Amazon union-vote rerun advised
A federal official has recommended overturning the results of a union election at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Alabama, giving the retail union an opportunity to reverse its defeat, according to people familiar with the matter.
After losing the election in April, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union appealed the outcome to the National Labor Relations Board, setting in motion a contentious hearing in May that was presided over by board hearing officer Kerstin Myers.
The defeat had been seen as a major setback for union organizers, who have struggled to make significant inroads among workers at the e-commerce giant.
But now, Myers has recommended the election be run again, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the recommendation isn’t yet public. The recommendation will be considered by a labor board regional director, and Amazon has the right to appeal the ruling to a board panel in Washington. If a new election is called, it could happen later this year.
Myers’s recommendation means “there’s a strong likelihood” of a new election, said former board member Wilma Liebman, who chaired the agency under President Barack Obama. Regional directors usually adopt the recommendations of hearing officers in such cases, Liebman said, and this case’s high profile could make the regional director that much more hesitant to overrule Myers.
The union campaign at the warehouse, which had more than 5,000 eligible workers, was the highest-profile domestic organizing effort so far at Amazon, which has a history of aggressively deterring worker activism.
The union has accused Amazon of making anti-union threats, firing an employee for distributing union cards and pressuring workers to cast their votes in a mailbox the company had installed in a tent on its property, in view of surveillance cameras. Amazon denied any wrongdoing.
The union also contended that Amazon consultants and managers had illegally asked workers how they intended to vote. It said the company took several measures — such as increasing pay and giving away merchandise — to defuse pressure for a union. It is illegal to begin to take such steps once a union campaign is underway.
MAILBOX THE KEY
Myers’ recommendation centers on the mailbox, according to one of the people familiar with it. During the board hearing, an employee said Amazon security guards used keys to open the mailbox, testimony that Liebman said could be reason enough to overturn the result. Amazon has said that it had no access to the outgoing mail, and that it asked the Postal Service to install the mailbox to increase voter turnout in the union election.
The labor board has the authority to invalidate election results in response to conduct that could have changed the outcome and prevented employees from making a free choice about whether to unionize, which can include even creating the impression of surveillance or interference by management in the balloting process.
Stuart Appelbaum, the union president, said the union presented “compelling evidence” that the e-commerce company sought to interfere in the election.
“The question of whether or not to have a union is supposed to be the workers’ decision and not the employer’s,” Appelbaum said Monday in a statement. “Amazon cheated, they got caught, and they are being held accountable.”
Amazon vowed to appeal. “Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate, and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers and the company,” an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement. “Their voice should be heard above all else, and we plan to appeal to ensure that happens.”
The board in Washington, which would hear any appeal of the regional director’s ruling, will become majority Democratic starting later this month, once the term of one of President Donald Trump‘s appointees expires and he’s replaced by one of President Joe Biden‘s. That makes the union that much more likely to get the new election it’s seeking, Liebman said. “The timing is pretty good for them,” she said.
The ruling is a blow for Amazon, but there’s no guarantee the union will prevail a second time round. While the pandemic hampered the union’s first campaign, membership was a tougher sell in Bessemer, Ala., than in larger cities. Amazon‘s starting wage of $15 an hour goes a lot further in Bessemer than in more expensive places. The company also provides health benefits not offered by many local employers.
Moreover, Amazon can be expected to wage as fierce a campaign as it did last time — holding mandatory “information sessions” with employees, where managers argue that a union won’t necessarily improve wages and benefits. Such direct appeals likely helped the company win handily last time. Of the more than 3,000 ballots cast, Amazon garnered 1,798 no votes to 738 yes votes in favor of the union. While federal officials set aside 505 contested ballots — most of them disputed by Amazon, according to the union– there weren’t enough to change the result.
It is not clear whether the union would improve its showing if the election were rerun. Labor law allows companies to hold frequent mandatory anti-union meetings, and Appelbaum, the retail workers’ president, has said that high turnover at the warehouse was a significant obstacle to the union campaign.
Information for this article was contributed by Spencer Soper, Matt Day and Josh Eidelson of Bloomberg News (WPNS) and by Noam Scheiber of The New York Times.