Crushing Unions, by Any Means Necessary: How Amazon’s Blistering Anti-Union Campaign Won in Bessemer, Alabama
In April 2021, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) lost a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama (BHM1), by 1,798 votes to 738. But the RWDSU did not lose the landmark election because of substandard organizing practices. It lost the vote because it faced the world’s most powerful antiunion company, which was prepared to do whatever was necessary to crush the union, even if its actions very likely violated the law. Moreover, despite its election loss—which the NLRB has now challenged, calling for a new election—the RWDSU drive has boosted the global campaign to unionize Amazon and reinvigorated the debate over the need for stronger labor rights in the United States.
Amazon’s Relentless Three-Part Anti-Union Campaign
Amazon engaged in a multipronged, blistering, unprecedented, and probably unlawful campaign at its Bessemer warehouse. I witnessed this campaign as an observer at pre- and post-election meetings of the NLRB as it oversaw the balloting. The anti-union campaign took place in three stages, beginning with Amazon’s efforts to keep a majority of its workers from signing cards calling for a union election, and continuing with its “vote no” campaign once a majority of workers had signed union cards, and ending with the company’s actions during the voting period. The antiunion campaign involved three main groups of actors—union avoidance law firms, internal “employee relations” (ER) experts, and external anti-union consultants. The anti-card signing campaign, started October 20, when RWDSU organizers first appeared outside the plant, and continued until the union stopped collecting cards in late December; the “vote no” campaign started January 1, 2021, and continued until the first week of February; and the “floor-walking” antiunion campaign continued throughout the official NLRB balloting period from February 8 to March 29. In addition to media reports and discussions with participants, the article draws on testimony at the pre- and post-election NLRB hearings and other related documents. At the time of writing—mid-June 2021—the regional director of NLRB has yet to rule on the union’s postelection unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint.
Amazon’s blistering anti-union campaign demonstrates that workplace democracy in the United States is on life support. Many of the antiunion tactics discussed here—the recruitment of outside union avoidance experts, the use of internal union avoidance consultants and lawyers, mandatory captive audience group meetings, one-on-one meetings between workers and union avoidance experts, “vote no” texts, posters, emails, mailers, webpages, swag, billboards, and other communications—are all legal under current law. However, the NLRB has now judged unlawful the content of those anti-union messages. For example, if, as alleged, Amazon management and its union avoidance experts predicted, at group or individual meetings, that a union victory would result in job and benefit losses, job losses, or even the potential closure of the warehouse, these comments would be unlawful. Similarly, if, in individual meetings, Amazon’s anti-union experts tracked information on whether workers had voted and for whom, this would be unlawful.
Amazon’s blistering anti-union campaign demonstrates that workplace democracy in the United States is on life support.
In addition, the NLRB ruled that other dubious anti-union tactics—especially the installation of the controversial “cluster box,” which created the impression that Amazon, rather than the NLRB, was coordinating the election process, or Amazon’s pressure to change the timing of the stoplight outside the facility to reduce organizers’ opportunities to engage with workers—constitute unlawful violations of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and justify overturning the election. Moreover, the union’s allegation that Amazon unlawfully terminated two workers for union activities will be ruled on as part of a separate ULP charge. But Amazon presents a challenge to workplace democracy globally that goes beyond any discussions about which tactics it used in Bessemer. Through its almost unlimited financial resources, enormous economic and political influence, and considerable internal union avoidance expertise—including former military intelligence analysts, innovative technological expertise, mountains of data on every aspect of its workforce, and single-minded ruthlessness when it comes to maintaining unilateral control of the workplace—Amazon exemplifies an elite group of superstar anti-union firms with the ability to “disrupt” long-established labor relations norms around the globe.
Stage 1: The Anti-Card Signing Campaign
Amazon started warning workers against signing union authorization cards of the RWDSU in October 2020. Union committee members had been collecting cards over the summer months, but the RWDSU first sent organizers to Bessemer on October 20. At first the company campaign was low-key, but escalated by December, with the company using “acid screens” (computer monitors placed throughout the Bessemer facility) to warn workers about the dangers of signing a union membership card, telling them: “Don’t sign away your choices.” In November and December, Amazon flooded the bargaining unit with new hires. The RWDSU filed a petition with the NLRB on November 20 to represent a bargaining unit of 1,500 workers, but knew that the warehouse contained 2,200 to 2,300 workers. It realized that Amazon would hire many new workers—employment always increases in the lead up to a “peak” holiday period—but did not anticipate that the Bessemer workforce would reach almost 6,000, significantly larger than the number of workers employed at other similarly sized Amazon fulfillment centers. This hiring spree also resulted in the recruitment of many younger workers at the Bessemer facility, most of whom the union had not been able to contact prior to its filing its authorization cards with the NLRB. An NLRB pre-election hearing in late December resulted in the union agreeing to a much larger unit (just over 5,800 workers), as arguing over the unit would have delayed the election for months. The larger unit contained dozens of “process assistants,” who have significant supervisory roles, and who union lawyers believed should have been legally excluded from the unit; several of these process assistants became the public face of Amazon’s “vote no” campaign during media events.
. . . Amazon exemplifies an elite group of superstar anti-union firms with the ability to “disrupt” long-established labor relations norms around the globe.
Amazon believed its unprecedented November to December hiring spree would end the union campaign; but through its committee inside the warehouse and organizers outside, the union continued to collect up to a hundred authorization cards per day, finally totaling around 3,000—or about 55 percent of the bargaining unit—when it stopped collecting cards in late December. To obstruct the card-signing campaign, Amazon had pressured Jefferson County officials to speed up the timing of a stoplight outside the main entrance of the warehouse, where organizers took the opportunity to speak with workers. Speaking to workers at this traffic light after they left work had proved an effective way to collect cards during the initial part of the campaign. During this period, Amazon also pushed for an on-site election, so that quite literally the voting would take place on the employer’s turf. The NLRB rejected Amazon’s pleas for an on-site election, along with its appeal and its subsequent argument for an on-site drop box for ballots, and the mail-in election was set for February 8 to March 29, 2021.
Stage 2: The Official “Vote No” Campaign
The anti-union campaign escalated significantly in January. First, on December 31, Amazon launched its slick DoItWithoutDues.com website, which contained common antiunion messages under the guise of providing employees with “facts.” It implied that workers would be required to pay dues were the RWDSU to win. This was patently false, due to the fact that Alabama has been a Right to Work state since 1953, meaning that workers in union-represented workplaces receive the benefits of unionization whether or not they elect to become members and pay dues. The Amazon website also suggested that workers might lose existing wages and benefits if they were to vote for unionization, and stated they would no longer have the ability to “speak for themselves” because every interaction with management would need to go through the union. These antiunion tropes would remain prominent campaign messages throughout the election period.
To obstruct the card-signing campaign, Amazon had pressured Jefferson County officials to speed up the timing of a stoplight outside the main entrance of the warehouse, where organizers took the opportunity to speak with workers.
This second stage of Amazon’s anti-union campaign—the most intensive in terms of its “vote no” messaging—consisted of thousands of captive audience meetings (usually in groups of between ten and twenty employees); “TextEmAlls” (anti-union messages sent to employees’ personal devices); messages on Amazon’s “A-Z app,” which employees install on phones to get information on workplace news, emails, anti-union messages on “acid screens” posted around the workplace, “tabletoppers” (anti-union flyers distributed in break rooms and at captive meetings), anti-union banners and flyers displayed throughout the workplace, including inside the doors of restrooms stalls, various anti-union “swag,” anti-union billboards in the roads leading to the facility, and anti-union messages distributed in multiple other ways. The ER manager in charge of the “vote no” campaign said that he had personally attended several hundred captive meetings, and most workers attended at least two meetings per week. Captive meetings typically lasted thirty minutes and involved several management personnel: most were led by one of the twenty-nine non Bessemer Amazon ER experts, but they were assisted at captive meetings by external union avoidance consultants. In addition, representatives from Amazon human resources would scan workers in and out and take notes at the back of the room. Workers testified that the meetings conveyed multiple negative messages—mostly standard fare for anti-union campaigns—and several mentioned the warning that workers could lose the wages and benefits they had if the union were to win. As threatening wage and benefit cuts is illegal during an organizing campaign, Amazon management contended instead that it had stated that wages and benefits could go up, go down, or remain the same. However, PowerPoint slides and handouts displayed at the meeting clearly emphasized the possibility of losing wages and benefits. The captive meetings continued daily until the NLRB distributed ballots.
Stage 3: Amazon’s On-Site Mailbox and Continuous Floor Walking
Under the NLRA, Amazon was required by law to stop its captive audience meetings prior to the February 8 to March 29 voting period, but ER personnel and consultants immediately switched to walking the floor and speaking with workers on a one-to-one basis, which occurred virtually all day every day during the voting period. According to the testimony of one of the external consultants at the NLRB hearing, Amazon’s “persuaders” sought to confirm that workers had received their ballots in February and March, spoke to them about the voting process, but also communicated Amazon’s antiunion message and pushed employees to vote at the on-site mailbox. Some workers believed that these persuaders were also monitoring who had voted and how they had voted—behavior that would constitute an ULP—but the company denied this allegation.
The Amazon website . . . suggested that workers might lose existing wages and benefits if they were to vote for unionization, and stated they would no longer have the ability to “speak for themselves” . . .
In December and January, Amazon’s lawyers had pushed repeatedly for an on-site election, even though the NLRB had approved almost no on-site balloting anywhere else during the pandemic. After its initial request and appeal were rejected, Amazon requested an official drop-box within the facility, which the NLRB also rejected. Amazon then pressured the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to install a special “cluster box” just before the start of the postal ballot. In emails to senior USPS officials, Amazon stated that it “must” happen and that senior management was following the issue closely. A senior USPS manager testified that Amazon asked to put “vote here” and other electioneering stickers on the modified cluster box, the first ever installed for a single business customer in his decades at the USPS. USPS management instructed the company not to do this, so Amazon instead covered the mailbox with a tent with slogans connected with the “vote no” campaign on three sides, effectively recreating the atmosphere of a polling booth. The senior USPS official said he had been “surprised” to read about Amazon’s controversial tent in the Washington Post. In workplace communications, Amazon repeatedly pushed its on-site mailbox, telling workers to “vote no,” “vote early,” and use its newly installed on-site mailbox.
Amazon pressured the U.S. Postal Service to install a special “cluster box” just before the start of the postal ballot . . . .[and] Amazon
covered the mailbox with a tent with slogans connected [to] the “vote no” campaign . . .
According to pro-union workers who testified at the NLRB hearing, Amazon’s mailbox and its related communications boosted the no vote, discouraged some workers from voting, and created widespread anxiety around the voting process. It caused some workers to believe that Amazon, not the NLRB, was effectively controlling the election process. Several workers discussed the thirty-plus external surveillance cameras facing the mailbox, and the enhanced security in the parking lot during the voting period—which included off-duty Bessemer police officers in squad cars—and expressed fears management might have had access to the ballots; one worker reportedly saw Allied security guards with keys to the mailbox. The on-site mailbox was central to Amazon’s anti-union messaging and effectively altered the entire atmosphere around the election, which is why its installation was so crucial for senior management, why it is central to the RWDSU’s ULP complaint, and why Amazon has so vigorously denied any wrongdoing concerning the mailbox at the post-election hearing.
Amazon’s all-encompassing anti-union campaign, including its one-of-a-kind mailbox, time-changing stoplight, and other dubious practices, ultimately paid off. Fewer than a third of the workers who had signed union authorization cards were counted as “yes” votes in the NLRB election; some had left employment at the plant, which has an extraordinarily high turnover rate; others were likely “yes” votes among the more than 500 ballots successfully contested by Amazon’s lawyers; some decided simply not to vote, either discouraged by the high stress atmosphere created by the anti-union campaign or suspicious of Amazon’s strenuous efforts to push its on-site mailbox; or pressured and bamboozled by the anti-union campaign, some probably voted no. The early voters—who cast their ballots in February before President Biden’s February 28 video supporting unionization at Amazon—appear to have voted overwhelmingly against the union, especially those votes cast by younger workers who were hired when Amazon flooded the bargaining unit. Amazon’s message of “vote no, vote early, and vote using our on-site mailbox” appears to have been highly effective. Union organizers report that by mid-March, many of these “no” voters were expressing a desire to change their ballots, but of course were unable to do so.
The Three Main Actors in Amazon’s Multi-Million Dollar Campaign
The post-election hearing provided information on both the personnel involved in the anti-union campaign and the enormous amount that Amazon spent on its campaign. These are not trivial details: Amazon has almost unrivaled human, technological, and financial resources with which to crush unionization, and all three were on display at Bessemer.
In recent years, large non-union corporations have increasingly sought to bolster their internal union avoidance capabilities, a trend which Amazon exemplifies. To conduct its relentless campaign inside the Bessemer facility, Amazon imported twenty-nine ER personnel with expertise in union avoidance from all over the country; none of them worked at Bessemer, or any other single Amazon facility, on a regular basis. When they are not conducting on-site antiunion campaigns, they provide training for local Amazon management on union-related issues. Cincinnati-based Todd Logan, who had overall responsibility for the “vote no” campaign, has previous union avoidance experience with First Student transportation and others. Another ER personnel brought to Bessemer, Austin-based Fritz Aldrine, who appeared to play a leadership role at Bessemer, has several decades of experience in union avoidance. Prior to arriving at Amazon from Greyhound, Aldrine was, according to Texas Lawyer, “responsible for preventing more than 30 union certifications” and “developing an enviable niche practice combating union-representation campaigns, boasting a far-above-average 80 percent success rate.” Media attention is often more focused on external anti-union consultants, but Amazon has for years placed ads seeking senior ER and HR personnel with a strong background in keeping corporations “union free,” and it has recruited internal experts such as Logan and Aldrine, who possess extensive union avoidance experience.
To augment its extensive internal union avoidance capabilities, Amazon used several leading outside anti-union consultant firms. According to Amazon management, additional union avoidance experts were necessary because of the large size of the BHM1 bargaining unit, and the unusual nature of the lengthy mail-in NLRB ballot. One of those consultants, Brad Moss, a twenty-two-year union avoidance veteran, testified at the post election hearing. Now an independent consultant, Moss was formerly president of the Burke Group, which has conducted thousands of anti-union campaigns since its founding in 1982. Moss was paid $375 per hour, and worked up to ten hours per day, seven days a week. Moss said another nine or ten external consultants worked on the campaign, mostly assisting with captive meetings in January and February, and meeting with workers one-on-one after the ballots had been distributed in February and March. Testifying from a hotel room, Moss had moved on to his next campaign, an organizing effort at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York.
Amazon has almost unrivaled human, technological, and financial resources with which to crush unionization, and all three were on display at Bessemer.
The Burke Group (which also operates under the name Labor Information Services), which has previously run anti-union campaigns for Amazon in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, provided three consultants and suggested others for the Bessemer campaign. According to a LM-20 form (required for consultants who have face-to-face contact with employees for the purpose of dissuading them from voting for unionization) filed with the Labor Department, consultants from Florida-based Road Warrior Productions were paid $3,200 per day plus expenses. Todd Logan mentioned several other consultants in passing—including Nekeya Nunn of The Labor Pros, one of several Black anti-union persuaders at Bessemer, where more than 80 percent of the bargaining-unit workers were Black —but we will likely never know exactly how many consultants worked at the Bessemer plant, how much Amazon paid them, or what anti-union activities they performed.
Union Avoidance Lawyers
In addition to external anti-union consultants, Amazon also used multiple union avoidance lawyers. In the December 2020 NLRB hearing, Amazon was represented by Morgan Lewis, one of the nation’s largest full-service corporate law firms, which has specialized in union avoidance for decades and has represented Amazon on multiple labor issues, including issues of wage theft, allegations of racial and sexual discrimination, and pandemic workplace safety issues. Amazon’s lead Morgan Lewis attorney before the NLRB, Harry Johnson, served as a Republican member of the Board from 2013 to 2015. Johnson, other Morgan Lewis attorneys and several in-house Amazon attorneys also participated in the post-election hearing. But they were not alone. Lawyers from Constangy Brooks, another law firm which has long specialized in “union avoidance” activities, participated in the postelection hearing. Constangy’s website claims, “we have never been considered ‘union busters’ . . . and have always worked to help companies stave off union organizing.” However, along with Morgan Lewis, Constangy appeared regularly in the AFL-CIO’s “Report on Union Busting” throughout the 1970s-1990s—especially in union campaigns in the South and Midwest—and most labor activists would consider the firm a “union buster.” Two Birmingham, Alabama-based Constangy lawyers participated in the post-election hearing: Tom Scroggins, who has opposed the RWDSU in food processing elections in the South, and Brooke Nixon, a native of Bessemer and a longtime associate of Scroggins, questioned several anti-union Amazon workers at the NLRB hearing.
. . . the RWDSU lost because of Amazon’s blistering and unlawful anti-union campaign, and the failure of labor law to protect pro-union workers.
Between the services of approximately a dozen attorneys from Morgan Lewis and Constangy Brooks—whose attorneys’ hourly fees are several times those charged by antiunion consultants—it seems certain that Amazon paid several million dollars in legal fees alone related to its anti-union campaign in Alabama.
Black-Ops at Bessemer?
In September 2020, Vice reported that Amazon had placed job ads attempting to recruit “intelligence analysts” to work on “sensitive topics that are highly confidential including labor organizing threats against the company.” Although Amazon has now changed the wording of its ads, it continues to seek former intelligence service personnel to monitor external “threats” to the company. In 2020, Amazon also hired Pinkerton Detectives to spy on European labor activists and adopted high-tech surveillance technology to monitor “labor threats,” and it may have used intelligence experts at Bessemer. In addition to the ER personnel brought in to run the “vote no” campaign, the Bessemer facility had dozens of HR personnel who officially deal with individual employee issues, but many Amazon HR officers list “union avoidance” as a field of expertise in LinkedIn profiles. For example, one “HR” official mentioned during the post-election hearing has decades of military intelligence experience; in addition to his year-long HR stint, his LinkedIn profile states as areas of expertise “intelligence analyst,” “counterterrorism,” and “homeland security.” Apparently brought to BHM1 for the anti-union campaign, his role at Bessemer, and the roles of others with similar intelligence backgrounds who may have been involved, remain unclear. Many other HR personnel worked the floors throughout the “vote no” campaign, asking employees if they had any problems at work or any suggestions to improve the working environment.
No Ordinary Anti-Union Campaign, No Ordinary Anti-Union Corporation
The RWDSU took on the most sophisticated anti-union company on the planet, during a deadly pandemic, at a huge facility with enormously high rates of worker turnover, after the company flooded the bargaining unit to nearly three times its original size. In addition to the activities discussed above, Amazon created dozens of fake worker accounts to post anti-union comments or Tweet, produced slick anti-union ads to run on Twitch, and engaged in other nontraditional anti-union actions. It might be comforting to believe the union lost because of ineffective tactics that were obvious to “veteran organizers” as this would suggest that, even without labor law reform, unions could win at Amazon the next time simply by taking “no shortcuts.” But the RWDSU lost because of Amazon’s blistering and unlawful anti-union campaign, and the failure of labor law to protect pro-union workers. The events at BHM1 demonstrate the urgent need to strengthen the right to choose a union, but that may not be enough. Even if the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act were to become law, a corporate behemoth with virtually unlimited resources, including the ability to bully local and federal officials, presents a grave and growing threat to workplace democracy globally.
Bessemer Has Advanced the Campaign to Unionize Amazon
The Bessemer union campaign will likely be remembered as an important achievement, one that has advanced the effort to unionize Amazon. The RWDSU never considered Bessemer a “hot shop” organizing campaign. Now that the NLRB has recommended a rerun election, Bessemer workers may yet get a union. Organizers reported that the Bessemer warehouse did not present the hallmarks of a “losing campaign,” and they believe the union would have won were it not for Amazon’s unlawful practices. But this campaign was always about much more than simply organizing a single warehouse in Alabama. The extraordinary media coverage of the campaign exposed Amazon’s anti-union brutality to a larger global audience than anyone would have thought possible six months earlier. Several U.S. unions attempting to organize Amazon have expanded cooperation in the wake of the election. European unions have taken inspiration from the campaign, which has enabled them to deepen links with socially responsible investors at Amazon. Worker centers have enjoyed greater support from foundations in the wake of the campaign. And by getting the country’s attention, the RWDSU’s bold campaign—which resulted in President Biden’s remarkable video calling out Amazon’s bullying—has given a boost to the effort for the PRO Act. Bessemer will be remembered for both advancing the union campaign at Amazon and advancing the cause of labor rights more generally.
1. Texas Lawyer, “Fritz Aldrine,” November 7, 2005, available at https://www.law.com/ texaslawyer/almID/1132144710172/.
2. Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, “Amazon Is Hiring an Intelligence Analyst to Track ‘Labor Organizing Threats,’” Vice, September 1, 2020,available at https://www.vice.com/en/article/ qj4aqw/amazon-hiring-intelligence-analyst-totrack-labor-organizing-threats.
3. Dave Jamieson, “Amazon’s Greatest Weapon against Unions: Worker Turnover,” Huffington Post, June 17, 2021, available at https://www.huffpost.
4. Rachel Kraus, “The Bizarre Story Behind those ‘Amazon Ambassadors’ on Twitter,” Mashable, March 31, 2021, available at https://mashable.com/article/amazon-ambassadors-workersunion-fake-twitter-accounts/.
5. Jane McAlevey, “Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign,” The Nation, April 9, 2021, available at https://www.thenation.com/article/activism/bessemer-alabama-amazon-union/.
John Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University, and a visiting scholar at the University of California–Berkeley Labor Center. Prior to that he taught comparative labor relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has published widely on employer opposition to unionization in the United States and globally.