Contentious Union Vote at Amazon Heads to a Count

Status – By the end of Monday, thousands of yellow envelopes sent to a squat brick building in Birmingham, Ala., Will hold the fate of one of the most closely watched union elections in recent history, which could change Labor’s size . Movement and one of America’s largest employers.

Envelope workers have ballots in an Amazon warehouse near Birmingham. About 6,000 employees on the building, which is Amazon’s largest, are eligible to decide if they form the first union in the Amazon operation in the United States after years of furious resistance by the company.

The organizers have made a case in a month-long campaign that Amazon workers’ intensive monitoring violates their dignity, and that the continued pressure to produce workers is not commensurate with its pay. The union estimates that about 85 percent of the work force in the warehouse is black and linked the event to the struggle for racial justice.

Amazon has countered that its $ 15 minimum wage is twice the state minimum, and it offers health insurance and other benefits that can be difficult to find in low-paid jobs.

“Even the fact that the vote is taking place is a referendum on the so-called future of the work,” said researcher Beth Gutlius, who studies the warehousing industry.

Whatever the outcome of the vote – perhaps not known for days – the union drive has already been successful in illuminating the world’s largest e-commerce company and exposing complaints about its labor practices. The vote comes at a fragile time for the company, which faces increasing scrutiny in Washington and around the world for its market power and influence, which grew during the epidemic as consumers flocked online to avoid shops. President Biden, as many progressive leaders, has indicated his support for the workers.

If the retail, wholesale and department store union succeeds, it will be a major victory for the labor movement, whose membership has declined for decades. A victory would also make it a penetration inside the country’s second largest private employer. The company has 950,000 employees in the United States alone, up from 400,000 in the previous year.

If the union loses, especially by a large margin, Amazon would have turned the tide on a unionization drive that seemed to have many winds behind it. A loss could force labor organizers to rethink their overall strategy and convince Amazon that its approach is working.

The union drive has captured national attention partly due to the nation’s focus on the epidemic and racial disparities highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont said, “Obviously, we want to win when he visits Alabama.” But I think a major point has already been proved. And that is that Labor, even That even in the Deep South, they are ready to stand up and fight for justice. ”

Bessemer, Ala. In, Black Lives Matter paid for a pro-union radio spot broadcast to a local R&B station, while the warehouse is crowded with signs at each intersection. “Bama is your back!” Vote union! “One read. The huge building was wrapped in a sky blue banner, called “VOTE”. On Friday, an Amazon employee drove a golf cart around the parking lot to shut down the news media.

The union’s victory “could change the labor movement, because we have a change in those who work, who are union members,” said Sarah Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, who visited Bessemer this month and gave him a heavy be felt. Local support for the union.

But if workers vote against the union, Ms. Nelson said, the result would be “very disastrous.” Ms. Nelson said “people will have a hard time believing what they are experiencing on the ground.”

Mr. Sanders’ journey struck a nerve with Amazon. After he announced the trip, Dave Clark, who operates Amazon and runs a worldwide consumer business, attacked Mr. Sanders in a series of messages on Twitter, as did the company’s official social media account. “I often say that we are Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not true at all because we really give a progressive workplace,” Mr. Clarke wrote in a tweet.

Amazon has said that it does not believe the union represents most of its workers. It refused to predict what would happen after the vote.

Union president Stuart Appelbaum said in a statement, “Even though we have no idea how the vote will turn out, we believe we have opened the door to more events across the country.” “And we have exposed the lengths by which employers will try to unite their employees, who are trying to gain the voice of the union – this campaign has become a prime example of what we need to do in this country. Why improvement is needed. “

The effort of unionization came together quickly, especially for such a big goal. Workers at Bessemer’s building contacted the local branch of the retail workers’ union last summer. In October, organizers started showing up at the warehouse daily, trying to talk with workers amid shifts.

By the end of December, more than 2,000 activists had signed cards indicating they wanted the election. The Labor Board determined that that figure showed enough interest to hold a vote.

Amazon wanted the vote to be in person, as is typical, but the National Labor Relations Board found that the epidemic made it too risky and ordered a mail-in election.

The ballots were mailed to workers in early February and must be signed and received by the Labor Board at the Birmingham office by the end of Monday.

On Tuesday, the counting of votes begins – a process that can take several days.

First, a staff member in the Labor Board would read the workers’ names, without opening an internal envelope with the actual ballot. Representatives of the union and Amazon will be on a private video conference. As each name is read, they will check the names of the workers against the list of employees, and if both parties oppose whether that worker was eligible to vote, that ballot will be set aside. . The person is also expected to have a representative from each party to oversee the process.

After both parties have an opportunity to register their objections about eligibility, the NLRB will begin counting ballots unopposed. After every 100 votes, the Labor Board will re-count those ballots, until all the votes have been counted. This section will be open to journalists on the video conference line.

If there are more election ballots than uncontested, there is a possibility of legal arguments by the union and Amazon on the eligibility of each contested ballot. Each party has about a week to make its case before the NLRB certifies the vote.

Either side can contest whether the vote was conducted impartially. For example, the union could argue that the company took steps to vote improperly, potentially fearing retaliation to workers if they supported the event.

If the union prevails, workers fear that the company may close the warehouse. Amazon has backed away from places that brought it headaches earlier. In 2000, it closed a customer service office, trying to unionize, saying that it was a result of the restructuring. this Construction stopped On an office tower when Seattle wanted to tax the company, and Plans supported To build a second headquarters in New York City after facing progressive opposition.

But the company has committed more than $ 360 million in leases and equipment for the Bessemer warehouse, and the closure of a major black work force vote could publicly backfire, said Mark Wolfrat, a logistics consultant who Tracks the company closely.

Regardless of the outcome, Mr. Wolfrat said the election is a sign Amazon has to work with. “For most companies that end up with organizing labor in some capacity,” he said, “it didn’t come about because they were doing a wonderful job of managing people.”

If Union loses, Amazon will lose at least one customer: Michael Render, who goes by Killer Mike. Appearing with Mr. Sanders on Friday, he said, “If this situation does not happen, if these conditions do not improve, I will not order from Amazon again.”

Sonam Vashi contributed reporting from Bessemer, Ala.

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