WASHINGTON – Nearly six weeks ago, President Joe Biden blasted out a video to millions of followers on social media promoting a push by Amazon employees in Alabama to form a union.
On Friday, that effort collapsed in defeat and Biden was much quieter, issuing no statements, making no comments and publishing no videos. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden would wait until the National Labor Relations Board finalizes the result before speaking about it.
The outcome underlined the perils of Biden’s decision to use his platform to promote organized labor more vocally than any president in recent history. Workers voted to reject the union drive at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., by a wide margin, showing the head winds facing organized labor, but also the limits of the president’s influence and possibly his decision to weigh in relatively late.
“It would have been helpful if our momentum, not just with the president’s video, but our momentum occurred much earlier,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which led the Amazon organizing drive. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
At the same time, labor leaders and activists praised Biden for adding his voice to the movement, saying it was the start of something bigger. They said Biden’s stance could strengthen his support among working-class voters, a constituency coveted by both parties.
They also said Biden’s position was a way to signal his commitment to labor rights and civil rights. Most of the workers at the Bessemer warehouse are Black.
“Something has been birthed in Bessemer that you cannot put back in the box,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, a civil rights leader. “What would have been a defeat was for the president to not have weighed in.”
All told, the result was a mixed bag for Biden, who is navigating a shifting political landscape in which Republicans and Democrats are competing for the support of working-class voters, and, in contrasting ways, seeking to take a stand against big businesses and define a new populism in the post-Trump era.
Republicans have increasingly attacked companies for taking stands on social issues, as when Atlanta-based firms recently criticized a GOP-sponsored voting law in Georgia. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., endorsed the union drive at Amazon, which he called “a company whose leadership has decided to wage culture war against working-class values.”
Biden, meanwhile, has led Democrats in embracing unions and backed an increase in the minimum wage.
The union vote also comes against the backdrop of larger political and social upheaval across the Deep South. The Georgia voting law has triggered a widespread backlash from Democrats and dueling calls for economic boycotts. Biden has called it “Jim Crow on steroids.”
But on the Amazon union drive, which became a national rallying cry for liberal leaders and union chiefs, Biden had nothing to say on Friday. The White House was keeping an eye on the vote – Reuters spotted a senior member of Biden’s labor engagement team on a Zoom call showing the votes being tallied – but also publicly keeping its distance.
“This vote isn’t about the administration,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in an interview this week. “It’s about the Amazon workers in a particular part of the country.”
Asked Friday about the union vote outcome at her daily press briefing, Psaki said the president would wait “for the NLRB to finish its process and declare a result to make a further comment.”
More than 3,000 Amazon employees in Bessemer voted in the election administered by the NLRB, with 1,798 voting against unionizing, the NLRB announced Friday, and just 738 voting in favor of the union.
Amazon and the RWDSU have five days to challenge the election, and Appelbaum said the union plans to do so, alleging improper interference by Amazon. The company used aggressive tactics to oppose the union effort, but it was not clear whether the RWDSU challenge would gain traction. Amazon has denied any wrongdoing.
Republicans have countered Biden’s pro-worker message by seeking to portray him as an ally of powerful union heads rather than rank-and-file members. Some said the outcome of the Alabama election was evidence that Biden’s appeal to the working class is far more limited than he likes to suggest.
“It’s certainly a setback for the president,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a veteran GOP strategist. “This is a pretty stinging setback for union leaders as well.”
On Feb. 28, nearly three weeks after the union vote got underway, Biden released a video online nodding to the effort without naming Amazon and warning, “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda.”
Organizing a union, Biden said in the video, is “a vitally important choice.”
The video came after weeks of encouragement from outside allies who asked the White House to weigh in. It was the product of a multistage production process that involved Biden, his speechwriters and a soon-to-be top White House labor adviser, according to people with knowledge of its creation.
While he was careful in his wording – urging a fair process rather than explicitly endorsing a union victory – no president in recent memory had so openly embraced a unionization effort.
To many activists, it was the clearest signifier yet of Biden’s devotion to the union cause. Biden had campaigned vowing to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” and followed up with early personnel and policy moves that were cheered by labor leaders.
The decisions are part of an aggressive play by Biden and the Democratic Party to build on gains they made with working-class voters in the 2020 election. Even in defeat, union leaders and Democrats said, Biden advanced that endeavor by using his political capital in the Bessemer fight.
“It’s fuel for the fire of a new labor movement being born in America,” said Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., speaking of the results in Bessemer. “And Joe Biden is at the head of the parade.”
An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Biden’s involvement in the union drive.
Union leaders are already looking ahead to the next issues where they hope Biden will have their back. One of the biggest battlegrounds will be the competition to shape the sweeping infrastructure plan Biden is seeking to pass in Congress in the coming months.
The White House has framed its proposal as a catalyst for creating good union jobs. It also contains a provision that would enhance workers’ capacity to organize.
“We know it’s very difficult for workers to make the choice to form a union,” Psaki said Friday, touting that that part of the plan as a necessary fix.
But Biden will have to navigate some challenges, including balancing the demands of labor with those of environmentalists, whose climate priorities are at odds with some unions representing fossil fuel industry workers.
Beyond infrastructure, union leaders, many of whom endorsed Biden’s campaign last year, are looking to bolster their ranks, which in many cases have declined over the years. Had the Amazon union drive succeeded, it would have been the first union at the company in the United States.
“I certainly know that the American labor movement has work to do,” Walsh said.
The Washington Post’s Annie Linskey contributed to this report.