Amazon DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images

The vote that could change the future of US Amazon workers’ rights

By Barbora Černušáková, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights  

Amazon workers at the tech giant’s BHM1 facility in Bessemer, Alabama, are currently taking part in a landmark vote on forming a union, which may change the landscape of workers’ organizing in the US. If a majority vote in favour, Amazon will have to recognize a union in the states for the first time.

The vote attracted the attention of media and the broader labour movement for two reasons. First, previous attempts to organize Amazon workers and form unions in the US have been unsuccessful. Second, the moment it was clear that the vote would go ahead, Amazon mounted a campaign to discourage workers from voting in favour of the union.

“Amazon is in my texts, they’re in our breakroom, and [posters are] even in the bathroom telling us to vote [against the union]… It’s an insane level of propaganda,” one warehouse worker at the facility told me.

Amazon’s hostility to unions is well documented, but since the National Labor Relations Board gave BHM1 workers the green light for a postal vote in January, the company’s tactics have grown increasingly unscrupulous. Amazon created a website which posts warnings like “unions cannot create job security” and emphasizes union membership feesIn January, warehouse workers in Bessemer also began receiving texts saying “Don’t let the union divide us” and “Don’t let outsiders divide our winning team!”, was told.  

“We want due process, we want safety at work, but most of all we want respect.”

Amazon worker

The warehouse in Bessemer opened last March. At first it was seen as a good place to work, unions told me, but as the summer progressed it became hard for workers to keep up with productivity targets. Many were also growing increasingly uncomfortable with the way Amazon tracked their movements, monitoring bathroom breaks and reprimanding or firing employees who repeatedly failed to meet targets.

Meanwhile, as COVID-19 infection rates rose, there were reports of Amazon workers being fired for raising health and safety concerns. In July activists from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) got hundreds of Bessemer workers behind the idea of forming a union in the warehouse in order to better protect their rights. The union petition received more than the support needed – 30% – for the vote to go ahead.

One RWDSU member, Michael Foster, a poultry worker in Alabamatold me:

“The member-organizers like me in Bessemer are essential workers and proud RWDSU members, we know what the hard-working people at the BHM1 facility are facing first hand. It isn’t easy sticking your neck out […] I couldn’t be prouder to stand with them in their fight to form Amazon’s first unionized fulfilment centre in the US.”

Employers in the US are given the upper hand in labour relations in the 1947 Labor Management Relations Actwhich gives employers the right to express “any views, argument, or opinion” – for example arguments against unions – without it constituting an unfair labour practice. The only limit to employers anti-union campaigns would be an expression that contains threat of reprisal or force or promise of benefit.

Amazon has repeatedly claimed that it respects international human rights laws and standards, both in correspondence with Amnesty International and on its own website. This should include respect for freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining under the International Labour Organization Conventions, which guarantee the right to form and join a union, and also protect union’s internal affairs from interference by management. 

In a statement given to Amnesty International on 9 February, Amazon reiterated its respect for employees rights to join, form or not to join a labor union or other organization of their own selection. It said it was important to ensure its employees understand the facts of joining a union and the election process and that it hosted regular information sessionsincluding opportunities for employees to ask questions. Amazon also emphasized a preference for direct dialogue and said it encourages workers to “bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team”.

This misses the fundamental purpose of the right to collectively bargain – namely that workers bring their issues directly to management, but they do so collectively. History has shown that this is the most effective way to balance the power between the employees and employers and eventually improve workers’ lives.

The treatment of workers in Bessemer is the latest in a long line of examples that show Amazon’s lack of respect for human rights standards. Amazon’s annual reports have identified workers councils and trade unions as a “risk” factor for its international operations, while a 2018 training video obtained by Business Insider advised managers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods how to look for “warning signs” of union activity. In the UK, union staff have repeatedly been threatened with injunctions for “trespassing” when trying to access Amazon facilities

Amazon has failed to engage with criticism of these actions, responding to the outcry by repeating that it respects workers’ rights – in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Now workers in Bessemer are preparing to put Amazon’s words to the test. 

We have tremendous strength in unity, we can fight for real change in our workplace, which include changes that Amazon can never provide,” says the warehouse worker I spoke to.

We want due process, we want safety at work, but most of all we want respect.”

Whichever way the vote goes, scrutiny of Amazon’s approach to its workers rights in the US and beyond isn’t going away any time soon.