Amazon warehouse worker union vote will go forward in Alabama

The National Labor Relations Board denies Amazon's requests to stay the election and to appeal a decision that OK'd a by-mail vote.

Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala
Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
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Laura Hautala
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Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, will receive ballots in the mail next week for a union election. The vote, which Amazon sought to delay while it fought for the vote to take place in person, will be the first union election at a US Amazon warehouse since a failed effort in 2014. It'll also be the largest US group of Amazon workers to vote on the question, at around 5,800 people.

The election, which will determine whether the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union can represent the warehouse workers, is taking place by mail due to concerns over large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. Amazon sought to have the vote take place in person, and tried to appeal a decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board that said it could take place by mail. In a decision Friday, the NLRB denied the request to appeal, which made the company's request to stay the election moot.

"Today's decision proves that it's long past time that Amazon start respecting its own employees," said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum, adding that Amazon should "allow them to cast their votes without intimidation and interference."

Amazon spokesperson Owen Torres said in a statement that the company believes an in-person election will allow the most people to vote. The company proposed a safe process for workers to vote at work, which Torres said was validated by COVID-19 experts.

"Our goal is for as many of our employees as possible to vote and we're disappointed by the decision by the NLRB not to provide the most fair and effective format to achieve maximum employee participation," Torres said. "We will continue to insist on measures for a fair election that allows for a majority of our employee voices to be heard."

The election comes just after Amazon posted enormous profits in the final quarter of 2020 and announced that Jeff Bezos will hand the role of CEO over to longtime Amazon executive Andy Jassy. Though the company has long faced scrutiny over its treatment of warehouse and delivery workers, other unionizing efforts haven't succeeded. In 2014, Delaware Amazon warehouse workers voted against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Other efforts, like one at a Staten Island warehouse, haven't brought about elections.

According to the NRLB decision, Amazon reported that 2.88% of its workers have COVID-19, which is lower than the surrounding county's 14-day average for positive test rates. Still, a panel of judges at the NLRB said worker safety concerns made mail-in ballots a better solution. The ballots will go out in the mail Monday and must be returned to the NLRB's regional headquarters in Atlanta by March 29. The NLRB will start counting the votes on March 30.

The Bessemer warehouse opened in March 2020, with Amazon offering $15 an hour to thousands of new employees over the coming months. The town of Bessemer is historically the site of steel manufacturing and is named after an inventor who created the first industrial process for making affordable steel.

According to RWDSU Communications Director Chelsea Connor, Amazon workers reached out to the union after going through their first Prime Day in July, when it was "hot as hell." The pro-union workers want to improve workplace safety and create a grievance process to deal with discipline from management, she said.