This is a follow-up article to one printed on November 8, 2021 about allegations made against Amazon regarding unfair intimidation and ballot solicitation aimed at their largely Black workforce in Bessemer, Alabama prior to a union election; and how it echoed the historical attempts in the South to restrict Black citizens from voting. You can read that article here.
The Bessemer warehouse workers of Amazon have another chance to unionize after a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer called for a new election. In August, it was ruled that Amazon’s Ballot Solicitation, Electioneering, Polling, and Surveillance was enough to impede on the employees’ rights to a free and fair election. This corroborated what the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) and warehouse employees had been asserting the entire election process, “Today’s decision confirmed 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. Amazon workers deserve to have a voice at work which can only come from a union,” says Stuart Appelbaum, President of RWDSU.
One of the most egregious acts Amazon was found guilty for was the USPS mailbox they had installed on the property. In the hearing, a USPS official testified that he informed Amazon they could not put any anti-union propaganda, or anything indicating the vote, on the mailbox. This would have suggested that Amazon owned the mailbox and had access to the ballots. However, the corporation did just that and surrounded the USPS box with a tent clad with “speak for yourself, vote here.” There were also multiple visible cameras throughout the parking lot; the NLRB ruled that the workers had reasonable suspicion they were being observed by Amazon. Other offenses included placing “vote no” paraphernalia (buttons, car tags) on a table during captive audience meetings, offering them to employees. With the table visible to HR representatives, it coerced the employees to make a choice in front of management: do they side with Amazon or the union? This polling tactic is illegal and was found to be so by the NLRB official. These two offenses lead the official to recommend a new election be held, “By causing the Postal Service to install a cluster mailbox unit, communicating and encouraging employees to cast their ballots using the mailbox, wrapping the mailbox with its slogan, and placing the mailbox at a location where employees could reasonably believe they were being surveilled, the Employer engaged in objectionable conduct that warrants setting aside the election,” the hearing officer wrote in the order directing a new election.
This is a huge victory for the warehouse workers filing with the RWDSU, as Amazon’s illegal union-busting tactics resulted in a dismal voting result with more than 2 to 1 employees voting no. Other challenges facing the union in this upcoming election include the staggering turnover rate of 150% at the Amazon facility; even before the pandemic. It is extremely difficult for a union to organize workers when working conditions drive them out after a month of employment. Amazon plans for this in their business model though, even with working conditions driving out masses of workers, they know there will always be people desperate enough to replace them. With a comparatively higher wage than most job prospects in poverty stricken Bessemer, in part due to pressure from Senator Bernie Sanders urging CEO Jeff Bezos to raise wages, workers can be coerced into being scared to lose what they have. Although it is illegal to threaten employees with adverse consequences, such as closing of the workplace or loss of benefits due to the union, multiple Bessemer employees testified being threatened that “with a union, everything is on the table.” Families struggling to get by don’t want to risk losing their benefits by supporting a union, though it would not be legal for Amazon to take them away.
More and more people are turning their eyes to the Bessemer union drive as reports of workers dying in Amazon facilities roll in more frequently. On December 10, at a warehouse in Illinois, six Amazon drivers were killed as the building collapsed due to a tornado. A driver posted screenshots of their conversation with a dispatcher as they were told the tornado sirens “were just a warning” and that returning to the warehouse with packages would be seen as a route refusal, resulting in job termination. Last month, two Amazon employees reportedly died within hours of each other at the Bessemer warehouse. One man suffered a stroke as his request to go home was denied and, according to employees, managers instructed them to keep working. “There’s no shutdown, there’s no moment of silence, there’s no time to sit and have a prayer. A couple of people that worked directly with him or knew him good was badly shaken up. A couple of them wanted to go home and were not allowed to go home,” Amazon worker Perry Connelly told More Perfect Union. “You’re a body. Once that body is used up they will just bring somebody else in and do the work”.
The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union believe workers should not have to lay down their lives to pack and deliver people’s online shopping. Organizers are gearing up for another hard fought battle for the hearts and minds of the workers ahead of the upcoming redo election scheduled to start on February 4, 2022. Surely, Amazon will not let up their union busting activity so union supporters will surely contend with more captive audience meetings, anti-union propaganda, following the workers into bathroom stalls, and any other tactics hired consultants from the Morgan Lewis law firm throw at them. With a growing surge in union activity and the fight for labor rights in the United States, American workers will be watching Bessemer, Alabama closely.
Allie Ophardt is from Phoenix, Arizona, currently residing in Portland, Maine, and is minoring in creative writing.