Workers’ rejection of a union at Amazon.com Inc.’s warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., is a setback to organized labor’s efforts to reverse a decadeslong decline in private-sector membership nationally.
The Alabama result underscores unions’ challenges in increasing membership in the U.S. private sector, where they represent just 6.3% of workers, down from 24.2% in 1973, according to data from Georgia State University.
Hiring at Amazon — the second-largest private employer in the U.S. — and other e-commerce warehouses increased last year even as the country shed millions of jobs, including more than 300,000 union positions, during the pandemic. For unions, the time appeared ripe to organize workers in an expanding sector and an environment where labor unions traditionally have operated: a large blue-collar site where many employees do similar jobs.
Last year, more union members worked for the government than for private-sector employers, according to the Labor Department, showing the public sector is now the stronghold of organized labor. Teacher strikes and protests in 2018 and 2019 won pay increases and other concessions in Arizona, West Virginia, Los Angeles and other states and cities, and more recently, educator unions influenced plans to reopen schools during the pandemic in Chicago and elsewhere.
The Amazon vote bodes poorly for organized labor trying to increase the share of workers who are union members and revive organized labor as a formidable voice in American workplaces, said Jonathan Spitz, co-leader of the labor relations practice at Jackson Lewis, a management-side law firm. Union members accounted for 10.8% of the total U.S. workforce last year, down from 24% in 1973, according to Georgia State’s data.
Organizing workers at major employers such as Amazon or Walmart Inc. has long been a “holy grail” for unions, he said, but many big companies have the power and the capital to pay competitively, survey employees about their experiences and respond to dissatisfaction before it grows.
“Employers control the economic issues, they decide what pay and benefits look like and if they want to pre-empt organizing based on economic issues, they can do it,” he said.
Amazon told its workers in Alabama that unionizing wasn’t necessary, highlighting that it starts workers at $15 an hour — more than double the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum — and the healthcare benefits it offers employees. The median pay in the U.S. for warehouse and storage workers was $17.77 an hour last year, according to the Labor Department.
The organizing union — the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — sought to bargain over work rules and better pay, frequently citing the wealth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Workers at the Bessemer warehouse overwhelmingly rejected unionization, with 71% casting ballots not to join the union, according to the National Labor Relations Board.
The failure at Amazon comes after other unsuccessful attempts to organize large companies. United Food and Commercial Workers had sought to unionize Walmart stores and labor unions backed the Fight for $15 protests against McDonald’s Corp. and other chains. While those protests influenced state and local minimum-wage changes, it failed to secure new union members.
“One of the concerns here for people who’d like to see something change is they spent a lot of money and energy on it and it didn’t work, so there’s some reluctance to try it again with other retail giants,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist and chair of the labor studies department at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.
The Amazon effort also took place as employee activism is growing at technology and media firms. A few months ago, around 200 employees of Google parent company Alphabet Inc. formed a union affiliated with the Communications Workers of America.
The group, called the Alphabet Workers Union, hasn’t sought collective-bargaining rights, and it didn’t go through an election process like the one at Amazon’s Bessemer facility. Instead, its leaders have said it aims to speak out about problems its members see at Google, including pay discrepancies and retaliatory firings.
The organizing difficulties faced by private-sector unions stand in contrast to those in the public sector. More than 40% of local-government workers, including teachers, firefighters and police, are union members.
In some cases, those unions receive widespread public support and are often more aligned with their management.
“We saw the teacher strikes…management was often on the side of the workers because they also wanted more funding,” Ms. Milkman said.
Broadly, labor groups have been enjoying a moment in the spotlight, boosted by a presidential administration that is attentive to their concerns. Mr. Biden had expressed support for the Amazon workers’ unionization drive. He also has proposed a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package that would rely on union labor and seeks to increase union jobs in both the private and public sectors, including by weakening right-to-work laws.
A growing federal government could create more union jobs. However, state and local governments cut jobs last year during the pandemic, more than offsetting federal gains. Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan aims to funnel work to industries in which unions are prevalent, especially construction, and the proposal would likely include incentives to hiring unionized labor for the work.
Public-sector workers, such as teachers, are often already covered by collective bargaining agreements that offer job protections, which may make them more willing to engage in organizing efforts, said Anastasia Christman, director of the Worker Power Program at the National Law Employment Project, a worker advocacy group.
Amara Omeokwe contributed to this article.