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Amazon illegally interfered with failed union vote, federal official says

An NLRB regional director says the vote at an Alabama facility must be redone. Amazon can appeal the decision.

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The RWDSU sought to represent workers at one Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama. The union lost, but a mailbox Amazon had installed on its premises led an NLRB official to throw out the election results.

Patrick T. Fallon / Getty Images

On Cyber Monday, a federal labor official threw out the results of a union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama. Amazon workers at the warehouse rejected union representation in April, but Monday's ruling orders that result be set aside and a new election be held, an unusual outcome in a union drive.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union sought to represent the workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in a vote-by-mail election that took place over several weeks. The union challenged the election results shortly after votes were counted, claiming Amazon had illegally interfered with the election process. 

After the National Labor Relations Board held hearings at its Region 10 headquarters in Atlanta, the hearing officer recommended in August that the election should be redone from scratch. As part of her 20-page ruling, Lisa Henderson, the regional director in Atlanta, agreed.

Henderson's decision hinged on a mailbox that Amazon had installed near the main entrance of the Bessemer, Alabama, facility near a tent with signs urging workers to vote. She held that Amazon had effectively installed its own ballot collection location against NLRB protocols and an explicit order she made in advance of the election refusing the company's request to host a collection box. Not only that, but Amazon had put its own election slogan, "Speak for yourself," on the outside of the tent and had placed the mailbox in view of multiple security cameras. 

Henderson wrote that the overall effect was to give the false impression that Amazon, and not the NLRB, was running the election, a violation of US labor law.

"The presence of security cameras at the front of the building facing the mailbox, along with the Employer's mass messaging campaign urging voters to use the mailbox, gave the impression that voters were expected and encouraged to vote under the watchful eye of the Employer," Henderson wrote.

Amazon can appeal the decision to the national level, where it would be reviewed by the federal agency's board. The second election will be planned even if a review is pending with the board, but the date and method of the new election haven't been set. 

In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel said the decision was disappointing and reiterated Amazon's stance that unions won't benefit its employees. The statement didn't address the union's complaints that Amazon broke labor laws leading up to the election.

"Every day, we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes -- quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle," the spokesperson said. "While we've made great progress in important areas like pay and safety, we know there are plenty of things that we can keep doing better, both in our fulfillment centers and in our corporate offices, and that's our focus -- to work directly with our employees to keep getting better every day."

In a statement, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum lauded the ruling.

"Today's decision confirms what we were saying all along -- that Amazon's intimidation and interference prevented workers from having a fair say in whether they wanted a union in their workplace -- and as the Regional Director has indicated, that is both unacceptable and illegal," Appelbaum said. "Amazon workers deserve to have a voice at work, which can only come from a union."

Here's Amazon's statement in full:

"Our employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union, and they overwhelmingly chose not to join the RWDSU earlier this year. It's disappointing that the NLRB has now decided that those votes shouldn't count. As a company, we don't think unions are the best answer for our employees. Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes—quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle. The benefits of direct relationships between managers and employees can't be overstated—these relationships allow every employee's voice to be heard, not just the voices of a select few. While we've made great progress in important areas like pay and safety, we know there are plenty of things that we can keep doing better, both in our fulfillment centers and in our corporate offices, and that's our focus—to work directly with our employees to keep getting better every day."

Here's the NLRB official's ruling.