New Amazon Union Vote in Alabama Is a Step Closer

A regional office of the National Labor Relations Board on Monday ordered a new election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama where workers opposed a union in a vote earlier this year two to one.

The office’s order, confirmed by a spokeswoman for the labor board, was widely expected after a hearing officer recommended in August that the results be thrown out and that a new election take place.

“Today’s decision confirms what we were saying all along — that Amazon’s intimidation and interference prevented workers from having a fair say in whether they wanted a union in their workplace,” Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which had organized workers at the warehouse, said in a statement.

It was not clear when the new election would take place, and Amazon can appeal the decision to the labor board in Washington, which Democratic appointees control.

“Our employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union, and they overwhelmingly chose not to join the R.W.D.S.U. earlier this year,” Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that the N.L.R.B. has now decided that those votes shouldn’t count. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees.”

The ruling comes as a setback to Amazon at a time when its labor model is under increasing scrutiny. In September, California approved a law that would require warehouse employers like Amazon to disclose the productivity quotas that they impose on workers and would prohibit quotas that prevent workers from taking breaks and abiding by health and safety rules.

Earlier this month, the nearly 1.4 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters elected a new president who ran on a platform that included aggressive efforts to unionize the company.

The election at the warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., was conducted by mail in February and March. Roughly half of the nearly 6,000 eligible workers cast ballots.

The union filed a formal objection to the election shortly after the results were announced in April, arguing that Amazon had undermined the conditions for a fair election by pressing the Postal Service to install a collection box at the warehouse. The union said the box, which was not authorized by the labor board, created the impression that Amazon was monitoring which workers voted.

Amazon has said that the box was intended to make it easier for employees to vote and that it did not have access to the ballots that workers deposited in it.

Understand Amazon’s Employment System

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A look inside Amazon. An examination by The New York Times into how the pandemic unfolded inside Amazon’s only fulfillment center in New York City, known as JFK8, found that the Covid crisis exposed the power and peril of Amazon’s employment system. Here are our major takeaways:

Employee churn is high. The company conducted a hiring surge in 2020, signing up 350,000 workers in three months offering a minimum wage of $15 an hour and good benefits. But even before the pandemic, Amazon was losing about 3 percent of its hourly associates each week — meaning its turnover was roughly 150 percent a year.

Buggy systems caused awful mistakes. Amazon’s disability and leave system was a source of frustration and panic.  Workers who had applied for leaves were penalized for missing work, triggering job-abandonment notices and then terminations.

Strict monitoring has created a culture of fear. The company tracks workers’ every movement inside its warehouses. Employees who work too slowly, or are idle for too long, risk being fired. The system was designed to identify impediments for workers. Though such firings are rare, some executives worry that the metrics are creating an anxious, negative environment.

There is rising concern over racial inequity. The retail giant is largely powered by employees of color. According to internal records from 2019, more than 60 percent of associates at JFK8 are Black or Latino. The records show Black associates at the warehouse were almost 50 percent more likely to be fired than their white peers.

Read more: The Amazon That Customers Don’t See.

The union also argued that Amazon consultants and managers created fear among workers by removing them from mandatory anti-union meetings if they asked skeptical questions and by telling workers they risked loss of pay or benefits, or even their jobs, if they unionized.

In the August recommendation, the labor board’s hearing officer dismissed many of the union’s objections in this vein, but the officer found that “the employer’s unilateral decision to create, for all intents and purposes, an on-site collection box for N.L.R.B. ballots destroyed the laboratory conditions” that are supposed to prevail during a union election.

The hearing officer highlighted the fact that the collection box was surrounded by a tent, on which Amazon printed a campaign message (“speak for yourself”) and a directive to workers to “mail your ballot here,” and that the tent appeared to be in view of Amazon’s surveillance cameras.

This setup “usurped” the labor board’s role in overseeing the vote and “so tainted the election that a second election is necessary,” the officer concluded.

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