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Gottinger writes: "Last week, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted against forming a union after an almost two-month-long election that received significant national attention. The vote was 738 in favor of a union to 1,798 against it. But this isn't over yet."

Amazon recently faced an attempt by workers in unionize in Alabama. (image: Elif Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Dustin Chambers/ReutersSamantha Lee/Insider)
Amazon recently faced an attempt by workers in unionize in Alabama. (image: Elif Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Dustin Chambers/ReutersSamantha Lee/Insider)

How Much Did Amazon Spend to Crush the Union Drive in Alabama?

By Paul Gottinger, Reader Supported News

19 April 21


ast week, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted against forming a union after an almost two-month-long election that received significant national attention. The vote was 738 in favor of a union to 1,798 against it.

But this isn’t over yet.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) is challenging the election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over what the union describes as Amazon’s illegal interference in the election. The union alleges that Amazon put a ballot dropbox on warehouse property after the NLRB told Amazon that wasn’t allowed because it could be seen as an attempt to intimidate workers. The union will ask for a second election, claiming the last one was spoiled by Amazon’s illegal practices.

Last week, RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said the union believes a second election at the Amazon facility in Bessemer is “very likely.”

Regardless of whether or not the NLRB allows a second election, this loss is painful to supporters of organized labor. Following the election, Amazon’s stock reached a 7-week high, while its workers continue to face what they describe as humiliating and unsafe working conditions without union representation for the foreseeable future.

A union victory at Amazon, a company that has managed to prevent unionization of its U.S. workers for decades, would have been an enormous accomplishment for organized labor.

But what caused the defeat?

In the week since the election, a number of postmortems have been written lamenting the election and dissecting the supposed tactical mistakes and weak messaging from union organizers.

Sure, no union drive is perfect, and of course mistakes are made. But a major factor in union elections, like elections for public office in the U.S., is money. And Amazon, run by the world’s richest man, has a lot of it to throw into its war on unions.

Amazon’s victory over its workers was made possible by what the workers describe as a ruthless campaign of surveillance, intimidation, illegal firings, threats of closing the facility, the movement of thousands of new workers to the facility before the election, and months of anti-union propaganda, which in total likely cost Amazon tens of millions of dollars.

Amazon faces dozens of federal allegations from its facilities across the country for firing workers who organized protests and walk-outs demanding the company improve its COVID-19 safety best practices. Amazon employees at multiple facilities report fear of being open about their support for a union at work because they might be fired or harassed.

Since February of 2020, there have been at least 37 charges filed with the NLRB against Amazon in twenty cities across the country.

One tactic Amazon used to its advantage against the union campaigners was engineering extremely high turnover in Amazon facilities (averaging about 100 new employees a week). This meant union organizers constantly had to convince new employees of the merits of the union, while losing union-supporting employees. Amazon also manipulated hiring numbers in the run-up to the union election, according to Joshua Brewer, the lead organizer:

Think about the challenges that that poses, when Amazon is able to manipulate the hiring numbers to such extremes that they can bring in 3,000 workers in a month but they can also fire 1,000 workers a month. In a Covid world you don’t have workers going to people’s houses, you don’t have committee people going to work parties with their friends after work. You don’t have workers hanging out in break rooms, places that you can normally have these larger discussions.

Should we really be surprised that Amazon was able to defeat the union drive if, as alleged, it surged employees to the facility, fired employees who engaged in union activities, and outspent the union organizers by as much as 25 times?

Adam Obernauer, an organizer with RWDSU, called Amazon’s union-busting campaign “the platinum package.” Amazon hired one of the country’s largest and most expensive union-avoidance law firms, Morgan Lewis, to handle its legal fight, according to Professor John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.

Amazon also hired two anti-union consulting firms, paying $10,000 per day (more than an Amazon warehouse employee makes in three months) on three anti-union consultants, including one who is the president of a Koch Brothers-funded, anti-union think tank, according to The Intercept.

These three consultants previously ran anti-union campaigns against organizing nurses in North Carolina, and a tire manufacturing plant in Georgia, where the NLRB found the consultants used “numerous and egregious” unfair labor practices.

As if that weren’t enough, Amazon also hired a second anti-union consulting firm, Labor Services Relations Inc., as first reported by Huffington Post. Amazon’s consulting contract with the firm lists “no maximum hours” and “no maximum fees” as conditions for its employment by Amazon.

According to the RWDSU, these “union avoidance” consultants ran months of captive audience “classes” in which employees were subjected to anti-union propaganda and to which attendance was mandatory. Employees who attended the sessions said pushback against the anti-union messaging during these events resulted in intimidating actions like being called in front of the class and having their employee badge photographed.

Amazon workers allege that the company used tried and true anti-unionization tactics like the captive audience classes mentioned above, unidentified individuals harassing workers on shift about their views on unionization, and threats of warehouse closure and firing.

But Amazon also used a tactic labor organizers said they have never seen before in a union election. In late February, Amazon began offering up to $3,000 in “resignation bonuses” to employees who quit, according to Payday Report.

Employees at the Alabama plant received emails stating that if they quit now, they could regain their jobs later after the union election, but they would be unable to vote in the union election.

To an unhappy Amazon employee who planned to vote for a union, an offer of a few thousand dollars might be enticing. However, under U.S. federal labor laws, the “bonuses” could be seen by the NLRB as bribes, which are illegal.

While bonuses for quitting may be unusual, other forms of bribery are a very common tactic used by employers during a union drive.

“The NLRB routinely finds violations for ‘conferring benefits’ to induce employees not to vote for a union during the ‘critical period’ between the time the election petition is filed and the election is held,” University of Wyoming labor law professor Mike Duff, a former prosecutor for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) told Payday News.

Amazon has refused to say how much they spent in total on crushing the union, but one attorney working with Amazon estimated it could be in the tens of millions of dollars. Joshua Brewer, the lead organizer for the union campaign, called Amazon’s effort “the most expensive, extensive, and sophisticated anti-union campaign ever run.”

Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted in March, “All I want to know is why the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, is spending millions trying to prevent workers from organizing a union so they can negotiate for better wages, benefits and working conditions.”

Some on the union side estimate Amazon spent as much as $25 million defeating the union drive.

Professor John Logan told labor reporter Steven Greenhouse back in February, “I don’t think there’s any amount of money Amazon won’t be prepared to spend to win. If the RWDSU lost, it would be a tremendous disappointment. If Amazon loses, it’s a disaster, it’s a catastrophe for them.”

One huge factor that makes it difficult to estimate what Amazon spent to defeat the union drive in Alabama is the company’s sophisticated technological surveillance and intelligence apparatus, which appears to be built into the backbone of the company, according to recent reports.

A leaked document dated February 2020 and first reported by Vice discussed in detail Amazon’s plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to “better analyze and visualize data on unions around the globe” using a new technology system called the geoSPatial Operating Console, or SPOC.

Among the topics discussed for analysis using the tool are: “Whole Foods Market Activism/Unionization Efforts,” “union grant money flow patterns,” “and “Presence of Local Union Chapters and Alt Labor Groups.”

As reported by Vice, additional leaked documents shed light on Amazon’s Global Security Operations Center:

Internal emails sent to Amazon’s Global Security Operations Center obtained by Motherboard reveal that all the division’s team members around the world receive updates on labor organizing activities at warehouses that include the exact date, time, location, the source who reported the action, the number of participants at an event (and in some cases a turnout rate of those expected to participate in a labor action), and a description of what happened, such as a “strike” or “the distribution of leaflets.” Other documents reveal that Amazon intelligence analysts keep close tabs on how many warehouse workers attend union meetings; specific worker dissatisfactions with warehouse conditions, such as excessive workloads; and cases of warehouse-worker theft.

Amazon is also able to lean on its military contracting experience to bring in former FBI members and former military intelligence to monitor union organizing “threats” to the company, according to reports in The Intercept.

In one particularly disturbing account, an Amazon employee named Jonathon Bailey, who organized a walkout over Covid-19 safety concerns, alleges he was “detained” on his lunch break by an individual wearing a black camouflage vest who identified himself as former FBI.

Amazon also monitors its employees’ and contractors’ social media, including their closed Facebook groups in 43 U.S. cities, according to Vice.

Amazon uses something called the “Advocacy Operations Social Listening Team” as well as employees using anonymous accounts to allegedly conduct surveillance on Amazon employees.

If Amazon uses all these immensely sophisticated programs to monitor employees as alleged, it impossible to guess the total amount Amazon spent on defeating the union drive in Bessemer.

Corporations spend $340 million per year on “union avoidance” consultants every year in an attempt to deny workers their right to organize.

Until the laws in the U.S. change to force corporations to be more transparent about their anti-union funding and tactics, and put strict limits on what they can do, organized labor will continue to face a tough road ahead.

Paul Gottinger is a staff reporter at RSN whose work focuses on the Middle East and the arms industry. He can be reached on Twitter @paulgottinger or via This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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