New Amazon union election in Alabama set to begin Feb. 4 with mail-in ballots

The company didn't object to a second organizing drive at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
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Laura Hautala
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Amazon could still make a legal challenge against the second union vote at its Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse, but the vote will go forward regardless.

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A new election at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, will start on Feb. 4, the National Labor Relations Board announced Tuesday. Just as with last year's election, the voting will take place by mail over the course of several weeks. Votes will be counted on March 28.

The first election, which rejected the union, was thrown out by an NLRB official who found Amazon illegally interfered with the process. Amazon  had a chance to try to stop a new union election -- but it didn't. That doesn't mean, however, that the election this year will be easy for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Sale Union to win. 

It's unlikely that Amazon, which has long warned against unionization of its hundreds of US facilities, has grown fonder of organized labor, experts say. Instead, Amazon is more likely treading carefully as part of a deliberate strategy to manage its reputation and avoid coming across as the heavy preventing a vote. 

Labor researchers say Amazon has little to lose. Workers in Alabama last year rejected unionizing by a margin of more than 2-to-1, suggesting that another loss for the union is a distinct possibility. If workers instead side with the RWDSU, Amazon has a nifty fallback option: it can appeal the call for a new election even after the votes are counted.  

Given the union's punishing defeat, Amazon can expect a similar outcome without engaging in tactics the NLRB found illegal, says Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor relations at Rutgers University. The reason is that labor law allows employers to run intensive anti-union campaigns at the workplace, including mandatory training sessions.

"They likely feel quite confident in that strategy," Givan said.

Amazon's approach to the new union vote in Alabama comes as the online retail giant finds itself caught in the crosshairs of regulators, workers and other retailers. The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly investigating a proposed merger with MGM, as well as looking into the larger question of whether Amazon is an illegal monopoly. Legislators have criticized the company for working conditions at its warehouses and delivery services, which have been characterized as exploitative. Other retailers have complained that Amazon boxes out their products in favor of its own, while the website deals with a steady tide of fake reviews used to game its algorithms. 

The company's new strategy comes after a settlement with the NLRB, in which Amazon agreed to tell employees it won't interfere with their right to unionize. It also promised to rescind a rule that barred workers from staying in non-work areas of Amazon facilities for more than 15 minutes before or after a shift, a rule that was seen by critics as an attempt to stop workers from discussing unionization. 

Amazon has previously said it was disappointed the NLRB threw out the votes from last year, and that the company doesn't think unions are "the best answer" for its employees. On Tuesday, a company spokesperson reiterated Amazon's earlier statements on the union drive. 

"Our employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union, and they overwhelmingly chose not to join the RWDSU last year," said Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait. "We look forward to our team in [the Bessemer warehouse] having their voices heard again."

The union issued a statement Tuesday criticizing the NLRB's plan for the second election, saying the agency hasn't done enough to prevent Amazon from engaging in the same illegal interference as the first time around. 

"We are deeply concerned that the decision fails to adequately prevent Amazon from continuing its objectionable behavior in a new election," the union said in its statement. "We proposed to the NLRB a number of remedies that could have made the process fairer to workers, which were not taken up in the Notice of Election issued today. Workers' voices can and must be heard fairly, unencumbered by Amazon's limitless power to control what must be a fair and free election, and we will continue to hold them accountable for their actions."

An RWDSU spokesperson didn't immediately respond to follow-up questions about what changes the union suggested to the NLRB for the second election.

Amazon's image is particularly important right now, when workers have more options because of the tight labor market, says Kirthi Kalyanam, who directs the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University. Unemployment was at 4.2% in November, and there are about 6 million fewer people in the job market now than at the start of the pandemic, giving employers fewer people to hire. 

Instead of fighting the union with legal challenges, it makes more sense for Amazon to win workers over by offering pay raises and increased benefits, Kalyanam says. Amazon has already been rolling out pay hikes, benefits and education for employees, a pitch it makes in a television commercial that sees heavy air time. 

"If a company does a good job of addressing those needs, unionization should be a moot point," Kalyanam said.

Andrew MacDonald, a labor lawyer at Fox Rothschild who represents employers, says that by allowing the new election to go forward, the company avoids the appearance of quashing the vote.

"Why be seen as slowing the process down?" said MacDonald, who isn't involved in the case.

The union faces the same steep odds it took on in the first election, when Amazon reportedly hired an anti-union consultant and installed what the NLRB said amounted to a voting booth in violation of the agency's orders. Though Amazon can't use its mailbox tactic again, it can still require employees to attend anti-union training sessions. The company is also free to hire anti-union consultants again.

Adding to the obstacles to a win for the union, there will likely be a large group of new employees to win over this time around, given how frequently workers cycle in and out of Amazon's warehouse jobs.

In any case, it seems like Amazon likes its odds in the new election, says MacDonald. 

"Strategically, it could just be, 'We think we're going to win the election again,'" he said, adding, "'Go ahead and have it.'"