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Union Alleges Interference in ‘Free and Fair’ Amazon Vote

As expected, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed objections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charging that Amazon interfered with the right of its Bessemer, Ala. warehouse employees to vote in a “free and fair” unionization election; a right protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

The union filed the complaint after the April 9 vote squashed the hope of unionizing at the Southern warehouse. While 1,798 employees opposed the union, only 738 votes in favor of joining—less than 15 percent of the 5,800 workers who had the option to vote.

Although RWDSU indicated last Friday it would file the objections in the wake of Jeff Bezos’ letter to shareholders, where he stated he wanted to make Amazon “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work” as executive chair, the union waited until Monday morning to officially confirm the filing.

The RWDSU filed 23 objections, which it believes both separately and cumulatively constitute grounds to set the election aside. The objections come with all sorts of accusations, with the union seeking to determine whether Amazon “created an atmosphere of confusion, coercion and/or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice” during the vote.

The complaint alleges that Amazon’s conduct undermined the board’s efforts to provide “a laboratory in which an experiment may be conducted, under conditions as nearly as ideal as possible, to determine the uninhibited desires of the employees.”

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In a video circulated on social media, RWDSU council president Randy Hadley claims Amazon “actually had the city to come out there and recalibrate the red lights so they can’t stop and chat with us,” though the City of Bessemer dismissed any link between changes to the traffic signals and anti-union activity.

Central to the objections was a mailbox installed in the warehouse parking lot, which gave off the appearance that Amazon was involved in the collection of votes (and the election itself) instead of the NLRB. Additionally, the mailbox may have created the impression of surveillance, as it was in full view of security cameras in the parking lot, which “could record the employees entering and exiting the tent erected around the collection box to cast ballots,” the union claims.

A chain of emails acquired by the RWDSU revealed that Amazon did ask USPS officials to expedite the installation of the box by Feb. 7, the day before voting began. While the USPS initially expressed reluctance, it ultimately installed a cluster box unit (CBU), not a normal blue mailbox, on the premises to collect ballots. The NLRB had already explicitly denied a request by Amazon to host in-person voting on its premises.

“Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one. They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers,” RWDSU president Stuart Applebaum said in a statement last week.

Applebaum’s statement covered a few more of the union’s accusations, saying that Amazon required all employees to attend lectures “filled with mistruths and lies, where workers had to listen to the company demand they oppose the union.” He also alleged that the e-commerce giant spread misinformation via social media and advertising, and even lied about union dues in a right-to-work state.

According to the RWDSU, Amazon pressured workers to bring their ballots to work and put them in the collection box rather than sending ballots by mail and removed workers who supported the union from mandatory captive-audience training sessions.

The e-commerce giant sent text messages to the Bessemer workers after the box was installed, urging them to vote against the union and to use the mailbox.

“Voting has begun! The US Postal Service has installed a secure mailbox just outside the BHM1 (Bessemer facility) main entrance, making mailing your ballot easy, safe, and convenient,” the text read. “Vote now! BE DONE BY 3/1!”

The box was removed shortly after voting ended.

One of the other major objections from the union against Amazon included threatening workplace layoffs and facility closure, in which the company sent multiple messages to workers unlawfully threatening loss of business at the facility if workers voted for the union, which would incur significant layoffs or a full facility shutdown.

Additionally, the RWDSU alleges that Amazon threatened workers with losing their pay rate, health insurance, time off and retirement benefits if the union was voted in, and even disciplined an “outspoken supporter of the union” after he challenged Amazon in mandatory meetings.

The NLRB’s regional director will likely schedule a hearing in the coming weeks to review the objections, where both sides can present evidence. Either major political party can appeal the regional director’s ruling to the NLRB in Washington. The board could order a new election, or if the board finds that the conduct was extraordinarily egregious, it could order Amazon to bargain with the union.

Although Bezos specifically said “it’s clear to me that we need a better vision for how we create value for employees,” in the shareholder letter, an Amazon blog post commenting on the union’s allegation ardently defended the position, noting that “Amazon didn’t win—our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union.”

Bessemer is only the second U.S. Amazon facility to hold a union vote. If it had been approved, the union would have been the biggest group to gain representation in a single NLRB election since 1991.

In total, the RWDSU represents 100,000 members throughout the U.S.