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A union supporter stands before sunrise outside the Amazon fulfillment center on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama.
Enlarge / A union supporter stands before sunrise outside the Amazon fulfillment center on March 29, 2021 in Bessemer, Alabama.
PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

A closely watched effort to unionize an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama appears to be headed for defeat. With about half the votes counted, 1,100 workers have voted against forming a union, while only 463 voted in favor.

The National Labor Relations Board is counting the 3,215 votes that were cast by workers at the Bessemer facility. The union needs to win at least half the votes in order to become the official representative of the roughly 6,000 workers at the Bessemer facility. Counting has ended for the evening and is scheduled to resume at 8:30 AM Central Time on Friday.

The stakes are high for both Amazon and the labor movement. Amazon has more than 1.1 million workers overall, with hundreds of thousands working in fulfillment centers. A successful vote in Bessemer would embolden labor organizers at other Amazon fulfillment centers around the country. An organized workforce could force dramatic changes in the way Amazon manages its warehouses.

“We first started to talk about unionizing one day during a break,” said Jennifer Bates, a worker at the Bessemer warehouse who helped organize the union drive, during March Senate testimony. “People were upset about the breaks being too short and not having enough time to rest, about being humiliated to have to go through security checks.”

Amazon mounted an aggressive campaign against unionization. The company posted anti-union literature all over its facilities, including in bathroom stalls. Employees were required to attend regular meetings where Amazon presented anti-union arguments.

Union elections are ordinarily held in person, but this one was held by mail due to coronavirus concerns. As a result, a close election could lead to months of legal wrangling over which ballots were cast by eligible workers. But if the current two-to-one margin holds up, the union may have to concede quickly.

That isn’t to say organizers are going to give up.

“Our system is broken,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union that led the organizing effort, in a statement to the Washington Post. “We will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign.”

A dark blue van with multiple Amazon logos.

Amazon has posted an apology to Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) for a tweet last week denying that it makes its workers urinate in water bottles.

The controversy started with a tweet by Pocan blasting Amazon for its treatment of workers—a topic of particular public interest as workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama were voting on whether to unionize.

“Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles,” Pocan wrote.

“You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” Amazon responded on March 24. “If that were true, nobody would work for us.”

Recode’s Jason Del Rey reports that Amazon’s aggressive response was encouraged by CEO Jeff Bezos, who had been frustrated Amazon wasn’t pushing back hard enough against its critics.

But the tweet turned into a PR fiasco for Amazon. The next day, Vice published a story with the headline “Amazon Denies Workers Pee in Bottles. Here Are the Pee Bottles.” It included a photo of bottles with an Amazon worker’s urine in them.

Vice noted that this was a common topic of discussion on the r/AmazonDSPDrivers subreddit. There are “dozens of threads and hundreds of comments” with drivers lamenting their need to pee in bottles, hedges, and other things besides a toilet.

“The tweet was incorrect”

Now Amazon has changed its tune. “The tweet was incorrect,” Amazon admitted on its website. “It did not contemplate our large driver population and instead wrongly focused only on our fulfillment centers.”

Amazon says that “a typical Amazon fulfillment center has dozens of restrooms, and employees are able to step away from their work station at any time.”

However, the company acknowledged that this isn’t always true for its delivery drivers.

“We know that drivers can and do have trouble finding restrooms because of traffic or sometimes rural routes, and this has been especially the case during Covid when many public restrooms have been closed,” Amazon wrote.

“This is a long-standing, industry-wide issue and is not specific to Amazon,” the company added. Amazon says it wants to solve the problem: “We don’t yet know how, but will look for solutions.”

Amazon appears to be right about that. Drivers for Uber, Lyft, and food delivery services have reported trouble finding bathrooms while on the job. Drivers for UPS and FedEx have reported similar difficulties. The problem has gotten worse in the last year as the pandemic has closed a large number of stores and restaurants.

Amazon has been on the defensive in recent weeks as workers at its Bessemer fulfillment center vote on creating a union. Voting closed earlier this week, but the National Labor Relations Board has not yet announced the results. The stakes are high for Amazon, since a successful vote could give a boost to similar efforts in other segments of Amazon’s vast workforce. Amazon has more than 1.1 million workers.