A last-ditch attempt by Amazon to delay a vote on unionization at one of its larger warehouses has failed, paving the way for the first serious effort to organize workers at the tech giant since a failed attempt in Delaware in 2014.
On Friday, the National Labor Relations Board affirmed that nearly 6,000 workers at the company’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., could use vote-by-mail to determine whether the hub will join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). In so doing, the agency shot down objections Amazon had previously filed with them regarding the union drive.
Workers originally filed for the right to a vote on unionizing last November and NLRB subsequently granted them that right. Yet Amazon quickly sought to deter and delay this scenario, filing an appeal in January that questioned the bureau’s original ruling. The tech giant also asked that, instead of vote-by-mail, workers attend an onsite, in-person vote, despite pandemic-related health risks.
In its ruling Friday, however, the NLRB said that the petition to vote on unionization “raises no substantial issues warranting review” and could continue. The agency also shot down Amazon’s attempt to force an in-person vote. As a result of the decision, Bessemer workers will be able to start voting on the initiative next Monday, Feb. 8 and will continue through March 29.
Amazon’s scuffles with attempts at labor organizing have taken place throughout the country—and its tactics to deter and discourage such efforts have frequently involved draconian surveillance of activists and employees, including the hiring of Pinkterton detectives, among other things.
Amid all this, Bessemer has emerged as a key pressure point in the tech giant’s labor-management conflicts. Local activism has helped galvanize the push for expanded protections, though the company has gone to great lengths to dissuade workers. It was recently reported that Bessemer employees were being pulled into “propaganda” sessions where managers attempt to “sow doubts about the unionization drive.” This is perhaps not surprising, considering there’s a lot riding on this upcoming vote. As Bloomberg reports:
A defeat for the union would dent the reputation of the labor movement, which has failed time and again to organize workers at America’s second-largest private employer after Walmart. A union victory, on the other hand, would provide a tactical roadmap for the hundreds of thousands of people toiling in Amazon facilities.
“Once again Amazon workers have won another fight in their effort to win a union voice,” said Chelsea Connor, communications director with RWDSU, after the NLRB’s decision. “Amazon’s blatant disregard for the health and safety of its own workforce was demonstrated yet again by its insistence for an in-person election in the middle of the pandemic. Today’s decision proves that it’s long past time that Amazon start respecting its own employees; and allow them to cast their votes without intimidation and interference.”
When reached by email Friday, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said that the company was “disappointed” in the NLRB’s decision and claimed that voting by mail would lower participation: “Our goal is for as many of our employees as possible to vote and we’re disappointed by the decision by the NLRB not to provide the most fair and effective format to achieve maximum employee participation,” Knox said in a statement. She further claimed that mail-in voting would be less effective than what Amazon had planned as an alternative: a “safe on-site election process validated by covid-19 experts that would have empowered our associates to vote on their way to, during, and from their already-scheduled shifts.”
Somehow voting while you rush back and forth between company-appointed tasks—at a possible “super-spreader event,” no less—does not seem quite as effective as voting from the comfort of your own home. Indeed, rather than seeing this as an attempt to increase voter turnout, some might even interpret it as a way of deterring it.