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Why Amazon Workers Sided With the Company Over a Union

When Graham Brooks received his ballot in early February, asking whether he wanted to form a union at the Amazon warehouse in Alabama where he works, he did not hesitate. He marked the NO box, and mailed the ballot in.

After almost six years of working as a reporter at nearby newspapers, Mr. Brooks, 29, makes about $1.55 more an hour at Amazon, and is optimistic he can move up.

“I personally didn’t see the need for a union,” he said. “If I was being treated differently, I may have voted differently.”

Mr. Brooks is one of almost 1,800 employees who handed Amazon a runaway victory in the company’s hardest-fought battle to keep unions out of its warehouses. The result — announced last week, with 738 workers voting to form a union — dealt a crushing blow to labor and Democrats when conditions appeared ripe for them to make advances.

For some workers at the warehouse, like Mr. Brooks, the minimum wage of $15 an hour is more than they made in previous jobs and provided a powerful incentive to side with the company. Amazon’s health insurance, which kicks in on the first day of employment, also encouraged loyalty, workers said.

Carla Johnson, 44, said she had learned she had brain cancer just a few months after starting work last year at the warehouse, which is in Bessemer, Ala. Amazon’s health care covered her treatment.

“I was able to come in Day 1 with benefits, and that could have possibly made the difference in life or death,” Ms. Johnson said at a press event that Amazon organized after the vote.

Patricia Rivera, who worked at the Bessemer warehouse from September until January, said many of her co-workers in their 20s or younger had opposed the union because they felt pressured by Amazon’s anti-union campaign and felt that the wages and benefits were solid.

“For a younger person, it’s the most money they ever made,” said Ms. Rivera, who would have voted in favor of the union had she stayed. “I give them credit. They start you out and you get insurance right away.”

Ms. Rivera left Amazon because she felt she wasn’t adequately compensated for time she had to take off while quarantining after exposure to Covid-19 at work, she said.

Amazon, in a statement after the election, said, “We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.”

Other workers said in interviews that they or their co-workers did not trust unions or had confidence in Amazon’s anti-union message that the workers could change the company from within. Often, in explaining their position, they echoed the arguments that Amazon had made in mandatory meetings, where it stressed its pay, raised doubts about what a union could guarantee and said benefits could be reduced if workers unionized.

When a union representative called her about the vote, Ms. Johnson said, he couldn’t answer a pointed question about what the union could promise to deliver.

“He hung up on me,” she said. “If you try to sell me something, I need you to be able to sell that product.”

Danny Eafford, 59, said he had taken every opportunity to tell co-workers at the warehouse that he strongly opposed the union, arguing that it wouldn’t improve their situation. He said he had told colleagues about how a union let him down when he lost a job years ago at the Postal Service.

His job, which involves ordering cardboard, tape and other supplies, did not make him eligible to cast a ballot. But when the company offered “VOTE NO” pins, he gladly put one on his safety vest.

“The union’s job is not to keep you — it is to keep everybody,” he said he had told colleagues. “If you are looking for the individual help, it will not be there.”

J.C. Thompson, 43, said he believed a commitment by management to improve the workplace over the next 100 days, a promise made during the company’s campaign. He had joined other anti-union workers in pushing Amazon to better train employees and to educate managers on anti-bias techniques.

“We’re going to do everything that we can to address those issues,” Mr. Thompson said. He appeared with Ms. Johnson at the Amazon event.

Pastor George Matthews of New Life Interfaith Ministries said numerous members of his congregation worked at the warehouse, just a few miles away, and had expressed gratitude for the job. But he was still surprised and disappointed that more did not vote to unionize, even in the traditionally anti-union South, given how hard they described the work.

In talking with congregants, Mr. Matthews said, he has come to believe that workers were too scared to push for more and risk what they have.

“You don’t want to turn over the proverbial apple cart because those apples are sweet — larger than the apples I had before — so you don’t mess with it,” he said.

With its mandatory meetings and constant messaging, Amazon used its advantages to run a more successful campaign than the union, said Alex Colvin, dean of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“We know campaigns change positions,” he said.

Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the retail workers union that led the organizing effort, cited several factors to explain the loss beyond Amazon’s anti-union efforts.

He pointed to the high rate of turnover among employees, estimating that up to 25 percent of Amazon workers who would have been eligible to vote in early January had left by the end of voting in late March — potentially more than the company’s entire margin of victory. Mr. Appelbaum surmised that people who had left would have been more likely to support the union because they were typically less satisfied with their jobs.

Mr. Brooks said that on the previous Friday, he saw eight or 10 new faces in the area where he worked.

“I was told they were Day 3 employees,” he said, “and I noticed a few more today.”

Many of the workers at the warehouse have complaints about Amazon, wanting shorter hours or less obtrusive monitoring of their production. Mr. Brooks and others said they wished their 10-hour shift had a break period longer than 30 minutes because in the vast warehouse, they can spend almost half their break just walking to and from the lunchroom.

Turnout for the vote was low, at only about half of all eligible workers, suggesting that neither Amazon nor the union had overwhelming support.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, said Thursday in his annual letter to investors that the outcome in Bessemer did not bring him “comfort.”

“It’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees — a vision for their success,” he wrote.

Michael Corkery contributed reporting.