The Bessemer Debacle: Why Did Amazon Workers Vote Against Unionization?

Gilberto Rivera, 2020
Detail from Gilberto Rivera, 2020, 2020

The unionization vote at the Bessemer Amazon warehouse has certainly been the most followed unionization vote in recent American history. So much so that it became a political confrontation that went far beyond the rights of the Bessemer Amazon workers. A delegation of Amazon workers was received by the Senate Budget Committee. Football players and Hollywood actors expressed solidarity. Even President Biden intervened by declaring that unions are needed to revive the middle class, though clarifying that it is not up to him to tell workers to join a union, even while there should be no corporate pressure to prevent it. The final tally of votes was streamed live to two hundred journalists, lawyers, observers, union officials, and Amazon managers.

A “Business Friendly” City

Bessemer is a small town of about thirty thousand inhabitants in the metropolitan area of ​​Birmingham, Alabama. Seventy percent are Black and one in four people live below the poverty line. Bessemer is a fiefdom of the Democratic Party that elects a Black mayor and a city council composed of a majority of women, five Black and only two white. 

In July 2018, the settlement plan for an Amazon logistics center was unanimously approved: the plan initially provided for 1,500 jobs and was approved after a furious struggle with other cities in the form of “incentive packages” for the e-commerce giant. The business-friendly campaign promoted by the local Bessemer administration came to involve Jefferson County and the State of Alabama. Incentives to build the logistics center are valued at around $60 million between city, county, and state. They include substantial tax cuts, commercial licenses, and strong concessions for the purchase of land and for obtaining building permits. The public facilities of Bessemer High School and Lawson Community College were made available to Amazon for the selection and training of the workforce. Moreover, curricular courses concerning robotics and “ready to work” programs in logistics were activated in partnership with Amazon.

The logistics center went into operation at the end of March of last year and within a few months, with the huge increase in e-commerce due to the pandemic, the expected 1,500 employees became 5,800. Putting together the incentive packages, the changes in institutional practices and educational curricula, and the effects on the geography and on the real estate market, the opening of the Bessemer logistics center was a tsunami affecting the productive, institutional, and urban assets of the entire Birmingham metropolitan area.

The Power of Logistics

In 2020 Amazon hired 430,000 workers globally and generated $390 billion in revenue with a profit of $22 billion. It currently has 1.3 million employees and 500,000 couriers classified as self-employed workers. In the United States there are 900,000 employees in eight hundred logistics centers and warehouses. The pandemic has made even more evident the centrality of logistics in contemporary capitalism as the backbone of the global networks of value production. 

Amazon is exploiting this centrality as a political entity endowed with a power that goes beyond aggressive lobbying carried out at various institutional levels. The $20 million spent last year by Amazon’s hundreds of lobbyists are part of a practice that has become secondary. Amazon is an all-round political player, even if anchored to the Democratic Party; it is one of the main financial players on Wall Street, a global economic giant, an important social operator in the locales of its centers and warehouses, and a mainstream media outlet through its prime video and music services and the ownership of the Washington Post. Such a concentration of power no longer needs political or representative mediation to be exercised in the spheres of state and federal governance. 

To implement and maintain this multilevel power strategy, Amazon needs complete freedom and flexibility in the organization of work, in the appropriation and management of big data, in defining the hierarchical relationships of internal command within its structures. The flow of social cooperation to extract surplus value from the total Amazon worker is based on a division of labor and a hierarchy of capitalist command that combines the impersonality of algorithms, video surveillance, and the concrete tasks of controlling and regulating the workforce. Every stumble, slow down, or blockage of the flow immediately affects the entire process. This is why Amazon is opposed to any form of worker organization capable of expressing its power in the workplace. 

This model of complete control, almost a philosophy, has come into contradiction with the Biden administration in recent months. This is certainly not because the US president cares about workers’ rights. Amazon has freed itself from the traditional mechanisms of political and institutional representation, which Biden would like to reproduce with some updates. His attempt to retrieve the state’s autonomous and recognized role in the structures of post-pandemic capitalism has resulted in ongoing if ambiguous conflict. If Biden backs off the $15/hr minimum wage by removing it from the American Rescue Plan Act, Amazon intensifies its media campaign to extend the $15/hr minimum wage from its centers and warehouses nationwide. If Amazon cannot allow the unionization of a single logistics site in order to avoid possible cracks in its model of training, management, and exploitation, Biden appeals to the workers’ freedom of choice. The game is open and the results are not obvious.

A Company in Crisis Called a Union

Even the definition of business unionism is no longer sufficient to describe the situation in which the vast majority of US unions find themselves. The parable of the entrepreneurial unionism of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) can be taken as a paradigmatic case: from a radical organization built thanks to labor struggles between the end of the 1960s and the first half of the 70s, to being placed under legal supervision by a federal court because of the union leadership’s corruption in league with Marchionne’s Fiat-Chrysler. From being a symbol of independence from business to being the first shareholder of General Motors and delegating the management of its share package to BlackRock, considered the largest “shadow bank” in the world. During the bargaining of the car industry contracts of 2011 and 2015, UAW – while negotiating with General Motors, of which it was at that time the second largest shareholder – received bribes from the competitor Fiat-Chrysler in exchange for signing deals favoring it over Ford and General Motors itself. 

The financial crisis of US unions derives from the enormous costs of operating their structures, their exorbitant number of officials, and the lack of sufficient stock market returns from pension funds and health care. To avoid budget shortfalls, UAW has increased membership fees and enlarged the number of its “customers.” Now UAW is no longer just the union of auto workers but also of farmers, university researchers, health personnel, and public employment. This is not because it has converted to intercategorial organizing – the various sectors function as watertight compartments – but to avert financial meltdown. Is UAW an exceptional case? Yes, because the combination of endemic corruption and corporate management of the union has led to organizational collapse. But also no, because, just in the last ten years, the convictions for corruption or embezzlement of union funds have involved the leadership groups of Teamsters, SEIU, and the American Federation of Teachers, to name only the largest unions. 

The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), the union that requested a unionization vote at Bessemer is not exempt from any of this. The RWDSU is a union that declares 100,000 members – more than half in New York state – but is in a crisis of membership and in financial difficulties. Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU’s father-boss for twenty-three years, is a member of the National Committee of the Democratic Party, and was a delegate to all the Democratic conventions from 1996 to 2020. He is a supporter of Biden and Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, by whom he was appointed to the executive of the New York City Regional Economic Development Council. He is vice-president of the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the US. For the position of president of the RWDSU alone, he receives an annual salary that exceeds $300,000. The other members of the national executive board have an average annual salary of $250,000. The RWDSU membership fee is around $950 per year, but based on an informal agreement with Amazon workers, it would not have exceeded $500 for the first few years. The membership of a few thousand Amazon workers would have been a breath of fresh air for the coffers of a union in a financial crisis. The drop of the private sector unionization rate to 6% of the workforce is not only due to companies’ discriminatory and anti-union practices and to the laws that favor them, but also to many workers’ feelings of finding themselves squeezed between two companies: the employer and the union.

A Predictable Defeat 

How did the involvement of a union like RWDSU come about? At the end of last summer, a few months after the opening of the Bessemer logistics center, a group of workers who could no longer stand the hellish rhythms dictated by the Amazon algorithm in the middle of the pandemic, started meeting. The $15-an-hour wage and a range of health care benefits did not compensate for a deeply exhausting organization of the work process and a highly hierarchical command of labor. The choice was not to practice incisive forms of struggle, including the strike, as happened in a self-organized way in the Amazon centers in Chicago and New York beginning at the end of March. Following the recommendation of older workers with some previous union history, it was decided to follow the path envisaged by prevailing labor laws. RWDSU was chosen because it has a share of retail workers among its members, alongside workers employed in chicken farming, health, public employment, and cleaning sectors. At the end of December, two thousand pre-accessions to the union were reached. This allowed the request for a referendum to be presented to the National Labor Relations Board, which then, due to the pandemic, organized a postal vote from February 8 to March 29. 

Over the course of fifty days, Amazon mobilized dozens of consultants and influencers, created websites, sent dozens of anti-union messages to every employee on Twitter and WhatsApp, and called a hundred meetings with mandatory participation during working hours. Amazon paid a marketing company $10,000 a day for a campaign in newspapers, radio, and TV, and had the entire facility guarded by the police for days. The anti-union narrative focused on four aspects. (1) Amazon’s starting wage is double the legal minimum in Alabama, no thanks to unions. (2) Corruption in unions is now out of control. (3) The union membership fees are excessive compared to the services offered and even those who do not join would risk paying the union a reduced fee. (4) Amazon does not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation, so much so that 85% of the hires in Bessemer are Black and mostly women. 

On the other hand, Stuart Appelbaum’s union-company avoided mobilizing its members with public protest actions and did not organize moments of active solidarity with other Amazon centers and other unions. He challenged Amazon in the media by trying to equate obtaining union rights in Amazon to the battles of the 1960s for the civil rights of Black people. This equated to taking the relationships underlying the organization of work and social reproduction as nothing more than a linear extension of the lack of civil rights rather than an articulation, always to be investigated and never defined once and for all, between relationships of production, institutional racism, and civil rights. This approach did not have appreciable results within the Black communities of the Birmingham area. A sit-in and caravan launched in Birmingham with the support of the Black Lives Matter chapter in the city, which is not a social movement but a small non-profit association founded by a couple of Bernie Sanders’ Our Revolution activists, did not see a significant participation. Amazon, on the other hand, combined strong media projection with a capillary action of conditioning and blackmailing employees in the workplace. The RWDSU mainly focused on statements of support from politicians, public figures, and union leaders without ever attacking the Amazon model and its political, social and territorial consequences.

In the end, there were a total of 3,215 votes, just 55% of those eligible. The scrutiny lasted about ten days because of checks and disputes, especially by Amazon, of the validity of more than 500 cards that were not counted. The anti-unionization side won with 1,798 votes. The union got 738 votes, less than half of the pre-accessions collected in December. A heavy and unfortunately anticipated defeat, given how the RDWSU conducted the organizing campaign and the means used by Amazon to blackmail workers. Now the battle of legal appeals against Amazon to get a new vote will begin and could last many months. 

In the meantime, however, the situation at the Bessemer logistics center will change: Amazon will make some concessions and the most union-active workers will be fired. A victory at Bessemer would have had strong symbolic and political significance. It would have set a precedent for similar actions in other Amazon centers and warehouses. It would have shown that in Jeff Bezos’s company, not only passive resistance is possible: one can organize and fight. As, indeed, the Amazonians United network has done and continues to do, in forms and with contents alternative to business unionism.

This article originally appeared in Italian at

Author of the article

is an independent researcher.