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Amazon threatened layoffs, warehouse closure ahead of Alabama vote, union says

The RWDSU says the election results should be thrown out over Amazon's alleged threats, lies and other improper behavior. Amazon denies the charges.

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Amazon is accused of misleading and threatening employees before a union vote in Alabama earlier this month.

Patrick T. Fallon

Amazon improperly swayed the result of the recent union election at an Alabama warehouse, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union said in objections it filed over the weekend to the National Labor Relations Board. The union seeks to have the election results thrown out after it lost the vote by a ratio of more than 2-to-1, a result that the Labor Board announced April 9.

The union alleges that Amazon threatened employees with mass layoffs or the shutdown of the warehouse, which pays a starting wage that's nearly double the state's minimum wage. The objections also claim Amazon created a ballot collection box on its premises in violation of an order from the Labor Board. The box, installed by the US Postal Service at Amazon's request, is a metal cabinet with slots leading to locked drawers, not a big blue mailbox. The union claims that Amazon put a tent around the mailbox to make it look like a voting booth and posted its "central campaign message" near the box.

Amazon, the union said in its objection, "created the impression that the collection box was a polling location and that the employer had control over the conduct of the mail ballot election," all of which would be illegal under federal labor law.

In response to a request for comment, Amazon referred CNET to its blog post from April 9, the day the election results came in. 

"It's easy to predict the union will say that Amazon won this election because we intimidated employees, but that's not true," the company said. "Our employees heard far more anti-Amazon messages from the union, policymakers, and media outlets than they heard from us. And Amazon didn't win — our employees made the choice to vote against joining a union."

The objections come a week after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos committed the company to becoming the best employer on earth. In his annual letter to shareholders, Bezos denied claims that warehouse workers are subjected to unmeetable demands but acknowledged the company needs a "new vision" for the success of its employees. He also announced the company would start a program to rotate job tasks to help avoid strains and sprains.

Despite its victory over the union, Amazon remains under scrutiny for its labor practices. The NLRB has reportedly received at least 37 complaints of retaliation in the form of discipline or firing from employees who organized walkouts or protested working conditions. What's more, it's the subject of a lawsuit over wages and hours at a Northern California warehouse, and a discrimination and harassment lawsuit from a Black corporate employee in Seattle who says she was denied promotions and harassed based on her gender and race.

Read More: Amazon avoids a union in Alabama, but scrutiny over labor practices is here to stay

Amazon committed last week to investigating any statistical inequalities in performance reviews and attrition in its corporate ranks, and said it would make any needed changes. A group of Harvard Business School alumni, faculty and students called the commitments inadequate in an open letter to Bezos and incoming CEO Andy Jassy, demanding more specific policy changes that would alter hiring and promotion practices.

In its objections Friday, the RWDSU said Amazon created the impression it was surveilling the polling place with the cameras it has placed in the parking lot. The company also asked city officials to change the length of a traffic light, which the union claims was meant to make it harder for union advocates to talk with workers as they were driving away from shifts at the warehouse. 

Amazon says only the USPS had access to the mailbox, and that the traffic light was altered to address changes in traffic flow at the warehouse.

The RWDSU must back up its claims with evidence, and if the objections pass an initial review, the NLRB will consider them in litigation that could take weeks to resolve. If the Labor Board throws out the election result, the most likely next step would be to re-run the election.