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Amazon violated labor law in Alabama union election, labor official finds

Workers at a warehouse in Bessemer voted against joining a union in April, but union officials immediately claimed the company had illegally meddled in the voting process.
Amazon Union Is A Tough Sell In Town Where $15 An Hour Goes A Long Way
Demonstrators hold signs during a Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union protest near the Amazon BHM1 Fulfillment Center in Bessemer, Ala., on Feb. 6.Elijah Nouvelage / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The National Labor Relations Board has determined that Amazon violated labor law after workers at its Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse tried to join a union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union said Monday.

Workers at the Alabama warehouse voted against forming a union in April. Representatives of the union immediately challenged the outcome on the grounds that Amazon engaged in illegal interference with employees’ votes to discourage them from unionizing. 

The vote was 1,798 opposing the union and 738 in favor. The union accused Amazon of creating an “atmosphere of confusion, coercion and fear of reprisals” among workers at the facility.

The director who presided over the NLRB hearing will recommend whether a new election is conducted, the union said in a statement, but the final decision whether workers will be allowed to cast new ballots and form a union ultimately lies with the director of the regional NLRB office based in Atlanta. 

A representative for the NLRB declined to comment.

Some workers at the warehouse in Bessemer alleged that Amazon went to great lengths to discourage them from voting for the union, including hanging signs over toilets in bathroom stalls, conducting mandatory meetings about the downsides of joining a union and hiring people to walk around the warehouse to talk to workers about why they should not join a union, three Amazon employees in Bessemer said in interviews this year. 

A core accusation by the union is that Amazon illegally arranged for a U.S. Postal Service mailbox to be installed in the fulfillment center parking lot during the election. The union alleged that it gave the impression that Amazon might have had access to the secret ballots cast by workers or that workers might be under surveillance as they cast their votes. Amazon is alleged to have moved forward with installing the mailbox even after the NLRB denied its request to place ballot drop boxes onsite.

Photos of the mailbox that union officials said hampered the election.Courtesy of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

Maria Boschetti, an Amazon spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that the company plans to appeal the NLRB decision.

“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,” Boschetti wrote.

Employees who were in favor of the union said they hoped a union would help improve their working conditions, including more consistent and stronger protections to keep workers safe from catching Covid. Eleven Amazon workers at warehouses across the country told NBC News last month that cases of Covid have surged in their facilities as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads rapidly across the country.

“Every two days we get emails stating that somebody has had Covid. Like clockwork. That’s scary within itself. That’s very, very scary,” said Earlvin Carpenter, an Amazon employee in Bessemer who spoke in an interview in February, before the union vote. 

The Bessemer union vote partly set the stage for nationwide organizing at the retail giant. On June 24, the Teamsters announced a unionizing campaign called the “Amazon Project.” The union committed to spend whatever money was necessary to make the campaign successful.

For a grassroots campaign to organize workers at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, the NLRB decision was welcome news.

“It’s definitely exciting news. It is going to encourage workers that this process can be productive,” said Chris Smalls, whom Amazon fired after he organized a walkout protest over lack of Covid protections in March 2020. He said the group of workers there is close to filing with the NLRB for its own elections.

“The same type of union-busting tactics that were happening in Bessemer happened up here in Staten Island,” Smalls said. “To see the NLRB intervene down there gives us confidence to keep working to organize up here.”

Many of the Amazon workers who spoke out against the lack of safety at work during the pandemic and tried to organize their colleagues to push for stronger health protections claimed that they were retaliated against, according to an investigation by NBC News in March. The reporting found that the number of charges filed with the NLRB accusing Amazon of interfering with workers’ rights to organize more than tripled during the pandemic.