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Amazon warehouse workers get to re-do their union vote in Alabama

The Amazon warehouse at the center of a high-profile unionization drive is seen on March 29 in Bessemer, Alabama.
Elijah Nouvelage
/
The Amazon warehouse at the center of a high-profile unionization drive is seen on March 29 in Bessemer, Alabama.

Updated November 29, 2021 at 4:37 PM ET

Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama are getting a new vote on whether to form the company's first unionized warehouse in the United States.

A U.S. labor board official is ordering a revote after an agency review found Amazon improperly pressured warehouse staff to vote against joining a union, tainting the original election enough to scrap its results. The decision was issued Monday by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board. Amazon is expected to appeal.

The news puts the warehouse in Bessemer, outside Birmingham, back in the spotlight as a harbinger of labor-organizing efforts at Amazon, which is now America's second-largest private employer with more than 950,000 employees.

The union drive is being led by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Its president, Stuart Appelbaum, hailed Monday's development:

"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."

Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, noted that employees at the warehouse overwhelmingly chose not to join the union in the previous vote. "It's disappointing that the NLRB has now decided that those votes shouldn't count. As a company, we don't think unions are the best answer for our employees."

During the first attempt in early 2021 — seen as the most consequential union election in recent history — Bessemer workers voted more than 2-to-1 against unionizing. It was a stinging defeat for the high-profile push to organize Amazon's U.S. workers after gaining nationwide support, including from President Biden, other politicians and celebrities.

That vote, tallied in April, was held by mail due to pandemic concerns. More than half the warehouse staff had cast ballots.

The union filed a legal challenge to the election, alleging that Amazon engaged in unfair labor practices. Amazon denied the charge. The NLRB held a hearing before the hearing officer last month recommended a do-over of the Bessemer election.

Amazon appealed the recommendation, saying it did not act illegally or intimidate workers and called on the agency and the union to accept the choice of the Bessemer workers. The union maintained that Amazon "cheated (and) got caught."

Unions are a prominent presence at Amazon in Europe, but the company has so far fought off labor-organizing efforts in the United States. The election in Bessemer was the first union vote since 2014. The Teamsters union has passed a resolution that would prioritize its Amazon unionization campaign.

In October, workers from a Staten Island warehouse cluster in New York petitioned federal officials for a union election but later withdrew the request.

Previously, the NLRB's hearing shed new light on Amazon's anti-union campaign during the Bessemer election. One warehouse staffer testified that during mandatory meetings at the facility, managers said the fulfillment center could shut down if the staff voted to unionize. Other workers said they were told that the union would waste their dues on fancy vacations and cars.

One key controversy had been over a new mailbox in the warehouse's private parking lot that Amazon said was installed by the U.S. Postal Service to make voting "convenient, safe and private." However, the mailbox's placement inside an Amazon tent right by the workplace prompted some employees to wonder whether the company was trying to monitor the vote.

U.S. Postal Service official Jay Smith, who works as a liaison for large clients like Amazon, testified that he was surprised to see the corporate-branded tent around the mailbox because the company appeared to have found a way around his explicit instructions to not place anything physically on the mailbox.

But Smith and other Postal Service officials also testified that no one at Amazon has been provided keys to access the outgoing mail or, in this case, election ballots. A pro-union Amazon worker told the hearing that he saw corporate security officers opening the mailbox.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

The Gulf States Newsroom's Stephan Bisaha contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.