Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have voted in a historic poll to decide whether they want to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.
The results are not expected until next week – but if they say yes, it will become Amazon’s first US union. Amazon argues its wages and benefits are industry-beating and has gone into battle to persuade workers to vote no.
Most agree the outcome could have major implications for US labor laws.
In the US, Amazon has 800 facilities staffed by 950,000 full- and part-time workers – and it should be said many do not feel the need to join a union. And for those who do, this is not primarily a wages issue – in fact, Amazon pays workers an average of $15 (£11) an hour, plus benefits.
But most agree conditions in its warehouses can be hard – the job is very demanding and lots of workers complain of back pain or other physical niggles as a result of working long hours, often standing in the same position.
Others talk about the mental-health toll of repeated tasks or feeling like they are a cog in a very big machine that does not always listen to their problems. And there are a lot of things workers feel they do not have control of, such as shift patterns, time off, sick leave, and being fired.
One of the most controversial features is time off task (TOT). When a worker is clocked in, Amazon’s computer system calculates which hours of a shift are on or off task, based on whether or not an item is scanned. And some say they feel dehumanized by technology watching their every move.
Union membership in the US is unusually low – just 6.3% of the private-sector workforce, according to the labor department. In comparison, Amazon workers in Japan, the UK, Germany, Italy, France, and Poland are all unionized.
In Germany, a recent four-day strike was called over pay and conditions, while in Italy Amazon workers held a 24-hour strike over what they described as exhausting work rates and “management by algorithm”.