest employer, with more than 950,000 workers, and while many of its European warehouse workers are organized, the company has no unions in the United States. The vote marks the second time that an organizing effort at Amazon has come to a vote, following a failed attempt by a group of warehouse mechanics in Delaware in 2014.

The union campaign — endorsed by Hollywood stars, professional athletes, and President Biden — was widely seen as a long shot. Not only were employees taking on a huge corporation in a state with laws tilted against unions, they are part of an hourly workforce with high turnover, making it more difficult to organize. But the failed effort in Alabama could have a chilling effect on the labor movement, with workers less willing to take the risk of organizing if they think it might not pay off.

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In Massachusetts, Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers have been in talks with Teamsters Local 25 about joining the union. Amazon employs 20,000 people in the state and operates 20 distribution facilities, with 14 more in the works, according to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. The company has also announced plans to expand its tech operations in Boston, adding 3,000 jobs over the next few years in the Seaport District, and is also in the running to open a shipping center at Widett Circle, just south of downtown.

As Amazon’s footprint grows, local labor advocates have been pushing the company to improve labor standards. A number of cities, including Boston, have passed resolutions pressuring the company to raise wages and curb its use of independent contractors. In March, labor groups held a rally at a distribution center under construction in North Andover, urging Amazon to use more union labor on the project, and plan to highlight environmental and safety concerns as a way to get the company to agree to better working conditions for the roughly 1,500 people who will be employed there.

“This is about much more than one vote or one union. This is a fight for the future of working families and blue-collar workers everywhere,” Sean O’Brien, Teamsters Local 25 president, said in a statement. “Despite enormous profits, Amazon is light-years away from meeting the high standards we have for workers and safety in Greater Boston. Delivery drivers and warehouse workers are essential heroes who have put themselves in harm’s way to keep our lives moving during the pandemic.”

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The Alabama workers said they were organizing to improve working conditions, noting that Amazon’s productivity metrics are grueling and dehumanizing, even counting bathroom breaks against them, according to news reports. Last week, the company admitted that drivers who can’t find restrooms sometimes have to urinate in bottles.

The company points out that full- and part-timers are eligible for health insurance, 401(k) plans, and parental leave, with base pay of $15 an hour. But workers are aware how well Amazon has done during the pandemic, adding 500,000 new jobs worldwide and boosting profits 84 percent last year.

Amazon has been aggressively campaigning against the union drive, sending workers texts urging them to vote no, holding mandatory meetings to dissuade unionization, even putting anti-union signs on bathroom stall doors. The company also installed a mailbox at the warehouse where employees could cast their votes — a tactic the union believed could have made workers think Amazon had a role in running the election.

Labor advocates decried Amazon’s campaign to defeat the union and denounced the country’s labor laws, which they say give employers too much latitude to interfere in workers’ ability to form a union.

“Our labor law failed them,” said Benjamin Sachs, a labor professor at Harvard Law School. “We have a law that makes democracy at work nearly inaccessible to the vast majority of people and that’s a failure. ... Democracy at work should be right, not a fight.”

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Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO union federation, said, “These corporations who have gazillions of dollars are armed with the highest paid lawyers and they utilize every tactic in the book to stretch it out, demonize the unions.”

But with Democrats in control of Congress and the presidency, there has been movement lately.

Last month, the House once again passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, known as the PRO Act, and although it is not expected to pass the Senate, it has the support of President Biden. Among other provisions, the bill would forbid employee interference in union elections, including mandatory meetings such as the ones Amazon held.

The national spotlight on the vote in Alabama has also encouraged more than 1,000 Amazon workers around the country to contact the retail union in recent weeks.

Darlene Lombos, head of the Greater Boston Labor Council, said workers are fired up about the defeat in Alabama. From the mistreatment of warehouse workers to the misclassification and underpayment of the workers building those warehouses and delivering packages, the company’s actions are inspiring the labor movement to fight harder, she said.

“It is just enraging all of us,” she said. “If [Amazon is] going to dig in and be anti-union and anti-worker, we are going to dig in fighting for justice for the long haul.”

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The organizing efforts in Bessemer coincided with protests happening throughout the country after the police killing of George Floyd, raising awareness around racial injustice, and further fueling frustration over how workers at the warehouse — more than 80 percent who are Black — are being treated.

Tim Logan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.