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New York Times Headline Writers Declare Amazon Union Vote Free and Fair

The New York Times’ Amazon union election coverage is a tale as old as time: When workers vote to back a union, employers blame outside agitators. When workers reject a union after a massive anti-union campaign by the boss, it was the workers’ own free choice.

The Amazon fulfillment warehouse at the center of a unionization drive in Bessemer, Alabama. (Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images)

This morning, when the dust had settled on the vote tally from the election on whether to unionize Amazon’s BHM1 warehouse in Alabama, the New York Times published a story with the headline, “Amazon Appears to Defeat Union Drive at Alabama Warehouse.”

From the outside we can only guess at the kinds of conversations that transpired, but whatever their content, the headline was edited to read, “Amazon Workers Appear to Defeat Union Drive at Alabama Warehouse.” Then it was changed to, “Amazon Workers Defeat Union Drive at Alabama Warehouse.” Now it reads, “Amazon Workers Vote Down Union Drive at Alabama Warehouse.”

Did the New York Times come under pressure to change the wording, or did the editors make these decisions entirely on their own, to reflect their view of the situation? Whatever the case may be, the result is that over the course of these changes the first narrative — in which the corporation Amazon crushed a union drive — was replaced by a new one in which the impetus for the outcome came from Amazon workers themselves. Of course the second story makes Amazon look a lot better than the first one does.

The migration of meaning in this New York Times headline is a reminder of the public relations dance that always accompanies union elections. When a union tries to organize a workplace and fails, bosses want the public to believe it’s because workers were simply presented two options and chose rationally between them. This framing implies that management had nothing to do with the outcome, that workers simply decided what’s best for themselves.

But the reality is that most corporations work tirelessly in the run-up to union elections to suppress union organizing and secure an outcome favorable to them. The New York Times’ original headline, “Amazon Appears to Defeat Union Drive at Alabama Warehouse,” is a much more accurate description of what happened in Bessemer, Alabama, and what usually happens when corporations are faced with the threat of unionization.

Most companies don’t just sit back and allow union organizers to pose the collective bargaining question to their workers. They almost always engage in aggressive campaigns to stop organizing efforts in their tracks. And Amazon waged a predictably zealous campaign against the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)’s effort to organize its warehouse in Bessemer.

For example, the company held mandatory “captive audience” meetings in which workers were subjected to anti-union messaging, including outright falsehoods about the implications of forming a union. Amazon also bombarded workers with signs in bathrooms and text messages at home urging them to vote “no.” And after losing a fight to make all voting happen in-person, the company successfully convinced the United States Postal Service to install a mailbox on the warehouse grounds, allowing management to monitor and perhaps pressure workers as they filed their ballots.

Amazon has even been accused of strategically hiring formerly incarcerated people with few other job options and enlisting them to represent the anti-union campaign. More generally, it distributed anti-union swag to temporary workers, who wouldn’t have been able to join the union anyway, but who are in an especially precarious position and may have felt coerced to represent the anti-union campaign on the shop floor. Amazon also won a fight to expand the size of the bargaining unit to make the election harder for the union to win.

Given the intensity and range of tactics the company pursued in its efforts to prevent unionization, it’s entirely accurate to say that Amazon itself defeated the union drive. As Rutgers labor studies professor Rebecca Givan explained in Vice, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union elections “are not a reflection of whether workers want a voice on the job, but rather show the imbalance of labor law and resources in favor of employers.”

There are a few more avenues for RWDSU to explore, but if they’re unsuccessful, then make no mistake: Amazon busted the union. The company doesn’t want us to think that’s what happened. Instead it wants us to think that the workers were simply presented two opposing arguments, gave them equal consideration, and decided a union wasn’t right for them. Luckily for Amazon, it seems to have friends at the New York Times willing to help them make that case to the public.