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At an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, a milestone union election is set to begin all over again

<i>Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>A milestone union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is set to begin all over again. Pictured is the  Amazon BHM1 fulfillment center in Bessemer
AFP via Getty Images
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
A milestone union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama is set to begin all over again. Pictured is the Amazon BHM1 fulfillment center in Bessemer

By Sara Ashley O’Brien, CNN Business

Last year, an improbable organizing effort among Amazon warehouse workers in a central Alabama suburb led to a high-profile push to create what would have been the first US union in Amazon’s history. While the vote indicated the union push had failed, the results were thrown out.

Now workers in that same facility are about to get a do-over.

A reelection is set to kick off on Friday for workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, almost exactly a year after the last union vote began. Ballots will be mailed Friday to the homes of thousands Amazon employees who are eligible to vote. Workers will have nearly two months to mail in their ballots.

The results of the original election showed Amazon had soundly defeated the unionizing effort, but several months later, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regional director determined that the e-commerce giant had illegally interfered and “made a free and fair election impossible.” An Amazon spokesperson called the decision “disappointing” at the time.

The makeup of the workers who get to vote has changed somewhat since the last election. More than half of those eligible to vote this time were also eligible to vote in the earlier election, according to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is seeking to represent the workers. The union said it received a list of 6,143 employees, which is nearly 350 more than it received last year.

More workers also appear emboldened to show their support of the union, both in terms of their willingness to speak out publicly and inside the Bessemer facility. Unlike last time, a number of employees have been seen sporting red RWDSU t-shirts at the warehouse, a trend that has been noticed both by workers who are in favor of a union and some who are skeptical of it.

“Before, we didn’t have any RWDSU shirts inside the building,” said Dawn Hoag, a process assistant at Bessemer who has been vocal in her criticisms of the union effort. Kristina Bell, an Amazon employee and organizer, effectively echoed that sentiment on a Zoom call held by organizing workers last week. “Everybody feels more comfortable now than they did in the other election.”

But some things remain the same. Once again, employees say Amazon has in the leadup to the election required workers to attend group meetings where it is messaging its anti-union stance.

In a statement to CNN Business, Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said: “If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site, which is why we host regular informational sessions and provide employees the opportunity to ask questions and learn about what this could mean for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”

This time, like last time, the stakes are high not just for Amazon and its vast workforce, some of whom are looking to unionize at least two other facilities, but for American workers broadly. RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum told CNN Business late last month that the campaign has received “more attention than any other organizing campaign in recent years.” Appelbaum attributed this to the “broader significance of the fight which is really [about] how workers are going to be treated in the future.”

A do-over milestone election — with some changes

The original organizing effort in Bessemer began just months after the facility opened its doors in 2020. It grew out of a confluence of the ongoing pandemic and the increased push across the country for racial justice.

Organizing workers saw a host of issues they felt could be improved upon with union representation, including higher wages, better procedures for filing and receiving responses to grievances, and protections in disciplinary actions. Much of that remains the focus, with workers hoping they’ll have the ability to advocate for changes in the workplace and have a voice in safety measures.

The 2021 election drew national attention, with celebrities and politicians, including President Joe Biden, offering support for the organizing workers. Amazon, meanwhile, went on the offensive with antagonistic public statements. “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace,” Amazon executive Dave Clark wrote in a since deleted tweet to Sen. Sanders, who rallied with pro-union workers in Alabama last April. The company had launched an anti-union website that warned against paying dues. The site is no longer active and Amazon has generally been more muted in its public response this time.

“Our employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union, and our focus remains on working directly with our team to make Amazon a great place to work,” said Amazon’s Agrait in a statement.

Unlike the first attempt at an election, the broader availability of Covid-19 vaccines has opened up a new campaign approach for union organizers. Instead of calls, organizers are now going door-to-door to speak to workers.

Reyn McGuire, who joined Amazon as a warehouse worker at Bessemer in recent months, said organizers like her are taking the time to meet with employees one-on-one to get them to think critically about Amazon’s anti-union stance. “Why is it that Amazon is trying so hard to get me to say no? For what, why?” she explained in a recent call union organizers held for the press.

Still, existing labor law “makes it very, very difficult for workers to organize a union,” according to Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. “That hasn’t changed from last time to this time.”

Familiar tension over a mailbox

While the union had pushed for a mail-in election last time, citing the pandemic, both Amazon and RWDSU preferred the election be held in person this year. But the NLRB directed it be conducted by mail again due to the ongoing pandemic.

The RWDSU’s preference for in-person stemmed from what it characterized as Amazon’s “objectionable conduct during the first election,” according to a filing, referring to a mailbox outside the warehouse. Ahead of the 2021 election, Amazon had the US Postal Service install a mailbox which was placed outside the main entrance of the facility, in view of security cameras, and the company surrounded with anti-union messaging. The result, the labor board director determined, was that it gave the “impression of surveillance” and the sense that Amazon, not the board, controlled the election. Amazon’s stance is that the mailbox was a convenient option for employees to mail their ballots.

This time, the NLRB directed the Postal Service move the mailbox to a “neutral” location and that there be no signage surrounding it. But in a filing last week, the RWDSU requested the NLRB review its decision to allow for a mailbox at all. “The mailbox being moved to the left of the main entrance but still in the employee parking lot within view of the surveillance cameras does not fully eliminate the objectionable conduct nor ameliorate the employee perception that Amazon is still in control of the election process,” the filing reads. The RWDSU has asked that it be removed during the election period. Amazon and the NLRB declined to comment.

“The mailbox is the symbol of Amazon’s abuse of power. Many of my coworkers don’t even trust the mail ballot process because of how much Amazon tainted the process during the first election,” said Jennifer Bates, the face of the union effort last year, on a separate Zoom call held by organizing workers last week.

Hoag, the Bessemer worker who is against the RWDSU union because she does not feel it can make good on its promises, offered up a different perspective.

She said she and others had feared that the “incredibly distinctive” ballot envelopes may be taken from workers’ home mailboxes and that she had vocalized this at the time. “I felt I was responsible for that mailbox,” Hoag told CNN Business. (Hoag also said she was asked to testify by Amazon as part of the NLRB’s proceedings that ultimately resulted in the call for a do-over election.)

If this or another issue were to spark calls by the union for yet another do-over, the NLRB could theoretically keep calling for reelections if it found merit to do so, according to Jeffrey Hirsch, a labor law professor at the University of North Carolina. Typically, Hirsch said, a union might throw in the towel in that scenario due to the resources and energy it takes to organize workers for an election, but “that calculus might be a little different for a company like Amazon.” The union’s willingness to keep at it might be higher, he said.

Beyond Bessemer

As the Bessemer union push has continued, so has the scrutiny of Amazon’s workplace conditions in other facilities.

Last month, Amazon was sued by the parents of a worker who died in a tornado, along with five other workers at an Illinois facility. The suit alleged that the company didn’t do enough to protect workers and instead prioritized keeping its operations running until it was too late. (In a statement at the time, an Amazon spokesperson said the company will defend against the lawsuit and noted Amazon’s “focus continues to be on supporting our employees and partners, the families who lost loved ones, the surrounding community, and all those affected by the tornadoes.”)

Amazon is facing a number of claims filed with the NLRB over unfair labor practices, including two filed late last month at the Bessemer facility by an employee organizer. (Amazon did not comment on the matter.) Separately, in December, Amazon reached a settlement with the NLRB that addresses one of the ways workers have said it has attempted to stave off organizing efforts: by limiting their access to its facilities before and after shifts.

There may also be at least one other union election at an Amazon facility later this year.

Chris Smalls, a former Amazon employee, is leading a grassroots organization called Amazon Labor Union that has garnered enough support to hold an election at the company’s Staten Island, New York, facility. Unlike the Bessemer push, Amazon Labor Union is not affiliated with any established labor organizations. Still, Smalls said the two efforts are fundamentally connected.

“Whether we like it or not,” he said, “we’re attached at the hip when it comes to the Amazon labor movement and the public opinion — even though we have two completely different campaigns.” He added: “We want them to be successful so we can use their success story to help our efforts in New York.”

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