With around half of the ballots counted on Thursday night, Amazon was in the lead in one of its Alabama warehouses in the historic union election.
Of the 3,215 ballots cast, 1,100 were against union formation and 463 were in support. The preliminary results put Amazon more than 2-1 ahead.
Counting will resume Friday when the National Labor Relations Board has more than a thousand ballots to count. There are also hundreds of controversial ballots, most of which have been challenged by Amazon.
Approximately 5,800 employees of the Bessemer camp, known as BHM1, were allowed to cast ballots to decide whether to join the retail, wholesale and department store union. Around 55% of eligible employees cast ballots in the elections.
The first day of the census ended with a depressed news for the union. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum called on the NLRB to investigate Amazon’s behavior during the election, including allegations that the U.S. Postal Service was wrongly pressured into installing a mailbox at the Bessemer facility.
“Our system is broken, Amazon has taken full advantage of it, and we will ask the labor authority to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and outrageous behavior during the campaign,” said Appelbaum. “But make no mistake. This is still an important moment for the working people and their voices are heard.”
In a statement, Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said the mailbox was installed to make voting easier.
“The RWDSU fought against this at every turn and pushed for a purely postal vote, which according to the NLRB would reduce voter turnout,” said Lighty. “This mailbox – which only the USPS had access to – was a simple, secure, and completely optional way of making it easier for employees to coordinate, no more, no less.”
Even after the votes have been counted, the election is far from over. Further legal challenges could be imminent as both sides of the NLRB can object to the behavior during the elections or appeal the decision to the NLRB board in Washington. These processes typically involve hearings before the NLRB, which would likely delay the election for many months.
The vote concludes months of intense campaigns from both Amazon and RWDSU. In November, workers at the Bessemer plant announced that they would hold a union election. Amazon initially tried to delay the vote and steadfastly opposed the union through a website, widespread flyers and text messages to employees, and mandatory meetings asking employees to “vote NO”.
RWDSU organizers were stationed outside the Bessemer plant every day, hoping to catch workers at the end of their shift to pledge support for the union. By mid-January, more than 3,000 facility staff signed cards authorizing RWDSU to represent them, although some have since left Amazon. Support for the campaign came from outside the state, including a critical endorsement from President Joe Biden who, without naming Amazon, deterred any employer interference in the election.
For many years, major unions such as the Teamsters, the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, and the RWDSU have been tacitly speaking to Amazon workers about the organization. You have long faced major challenges organizing Amazon employees in the US, where none of the company’s camps are unionized, while unions are common among Amazon employees in Europe.
The last major union vote at a U.S. Amazon plant was held at a warehouse in Delaware in 2014 when a group of repair technicians voted 21-6 against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
Amazon’s public profile has grown since then. Today, the company is the country’s second largest employer with 1.2 million employees worldwide. This has drawn attention to the Bessemer election, along with the hope that the campaign will boost organizing efforts across the country amid years of decline in union membership in the private sector.
Interest in organizing Amazon camps increased during the coronavirus pandemic. With the virus forcing many indoors, employees at Amazon and other companies continued to log on to work to provide vital services and shed light on working conditions in the warehouse.
Last spring, Amazon’s warehouse and delivery staff across the country pointed out, among other things, a lack of security measures for coronaviruses and insufficient sick leave. Some workers staged protests and strikes, as well as distributed online petitions that were scrutinized by lawmakers. Tensions between Amazon and some workers continued to build after it was alleged that it wrongly retaliated against and fired employees who were outspoken critics of its work practices.
BHM1 opened in March 2020 while Amazon was in the middle of a record hiring frenzy to meet a surge in online orders from coronavirus. Employees who supported the union had raised a number of concerns about working conditions, including: For example, the rapid pace of picking, packing and shipping items, and workers not having enough time to go to the bathroom.
“We first talked about unions one day during a break,” Jennifer Bates, a warehouse worker from Bessemer who contacted RWDSU last summer along with other staff, told a Senate committee last month. “People were upset that the breaks were too short and not given enough time to rest, that they were being humiliated for having to go through random security checks. Others didn’t like the fact that they never spoke to a manager, they just got Messages on an app or by text. “
Not all BHM1 employees saw the merits of having a union in their facility. During a round table hosted by Amazon last month, Ora McClendon, a Bessemer employee, said the union was inconsistent with “what we are doing here at BHM1”. Other workers who spoke at the round table said they were positive about working at Amazon and were skeptical about the impact a union would have on their work.
“I think my vote is no,” said McClendon. “We don’t need a union here. We’re doing very well, we have the greatest leadership. We work as a team and that’s very important here.”