Amazon.com Inc.


AMZN -0.97%

for years has successfully fended off attempts by its U.S. employees to unionize. Now the tech company is preparing for a labor battle unlike anything in its history.

In the next two months, thousands of Amazon employees at an Alabama warehouse are set to cast mail-in ballots over whether to organize into a union, a vote that could reshape the relationship between workers and the nation’s second-largest employer.

The commerce giant faces a familiar opponent: the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, which along with local organizers is helping to lead the pro-union campaign. The union has helped organize thousands of poultry workers in Alabama, a right-to-work state, and has become a frequent Amazon antagonist in recent years. The RWDSU fought the company’s plans for a second headquarters in New York in late 2018 and supported worker protests at some warehouses during the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, the current effort has had more success than other attempts to organize Amazon workers, according to labor experts. They note that a successful union push at the warehouse could spur similar actions at Amazon’s more than 800 facilities in the U.S.

“Amazon has seen their demand skyrocket” during the pandemic, said

Arthur Wheaton,

director of Western NY Labor and Environmental Programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell University. The company’s continued growth will bring increasing scrutiny over how it pays and treats its employees, he said.

The effort still faces formidable obstacles. Amazon has sought to postpone the election’s scheduled Feb. 8 start and appealed the National Labor Relations Board decision to allow a mail-in vote. While the vote is likely to proceed as scheduled, a decision to unionize could lead to years of bargaining over the first contract, labor experts say.

Union member organizers outside the new Amazon fulfillment center in Alabama.

The company is holding frequent meetings at the 855,000-square-foot facility about 15 miles southwest of Birmingham to counter the union’s effort, employees say. It also hired a law firm that specializes in countering organizing efforts and set up a website asserting that employees already receive the benefits and pay for which a union would bargain and should vote no to avoid the cost of dues.

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company doesn’t “believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views. Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”

If workers vote in favor of the union, Alabama’s “right to work” rules mean employees aren’t automatically part of the union. Workers wouldn’t be required to join the union or pay dues, potentially making it harder to expand membership. Some workers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal said they weren’t supportive because they didn’t believe union representation would substantially improve their conditions.

Amazon has opposed several prior unionization efforts. An effort backed by the RWDSU in 2018 to organize employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market failed to gain traction. About four years earlier, a small number of maintenance and repair technicians voted down a unionization attempt at a Middletown, Del., facility.

To make their case this time, local organizers have gathered near Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., facility with signs and red attire, speaking to employees at a traffic light and handing out fliers. “Don’t let Amazon scare you!” one read.

Organizers cannot enter the warehouse, and the union just recently received contact information for the facility’s workers, according to

Joshua Brewer,

an organizer with the union’s Mid-South Council.

The union has relied on local ties in Bessemer, disseminating information via workers’ family members and relying on support from local unions. As many of the employees at the Amazon warehouse are Black and some have been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, the union has touched on themes related to racial empowerment, Mr. Brewer said.

“It’s coming here and being present not for an event or for a day but setting up a presence outside of the facility that says we are here and are not leaving,” he said. “They’re seeing us every day.”

If workers vote in favor of the union, Alabama’s ‘right to work’ rules mean employees aren’t automatically part of the union.

A group of employees from the Bessemer facility, which opened last spring, first contacted the union last summer. The workers were frustrated by what they say were Amazon’s grueling workload demands and the company’s monitoring of employees, according to the union.

Amazon uses cameras and an internal system that tracks worker movements and productivity by the second, an issue that has been the subject of employee concern for years. Some workers criticized the use of the techniques during the pandemic, when they were racing to fill a drastic rise in orders and felt their essential work should have earned them a reprieve from such methods.

RWDSU representatives; union members from nearby warehouses, poultry plants and nursing homes; and Amazon workers began meeting in restaurants and hotels and began their outreach campaign in October.

Organizers collected thousands of signatures from employees showing support for an election. In December, the labor board decided to allow the election to move forward and later set the February-to-March voting period.

The RWDSU has had success in Southern states, particularly within the poultry industry. The union said it represents roughly 15,000 poultry workers across the South, including Alabama. Early in the pandemic, it reported on deadly Covid-19 outbreaks in poultry facilities while urging employers to improve working conditions. Major poultry companies have implemented temperature checks, increased cleaning and issued protective equipment, among other measures.

Chartered in the late 1930s, the RWDSU now represents thousands of employees from retail chains that include

Macy’s Inc.

and Bloomingdale’s, as well as workers in warehousing and the service industry.

The union was among a group of critics at the heart of a fierce backlash when Amazon announced plans to locate a part of a second headquarters in New York City in late 2018.

Amazon had selected the city as part of its so-called “HQ2” development around the same time the RWDSU had been rallying support for workers to unionize at a facility in Staten Island, an effort that ultimately fizzled. The union opposed the nearly $3 billion in government incentives Amazon would have received for creating 25,000 jobs in the city.

The union was involved in a last-ditch meeting with company executives organized by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to salvage the planned expansion. In the meeting, executives and labor leaders tentatively agreed to continue discussions related to the unionization effort, according to people familiar with the talks.

Amazon ultimately scuttled its plans for the New York expansion, but the company has recently announced plans to hire thousands of new employees in various major U.S. cities, including New York.

“We saw that they were large and big and powerful, but they were also arrogant,”

Stuart Appelbaum,

president of the RWDSU, said in an interview. “‘You can take on Amazon’ was an important lesson from HQ2.”

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Write to Sebastian Herrera at [email protected]

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