Amazon Vote Bessemer

TRENDING UPWARD?: This Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. was the site of a fierce union-organizing battle last spring in which the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union's effort to become the bargaining representative for roughly 6,000 employees was defeated by more than 1,000 votes. But the National Labor Relations Board ruled in November that Amazon resorted to numerous intimidation tactics that tainted the outcome aod ordered a rerun of the election, and a Dec. 23 settlement it reached with Amazon meant to assure a fair election has raised hopes that the RWDSU can prevail in the new vote, which has yet to be scheduled.   

Amazon, stung by a National Labor Relations Board ruling in November that a new election must be held because if used illegal tactics to thwart an organizing drive at its Bessemer, Ala. facility last spring, reached a settlement with the board Dec. 23 allowing its 750,000 employees in the U.S. to participate in organizing drives without fear of management retaliation.

Under the agreement, it will notify all those who have been employed since late last March—when the Bessemer unionizing vote was conducted—of their organizing rights. The NLRB said Amazon pledged not to threaten employees with discipline or summon the police when they engaged in organizing activity outside their work areas while not on the clock.

Easier to Bring Charges

The accord permits the NLRB to sue the giant package-delivery firm without a preliminary administrative-hearing process in instances where it concludes Amazon is in violation of the agreement.

A spokeswoman for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is preparing for the rerun election at the Bessemer warehouse, declined to comment on the agreement.

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NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a statement that "working people should know that the National Labor Relations Board will vigorously seek to ensure Amazon's compliance with the settlement and continue to defend the labor rights of all workers."

She also said the agreement "provides a crucial commitment from Amazon" to its workers "that it will not interfere with their right to act collectively to improve their workplace by forming a union or taking other collective action."

A Tainted Rejection 

A final tally of the ballots early last April showed 1,798 employees voted against unionizing while 738 wanted to be represented by the RWDSU—with roughly half the 6,000 workers at the warehouse not participating. The union immediately appealed, saying numerous irregularities were engaged in by Amazon managers to intimidate workers, among them raising concerns about negative consequences that a union could bring, from employees being forced to pay more in dues than they gained in benefits to a shutdown of the facility because it was no longer profitable.

Because Alabama is a right-to-work state, any employees who were concerned about whether paying dues would not necessarily produce greater gains in benefits than it cost could opt not to join the union.

A hearing officer last August agreed that Amazon's tactics compromised the union's chances, and the NLRB's Regional Director in Atlanta, Lisa Y. Henderson, concurred three months later.

Fear of Surveillance

At the heart of their findings was a collection box Amazon installed in the employee parking lot, in defiance of a January ruling on the issue. Its location, within range of security cameras in the lot, Ms. Henderson stated in her decision ordering the new election, "created the impression of surveillance regarding the collection box."

She also noted that prior to the voting, Amazon conducted an "extensive campaign of polling employees and/or interrogating them with respect to their support for the Union." Its inappropriate interference with the election included "at least 240 separate meetings to ensure the attendance of approximately 6,000 employees...the entire voting unit was subject to these meeting and, therefore to the misconduct." 

Ms. Henderson went on to state, "The Employer's flagrant disregard for the Board's typical mail-ballot procedure compromised the authority of the Board and made a free and fair election impossible."  

RWDSU Head Confident

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said prior to Ms. Henderson's ordering the new election that he was convinced the union could prevail at Bessemer with a level playing field. He said the union was ready—once an election date was set--to deploy more organizers than during the initial campaign, and would have as many legal staffers available as needed to combat any repeat attempts at impropriety by management.

The Associated Press quoted Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center, hailing the agreement while noting, "Amazon has been very consistent in holding a strong anti-union position. This opens up new opportunities for unionization there as well as at other companies."

But a New York-based labor expert, speaking conditioned on anonymity, reacted more cautiously when asked about the impact of the agreement, in light of potential obstacles within a state known for strong anti-union attitudes.

"My sense is the company will back off some of the stuff they did [during the first election], but it's still gonna be a tough vote for the union," he said. "I'd be pleasantly surprised if they did win the election."    

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