Labor Unions

NLRB Recommends Amazon Warehouse Workers Vote Again on Whether To Unionize

In April, workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted 2-to-1 not to unionize. Now they may be asked to recast their votes.

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Back in April, Amazon warehouse employees in Bessemer, Alabama, voted 2-to-1 not to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), with 1,798 votes against and 738 in favor. Nearly half of the facility's 5,800 cast ballots.

Now the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has preliminarily recommended that workers at the Bessemer facility vote again.

RWDSU alleges that Amazon gave employees the idea that the company had access to their unionization ballots after a USPS mailbox was installed on the facility's grounds, with a company-branded tent over it. Though the idea was presumably to make voting as easy and convenient as possible, the pro-union contingent has alleged that many employees felt their votes were not actually secure and private.

"Postal Service official Jay Smith, who works as a liaison for large clients like Amazon, testified that he was surprised to see the corporate-branded tent around the mailbox because the company appeared to have found a way around his explicit instructions to not place anything physically on the mailbox," reported NPR, clarifying that Smith testified that no one from the company has been given the keys to the mailbox.

This is all in the context of regular information sessions in which the company argued to employees that unions would not serve their interests. (The meetings were, of course, required to halt before voting began.) The company's basic argument was that it already paid a starting wage of $15 per hour—well above both federal and state minimum wages, and thus well above many alternatives available to workers—plus benefits, and that union dues would eat up employees' paychecks. Amazon also plastered warehouses, including bathroom stalls, with posters telling employees to "do it without dues"; bombarded workers with texts and calls; and made a website filled with colorful, animated gifs telling workers that their lives and careers may be made worse by union representation.

"HEY BHM1 DOERS, why pay almost $500 in dues?" said the website. "We've got you covered* with high wages, health care, vision and dental benefits, as well as a safety committee and an appeals process. There's so much MORE you can do for your career and your family without paying dues." (The asterisk then somewhat awkwardly informed readers that such an offer applies only to regular full-time employees.)

These types of tactics are not uncommon, nor is such aggressive messaging limited to one side. Amazon asserted, in a statement following the results, that "our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us." A quick scan of news articles from this past spring indicates that there's some truth to this, and certainly plenty of truth to the idea that many Amazon employees are happy with their Bessemer warehouse jobs, given that they pay better than many alternatives.

Perhaps the unionizing push made the company sweat a bit, which wouldn't exactly be a bad outcome if it makes employees better able to have their complaints addressed. An RWDSU objection to purported misconduct during the election reads:

During the critical period and throughout the election, the Employer's agents solicited grievances from employees and offered to resolve these grievances. The Employer's agents questioned employees as to what they would like to see improved at the facility and how the Employer could address their concerns. Prior to the organizing campaign the Employer's agents did not seek input from employees or solicit grievances.

It's crucial for employees to be secure in their belief that their votes actually were anonymous and would not lead to retaliation. But it's also important that union organizers not attempt to trump the will of the actual voters; if Amazon employees feel as though their grievances are better addressed via the current modes available, they shouldn't be browbeaten into submission.

As one anonymous employee described to CNBC, "the RWDSU did not explain what they were going to do for workers and did not respond to his request for information about how they had helped employees at other job sites." Given that only about 13 percent of the employees at the Bessemer facility voted in favor of unionizing, perhaps the RWDSU failed to make their case well.

The NLRB recommendation is just preliminary, and the agency will finalize its position in a few weeks. But even the tentative recommendation gives a shot in the arm to union organizers who had hoped Bessemer would be the beginning of a wave of organizing in Amazon warehouses across the country.

Meanwhile, Amazon will try to stop the vote. "Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate, and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers and the company," says a company spokesperson. "Their voice should be heard above all else, and we plan to appeal to ensure that happens."