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Redo the Amazon union election in Alabama, NLRB official recommends

The findings aren't final, and Amazon plans to appeal.

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The NLRB hearing officer took issue with a mailbox Amazon had installed on its premises, saying it interfered with the "laboratory conditions" required for the union election.
SOPA Images/Getty Images

The results of a historic union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama should be set aside, a hearing officer from the National Labor Board Relations said in recommendations. The findings address complaints from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union alleging the company misled and threatened workers in violation of federal labor law. The union sought to represent thousands of workers at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, but lost by a ratio of more than 2-to-1 in April.

Both parties have the opportunity to file exceptions to the findings before the regional director makes a decision. The decision can then be appealed to the national labor board, where a panel of commissioners could rule on the case.

The hearing officer said the RWDSU's objections should be sustained in part and recommended a second election be held. Specifically, Amazon's move to have the US Postal Service install a generic mailbox outside the Alabama fulfillment center usurped the NLRB's role in administering the election and interfered with the conditions necessary for a fair election, according to the hearing officer's report, which the NLRB released Tuesday.

"Notwithstanding the union's substantial margin of defeat, the employer's unilateral decision to create, for all intents and purposes, an onsite collection box for NLRB ballots destroyed the laboratory conditions and justifies a second election," said hearing officer Kerstin Meyers in her recommendations.

Amazon said it plans to appeal. 

"Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers and the company," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. "Their voice should be heard above all else and we plan to appeal to ensure that happens."

"The question of whether or not to have a union is supposed to be the workers' decision and not the employer's," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU. "Amazon's behavior throughout the election process was despicable."

The recommendation comes as Amazon faces increasing scrutiny for its treatment of workers. The NLRB has also reportedly considered investigating the company for allegedly firing and disciplining workers who organize protests and walkouts, activities that are protected under federal labor law. 

Amazon has also been sued by a group of corporate and logistics employees who allege the company engaged in discrimination and harassment based on race and gender. Warehouse workers have repeatedly sued to get wages for time they were required to wait in lines or spent walking to distant break rooms. So far, Amazon has prevailed in court against federal wage claims. 

Working conditions for drivers at subcontracted "delivery service partners" have also raised concerns, including drivers peeing into bottles, struggling to park and facing a discipline system they say doesn't take their side of the story into account.

The RWDSU complained that Amazon broke federal labor law in the lead-up to the Alabama election, which had the potential to create the e-commerce giant's first unionized workforce in the US. Lawyers for the union said Amazon unlawfully threatened to lay people off and close the warehouse. 

The union took particular issue with the mailbox Amazon had the USPS install on its premises outside the warehouse, saying the company turned it into an ad hoc voting booth with a tent surrounding it on three sides and banners urging workers to vote. Meyers, the NLRB official, said the booth was directly underneath a surveillance camera operated by Amazon. The mailbox was a metal cabinet with several slots rather than a standard blue box with a USPS logo on it. The union argued it gave the impression that Amazon was involved in collecting ballots, which could have affected the vote. 

During the hearing over the union's complaints overseen by Meyers, a worker testified that he'd seen Amazon workers access the mailbox. Amazon countered that it had access only to compartments that contained incoming mail addressed to the company. Additionally, Meyers determined that the worker's testimony was not credible for numerous reasons, including that he couldn't have seen anyone accessing the mailbox from where he said he was watching.