Amazon union vote hit by conspiracy theories and misinformation
The post-truth age has landed with a thud in Bessemer, Ala., where Amazon.com Inc. employees are deciding whether they want union representation amid a cascade of conflicting claims, conspiracy theories and fake news.
The contest between the world’s largest e-commerce company and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is one of the most consequential in a generation, and a union victory could upend Amazon’s U.S. operations.
It has all the ingredients of a high-stakes election. A glaring media spotlight. Cameos from out-of-town celebrities. Airwaves clogged with advertisements, and mailboxes stuffed with pamphlets.
Last week, a U.S. representative from New York stood outside the Bessemer warehouse criticizing Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos for hiding inside the sprawling facility while he and other politicians waited outside.
“He has members of Congress out here right now, at his plant where he is physically located,” Jamaal Bowman said on a video shared on Twitter, suggesting the world’s wealthiest man was avoiding a conversation about pay and working conditions.
Bezos wasn’t in the building, nor was he in Alabama, according to people familiar with his whereabouts. He was 2,000 miles away touring a rocket-building company in Southern California. A spokeswoman for Bowman declined to say why the representative thought Bezos was in the building.
Amid the glare and noise, Amazon workers are struggling to sort fact from fiction — a reflection in part of a nation that spent recent years inhaling the serial fabrications of former President Trump. Whether they’re for the union, against it or undecided, several employees interviewed by Bloomberg say they’re exhausted and confused by the onslaught of information — be it from Amazon, the union or outsiders keen to influence the election’s outcome.
A new mailbox installed outside the Bessemer warehouse — along with texts from Amazon encouraging workers to use it to vote — fueled a conspiracy theory that the company was looking to snatch up ballots before the count. Some pro-union workers say they deliberately mailed ballots from home or took them directly to the post office themselves.
Amazon says it’s simply trying to make it convenient for employees to participate. But the location also lets the company keep an eye on who is using the mailbox and what they’re putting in it, providing grist for critics who point to reports that Amazon has long monitored organized labor.
When Amazon requested the timing on the traffic light outside the warehouse be modified, it was interpreted as a move to prevent union organizers camped outside from having an opportunity to engage workers. Amazon requested the change to prevent traffic jams in its parking lot during shift changes, according to the Alabama news website AL.com, which quoted Jefferson County officials.
Nothing perhaps has sowed more suspicion than the election’s mail-in voting process, with some workers channeling Trump’s insistence that electoral fraud robbed him of a second term — a bogus claim that has taken root in the minds of millions of Americans.
As in last year’s presidential election, the National Labor Relations Board opted for mail ballots in Bessemer to avoid creating a super-spreader event during a pandemic.
Amazon appealed the decision and, echoing some of the arguments made by Republican officials last year, said mail balloting raised the risk of fraud and coercion. The company also said the process would depress turnout, arguing that as many as 29% of the more than 5,800 employees eligible to vote wouldn’t do so or would return incorrectly completed ballots.
Amazon lost the appeal, but the action almost certainly amplified doubts among workers — pro- and anti-union — in the balloting process.
One employee who is voting against joining the union wonders whether Amazon will get a fair shake in the election. She has been suspicious ever since a union representative knocked on her door the very day she received a ballot in the mail and asked if she needed any help filling it out or if she wanted him to drop it off for her.
The worker, who requested anonymity to speak freely, says she believes the presidential election was rigged and worries that the same thing will happen in Bessemer. “I just don’t want to see the union do the same thing and Amazon get screwed over,” she says.
Another worker, who is also against the union, began to fret when his roommate received a ballot in the mail and he didn’t. The worker says he contacted the NLRB and was able to secure one.
Still, he says, “Everyone’s on edge to make sure the people on their side get a ballot.”