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Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama vote for second time in union effort

Last year, Alabama workers voted against forming the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the U.S. Then, federal labor officials said Amazon unfairly influenced that election. Now, a re-vote begins.

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A retail union representative holds a sign by the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., during the first union election in March 2021.
A retail union representative holds a sign by the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., during the first union election in March 2021. Elijah Nouvelage | Getty Images

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama are set to vote for a second time on whether to unionize. A yes vote would be groundbreaking, creating the company's first unionized warehouse in the United States.

Ballots will go out on Friday to more than 6,100 workers at the warehouse in Bessemer, outside Birmingham. They will vote by mail due to the pandemic, and the count is scheduled to start March 28.

The re-vote is a dramatic new chapter in one of the biggest union efforts at Amazon, which has grown into the country's second-largest private employer. It is the second attempt by Bessemer workers, who last spring decisively rejected unionization. They now get to try again after a federal ruling found Amazon unfairly influenced the first election.

"That loss is making us motivated to win even more," Bessemer worker Kristina Bell told reporters on a call organized by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which vies to represent Amazon workers.

A few things have changed since last year's election.

Nationwide, the Great Resignation wave swept the economy, punctuated by high-profile strikes and labor campaigns. Among them, Starbucks workers unionized at two locations in New York, prompting union petitions from over 50 other stores across 19 states.

At Amazon, workers at two more warehouses in New York are petitioning for a union. Organizers at one of them have already gathered enough signatures to get a union vote. The push is led by a fledgling labor group of current and former employees, unaffiliated with any professional union.

At the Bessemer warehouse, high turnover means nearly half of the workers will be voting on unionization for the first time. Pro-union workers hope this means a new outcome after last year's landslide loss, in which 71% of voters opposed unionization. Hundreds of employees did not vote in the original election.

Union supporters at the Bessemer warehouse say they now have a much bigger organizing effort, wearing union T-shirts at work, knocking on doors, speaking out more at Amazon's mandatory "information sessions" about unions and staging counter-sessions.

Amazon has fought the union, arguing it isn't necessary.

The company now employs 1.1 million people in the U.S., most of them sorting, picking and packing in the company's vast warehouses. Amazon's minimum wage remains $15 an hour, but during last year's big hiring push, Amazon said its average starting wage topped $18 an hour. The company touts its health and education benefits.

An aerial image shows Amazon's Bessemer warehouse, where more than 6,100 workers are deciding whether to unionize.
An aerial image shows Amazon's Bessemer warehouse, where more than 6,100 workers are deciding whether to unionize. Patrick T. Fallon | AFP via Getty Images

"Our employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union, and our focus remains on working directly with our team to make Amazon a great place to work," Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said in a statement.

Under mounting scrutiny for its worker policies, Amazon in December reached a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board aimed at making it easier for employees to organize. The deal required Amazon to notify hundreds of thousands of workers about their labor rights.

The company faces several charges of unfair labor practices, which the company rejects. Most recently, a pro-union worker in Bessemer has accused Amazon of surveilling him and giving him a warning over his organizing work. At the Staten Island warehouse, the NLRB itself has accused Amazon of illegally threatening, interrogating and surveilling workers.

The Bessemer union push has garnered nationwide attention.

At first, the labor organizing appeared to take Amazon by surprise. Historically, unions are a tough sell in Southern states such as Alabama.

Only months after Amazon's warehouse opened in Bessemer, some workers quietly reached out to the retail union. The pandemic was fast spreading and shoppers increasingly turned to Amazon. Workers described grueling productivity quotas and wanted more say in how employees at the company work, get disciplined or get fired.

The Bessemer union vote became Amazon's first since 2014, when a small group of Delaware workers voted against unionizing. At a time when the U.S. union membership is at historic lows, the high-profile campaign at a booming major employer drew big-name supporters: President Biden, Sen. Marco Rubio, actor Danny Glover and other politicians and celebrities.

But a unionization effort targeting thousands of workers in a workplace with rapid turnover run by one of the world's most valuable and staunchly anti-union corporations could take years and multiple elections, labor experts said.

"To win an NLRB election is kind of like a marathon in a minefield for union supporters," said John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. "It takes an incredible length of time."

One unexpected controversy has been about a mailbox.

When the NLRB ordered a re-do of the Bessemer union election, the officials ruled that Amazon's anti-union campaign tainted the results. One key reason had to do with a mailbox that the U.S. Postal Service installed in the warehouse parking lot at Amazon's request.

By doing that, Amazon "essentially highjacked" the election, the NLRB's order said. Though the company argued its intent was to make voting convenient, workers testified that a mailbox inside an Amazon tent next to their highly surveilled workplace made them feel that their employer was monitoring the vote.

The NLRB directed the USPS to move the mailbox to "a neutral location" on Amazon's property, and it got placed farther from the building in a different parking area. Last week, the union asked the NLRB to remove the mailbox altogether, arguing no Amazon property could be neutral.

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

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A possible Amazon union is on the ballot again in the state of Alabama. Warehouse workers there are going to vote for a second time on whether to unionize. We should note Amazon is among NPR's sponsors, but we cover it like any other company. NPR's Alina Selyukh is here to talk more about this. Good morning, Alina.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello, hello.

MARTIN: So this already happened. I mean, last year, there was a vote at this same warehouse. The union lost. Why are they voting again?

SELYUKH: Right. So this is a massive warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., with over 60,00 workers. And you're right. Last year, workers there overwhelmingly rejected the union. Almost three-quarters of voters said no to unionizing. But that vote was scrapped. The Federal Labor Board later ruled that Amazon, quote, "essentially hijacked" the election by having the U.S. Postal Service install a mailbox right by the warehouse. Amazon put its own tent over it. Workers said they felt the company controlled and monitored their voting. And the labor board ordered a redo, a new mail-in election, which begins today. It's a new chapter in labor's effort to create Amazon's first unionized warehouse in the U.S.

MARTIN: Wow. What else, if anything, has changed since the last time they voted?

SELYUKH: Well, sure. The warehouse itself has seen huge turnover. For roughly half the workers, this will actually be the first time voting on a union because they got hired in the past year. So the new vote is not exactly a replay. It's more of a remix. Pro-union workers like Kristina Bell, of course, hope this also means a different outcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KRISTINA BELL: The loss was a blessing because guess what? It's making us motivated to win even more.

SELYUKH: Bell spoke on a press call by the retail union that's helping workers organize. And she pointed out there were hundreds of workers who simply did not vote last time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BELL: After we lost that vote, you how many people said, I should have voted? So it's a lot of mind changing.

SELYUKH: Pro-union workers also say this time, their organizing group is much bigger. They're a lot more outspoken and engaged.

MARTIN: All right. So that's what the pro-union workers are doing differently. What about Amazon? Has the company changed its approach to the unionizing effort?

SELYUKH: You know, not much. It's still opposes unionization. Bessemer workers still got mandatory information sessions arguing unions were not necessary. Amazon touts its benefits, its average starting pay of $18 an hour. But Amazon is also under escalating scrutiny for its anti-union activity. The company recently had to agree to a deal with federal labor officials that required changes to how pro-union workers are treated. Amazon also had to notify hundreds of thousands of workers about their labor rights. And, of course, another big development is now there are two more Amazon warehouses that are pursuing a union vote. And both of them are in New York.

MARTIN: I mean, there has been a lot of activity in the world of organized labor this past year...

SELYUKH: Indeed.

MARTIN: ...Hasn't there? - strikes and walkouts. Some Starbucks workers have unionized, right?

SELYUKH: Yes, two Starbucks stores in New York voted to unionize. And now we're looking at over 50 more that are petitioning for union elections. At the same time, you know, union membership in this country is at historic lows. And generally, large union campaigns like we're watching here with Amazon - they can take years and multiple elections. At Amazon, union organizers are going into really giant workplaces with huge turnover and an anti-union employer that's one of the world's most valuable companies.

MARTIN: NPR's Alina Selyukh, thank you so much.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.