Amazon Prevails in Vote Count as Union Alleges Interference

The closely watched vote count at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., facility has gone in favor of the e-commerce giant.

But the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the union seeking to represent thousands of workers at the plant, has spotlighted what it argues was a vigorous antiunion campaign by Amazon, which it said had created an “atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals.” The union issued a statement Friday morning saying it plans to file objections to the National Labor Relations Board, the agency that oversees the union election process.

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Roughly 3,215 ballots were cast among the 5,800 workers in the BHM1 Amazon facility, where the workers’ organizing drive has sparked widespread media coverage and public messages of support from lawmakers including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, Amazon workers have raised concerns about having to meet arduous quotas and being exposed to the virus at crowded facilities thrumming with employees as the company brought on some some 400,000 workers last year around the country, according to its third-quarter earnings release in October.

The union intends to file its Unfair Labor Practice charges over Amazon’s conduct in the lead-up to the vote that concluded last month, in which the union has alleged the company subjected workers to “lecture after lecture” against voting for the union, a common practice by employers where they bring in their attorneys and consultants to discourage workers from unionizing.

“Amazon knew full well that unless they did everything they possibly could, even illegal activity, their workers would have continued supporting the union,” the union said. “That’s why they brought in dozens of outsiders and union-busters to walk the floor of the warehouse. That’s why they bombarded people with signs throughout the facility and with text messages and calls at home.”

The RWDSU is seeking an NLRB hearing over these allegations, the union said in a statement Friday.

Amazon responded in a blog post Friday that, “It’s easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that’s not true. Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn’t win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union. Our employees are the heart and soul of Amazon, and we’ve always worked hard to listen to them, take their feedback, make continuous improvements, and invest heavily to offer great pay and benefits in a safe and inclusive workplace. We’re not perfect, but we’re proud of our team and what we offer, and will keep working to get better every day.”

Hundreds of contested ballots were continuing to be counted Friday morning, but the outcome of those votes couldn’t bridge the gap between the “yes” and “no” votes that had run away in favor of Amazon by as early as Thursday, when the public portion of the vote count began.

Labor experts observing the process have described what they see as disparities in the law between employers and unions that can help influence the outcome. While employers are not allowed to retaliate against unionizing employees under the National Labor Relations Act, they can bring in outside lawyers and consultants to inundate staff with messaging against the union during the weeks between when workers have gone public with their vote and ahead of an election before the NLRB.

In addition, violations of the NLRA, and unfair labor practice charges, even if affirmed by the NLRB, don’t necessarily come with consequential penalties, said Kate L. Bronfenbrenner, a lecturer and director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“Under the NLRA, there are no real penalties for employer violations,” Bronfenbrenner said. “Employers can threaten, intimidate, interrogate, spy, harass, and maybe the worst penalty they get is a piece of paper saying, ‘We won’t do that again,’” she added, referring to a poster that employers may have to put up in the wall of the workplace.

The PRO Act, which passed the House last month, seeks to change this dynamic and restrict employers from such efforts. But the bill is a long shot in the Senate, where it is certain to face the filibuster.

The National Retail Federation, which also opposes the PRO Act, issued a statement Friday hailing the outcome. “With reports that a majority of employees at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., have voted to reject representation by a union, the results are clear. The process works and employees can make an informed decision despite the enormous scrutiny under which this campaign was conducted.”

Bronfenbrenner said Friday’s outcome was also a mark of the difficulty of succeeding on the first try in such a large workplace.

“I think something important happened in this campaign, which is that we haven’t had a campaign that inspired so much solidarity from workers all over the world, from workers in other unions, more media coverage than we’ve seen,” she said.

“Amazon should not rest easy after this election,” she said, going on to claim that, “There will be a union in Bessemer. Not today, but there will be one.”

In a post-vote press conference, RWDSU and workers at the facility struck an optimistic note and affirmed their plans to defend their campaign. Apart from the objections the union intends to file, the workers and the union indicated plans to continue organizing efforts and build on the momentum of this drive. Workers who led the organizing efforts acknowledged the disappointment among coworkers anticipating a win as their drive garnered a national profile in recent months, but said they were not dissuaded by the outcome.

“Moving forward, I would say, keep the faith,” said Amazon worker Linda Burns. “We’re just gonna keep fighting. Just think of this as a test.”

“I’m proud of how they have laid the foundation,” RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said. “We’re not going away. This is the first phase of the campaign, and we’re going to stay engaged.”

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