On the 9th of April, workers at an Amazon fulfilment centre in the small town of Bessemer, Alabama voted overwhelmingly against forming a union to counter Amazon’s alleged inhumane treatment of its workers. The movement, which if successful would have been Amazon’s first union in the US, aimed to amalgamate the workers at the warehouse in order to force the e-commerce giant into providing better working conditions and higher pay.

The attempt at unionisation was supported by several notable progressive Democratic lawmakers, notably Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt), who wanted the conglomerate to be more receptive to employee feedback. Concerns were less about the salary and more about working conditions: Amazon currently pays its workers a minimum wage of $15 per hour, well above the $7.25 hourly minimum wage legally required in Alabama. Several concerning allegations have been made of the tech giant’s workplace. 

Firstly, it has been described that communication between low-level workers and their managers has been intentionally kept to a minimum by the corporation. Employees are left with the impression that management simply does not care about their feedback. Speaking to the New York Times, one worker said that she felt like a “cog in a machine” whilst employed at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse.

Secondly, Amazon’s policy of strictly enforcing toilet and lunch breaks has meant that workers are penalised for every minute not spent at their ‘stations’. Amazon supposedly times (sometimes even to the second) how long each employee is physically working for, leading some workers to turn to desperate measure in order to avoid pay docks. When Rep Mark Pocan (D-WI) suggested that some Amazon workers are forced to “urinate in water bottles”, Amazon’s official news Twitter handle responded: “you don’t really believe the peeing in bottles is a thing, do you?”. Embarrassingly, Amazon later apologised for its response to the tweet, admitting that some employees do urinate in bottles whilst working, but implying that this was limited to drivers, not fulfilment workers.

Obviously, the unionisation of Amazon workers would have many benefits. Negotiating collectively would give workers more bargaining power to demand better working conditions. With no minimum wage, Sweden is a good example of where unions have been successful. 

However, workers at the fulfilment centre in Bessemer were less convinced. Amazon supposedly plastered the warehouse with anti-union posters, bombarded staff with anti-union text messages, and stopped work for mandatory anti-union presentations. As a result of Amazon’s aggressive campaigning, many worker’s were fearful that a union would deprive them of Amazon’s market-leading employee benefits programme, or confused about the changes which a union would actually achieve, especially given that Amazon was one of the most desirable employers to work for in the small Alabama town. The $15 per hour wage was also a major factor: worker’s feared that if Amazon’s costs increased as a result of this union drive, many employees would be forced out of a job, or that Amazon would simply relocate.

Union leaders have alleged that Amazon’s fierce resistance and use of coercive tactics to try to prevent the formation of a union were unlawful. They cite the fact that turnout among eligible voters was only 55% as an example of Amazon’s domineering campaign, and they plan to challenge the result with the Department of Labour. Amazon disputes this, suggesting that workers voted against unionisation for one simple reason: compared to other employers in the region, employment at Amazon is the best option.

Nevertheless, this is the furthest that any Amazon unionisation attempt has gotten. However, if future union attempts are to be successful, Amazon workers need to actually have reason to want to join one. At the moment, that doesn’t seem to be the case.