The public portion of the vote count for whether the U.S. will see its first Amazon union has begun.
Last summer, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the persisting racial injustices against Black Americans, Bessemer, Ala. became host to a historic call to unionize one Amazon fulfillment center. Since then, the closely watched organizing drive has drawn international attention to the year-old facility called BHM1, where roughly 85 percent of the workers are Black, according to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which the workers are seeking to organize with.
The National Labor Relations Board, which administers the election, began tabulating the ballots after voting concluded in March. There were some 3,215 ballots cast among the roughly 5,800 workers in the unit, according to a statement Wednesday by the RWDSU. Thursday’s tally, which in a fairly unusual move was being broadcast publicly, involved individually counting each “yes” and “no” vote.
As of Thursday evening, the unofficial tally favored Amazon with an over two-thirds lead, or more than 900 votes against unionization, and 400 votes in favor of unionization. The voting will continue on Friday morning, with potential to extend further.
Regardless of the outcome, the effort to get to this stage of the unionizing process, rare in the present day retail landscape, is expected to ripple across the industry.
“There is value, not only for the public watching, but for workers around the country, to see how the [NLRB] functions and how the results are counted,” said James Brudney, labor and employment law professor at the Fordham University School of Law, and former chief counsel of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor.
“This is a democratic election process,” he said. “To the extent that other workers may be learning about how the labor board and labor act work, that’s important in educational terms, and will be, pretty much regardless of the result.”
Over the past week, the parties had engaged in a process called the “clearing of the ballots” where Amazon and the union had the opportunity to review the ballots, and decide whether to challenge them. On Wednesday, the RWDSU said there were “hundreds of challenged ballots mostly by the employer.”
If the public vote count results in a series of overwhelming “yes” or “no” votes, the outcome could become clearer soon. But, if the vote is close, then the challenges over contested votes will have to be addressed in a separate hearing to determine whether they can be counted.
With a number of anti-union tactics cited by the RWDSU and facility employees, the NLRB found Amazon in violation of its request for in-person voting (a practice the board dropped in March for safety amid the pandemic) and to install a ballot dropbox. Amazon offered a statement expressing “disappointment” with the NLRB’s ruling in the matter.
The drive has spotlighted well-publicized criticisms of the working conditions of Amazon employees, who have described having to meet strict quotas and grueling hours on their feet, even during the pandemic.
In March, Jennifer Bates, an employee at the Bessemer facility, testified to the Senate Budget Committee about such conditions, prompting an Amazon representative to respond: “We take employee feedback seriously, including Ms. Bates’, but we don’t believe her comments represent the more than 90 percent of her fulfillment center colleagues who say they’d recommend Amazon as a great place to work to friends and family. We encourage people to speak with the hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees who love their jobs, earn at least $15 an hour, receive comprehensive healthcare and paid leave benefits, prefer direct dialogue with their managers, and voted Amazon number two on the Forbes best employers list in 2020.”
Still, the drive has galvanized other Amazon workers. Before the vote, RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said regardless of the turnout, “this campaign is already a victory” in raising greater awareness for union efforts in the U.S. and igniting a spark for continued drives. He said more than 1,000 Amazon workers across the country have since reached out to RWDSU on how to organize. Labor experts agreed about the influence potential of the Bessemer drive.
“In terms of what the union has achieved by getting this far, Amazon workers work very hard, and their working conditions are far from perfect,” said Julius Getman of the University of Texas, a labor law scholar and author of the 2016 book “The Supreme Court on Unions: Why Labor Law Is Failing American Workers.”
“It’s not surprising that some of them are open to the message that if you have a union, you’d do better,” he said.
For thousands of U.S. retail workers and millions of global garment workers, grassroots campaigns and labor organizing are some of few lifelines. Especially during the ongoing pandemic, retail workers have sought guidance on navigating furloughs, severance issues and workplace safety from unions like RWDSU and Workers United. Campaigns like #PayUp from nonprofit Remake (that recouped $22 billion in canceled or suspended orders since last April) or #PayYourWorkers from Worker Rights Consortium that aired out the $39.8 million in legally owed severance pay in a recent report, also demonstrate the impact of such collective efforts.
RWDSU’s Appelbaum believes unions are becoming “something to be valued again.” The renewed momentum at the NLRB may be further indication of stepped-up efforts.
Amid its own recent overhaul, the NLRB is rebuilding its capacity and listing dozens of top-level regional openings across the country after dwindled resources and continued staff reduction that dropped 26 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to a March report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Staffing conditions worsened under the prior general counsel’s appointment in November 2017, leaving remaining staff “potentially overburdened” amid the Board’s diminished appropriations.
Since January, there have been nine cases filed with the NLRB involving Amazon, including individual charges against Amazon at the Bessemer facility for coercive statements. Maneuvers such as threats and the promise of benefits are generally viewed as improper efforts by an employer to interfere in the process.
“I really think the deep psyche of our country is calling for this. Whether it be organizing for unions, movements, worker co-ops, mutual aid, etc., we will always see a need for community to solve our problems. We also now see major movements coming together in recognition that we can’t solve one problem without addressing the others, for example — linking race, labor and environmentalism,” said Shannon O’Hara, a garment worker and cofounder of the New York-based Skilled Laborers Brigade LLC. O’Hara has been a working class trades person and union member her whole working life.
The right of employees to organize a union, while protected by the National Labor Relations Act, can face steep hurdles in practice, labor law experts said. For one thing, retail workers in the U.S. generally have to organize separately within their own plant or store or warehouse, observed Ariana Levinson, professor at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. In the instance of the Amazon vote, the election involves just the workers at its Bessemer, Ala. warehouse, and not the hundreds of thousands of workers across its other facilities.
The law also allows employers to conduct what are known as captive audience meetings, where they can instruct employee meetings led by management or their lawyer or consultant to make their case to workers for why they believe employees should vote against the union. Employers are not allowed to retaliate against unionizing workers, but the dynamics in many cases can leave workers fearful of losing their jobs, Levinson said.
“If you’re a worker whose livelihood really depends on your income…it is difficult to organize more generally in our country, and a lot of that is the legal framework that we have in place,” she said.
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