SEATTLE – At the end of Monday, thousands of yellow envelopes sent to a small brick building in Birmingham, Ala., Will keep the fate of one of the most closely watched union elections on the calendar In recent history, an election could change the shape of labor movement and one of America’s largest employers.
The envelopes contain the workers’ ballots at an Amazon warehouse near Birmingham. Nearly 6,000 on-site workers, one of Amazon’s largest companies, are eligible to decide if they will form the first union at an Amazon operation in the United States, after years of experience. the company fiercely protested.
The organizers came up with the case during a month-long campaign that Amazon’s tight scrutiny of workers infringes on their dignity and their salaries are not commensurate with the continued pressure that the worker feels productive. Trade unions estimate that about 85% of the workforce in the warehouse are Black and have linked the organization with the fight for racial justice.
Amazon has contradicted that its $ 15 minimum wage is twice the state minimum, and offers health insurance and other benefits that are hard to find in low-paying jobs.
“Even the fact that the voting is taking place is a referendum on the so-called future of work,” said Beth Gutelius, a researcher at the warehouse industry.
Whether the results of the vote – which may not be known for days – the union’s dynamics succeeded in toppling the world’s largest e-commerce company and highlighting complaints about reality. off of its labor. The voting comes at a delicate time for the company, which is facing increasing scrutiny in Washington and around the world for its market power and influence, which has already grown. During the pandemic when consumers flocked online to avoid stores. President Biden has signaled his support for workers, as well as many progressive leaders.
If the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Alliance succeeds, it will be a huge win for the labor movement, which has reduced membership for decades. A win would also give it a foothold in the country’s second-largest private company. The company now has 950,000 workers in the United States, after adding more than 400,000 just last year.
If the alliance is at a loss, especially with a large margin, Amazon will turn the tide on an alliance dynamics that seems to have a lot of wind behind. Losses can force labor organizers to rethink their overall strategy and leave Amazon confident that its approach is working.
The union’s dynamics have attracted national attention partly due to the country’s focus on essential workers during the pandemic and on the racial inequality highlighted by the Black Lives movement. Matter.
“We obviously want to win,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said on Friday when he visited Alabama. “But I think one main point is proven. And it is the workers, even in the Deep South, who are prepared to stand up and fight for justice ”.
In Bessemer, Ala., A union-friendly radio paid for by Black Lives Matter airs on a local R&B station, while every intersection around the warehouse is packed with signs. “Bama has backed me up! Elections! “Once read. Large building hangs blue banners with the words “VOTE.” On Friday, an Amazon employee drove a golf cart around the parking lot to stop the media from reporting.
A union victory “can change the labor movement, because we have a change in determining who workers are, who are union members,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Stewardesses Association. no, who has visited Bessemer this month and feel “overwhelmed”. local support for the union.
But if the workers voted against the union, Nelson said, the results “would be pretty dire.” “People are going to be very hard to believe because of what they’re going through on the surface,” said Nelson.
Mr. Sanders’s visit seems to have shocked Amazon. After announcing the trip, Dave Clark, who runs Amazon operations and consumer businesses worldwide, attacked Mr. Sanders in a series of messages on Twitter, as well as his official social media account. of the company. “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of the recruiters, but that’s not entirely true because we really offer a progressive workplace,” Clark wrote in a tweet.
Amazon says it doesn’t believe the union represents the majority of its workers. It refuses to speculate about what will happen after the vote.
“While we don’t know how the vote will play out, we believe we have opened the door to more organization across the country,” said Stuart Appelbaum, union president. in a statement. “And we’ve shown times when employers will crush their employees trying to gain a union voice – this campaign has become a prime example of why. we need to reform the labor law in this country. ”
The attempt to consolidate came together quickly, especially for a company aimed at such a large goal. Workers at the Bessemer building reached out to the local division of the retail workers’ union last summer. In October, organizers began arriving at the warehouse every day, trying to talk with workers between shifts.
By the end of December, more than 2,000 workers had signed a card saying they wanted an election. The Labor Council determined that that figure showed enough interest to hold a vote.
Amazon wanted the vote to take place in person, for example, but the National Industrial Relations Commission found that the pandemic made it too risky and ordered an election to be held by mail.
Ballots were sent to the workers in early February and must be signed and received by the labor council in their Birmingham office by the end of Monday.
On Tuesday, the counting of the votes begins – a process that could take several days.
First, an employee on the labor department will read the worker ‘s name without opening the envelope inside with the real ballot. Representatives from the alliance and Amazon will participate in a private video meeting. As each name is read, they check the worker name against the list of employees, and if either side contests whether the worker is eligible to vote, that ballot will be passed. one side. A representative from each side is also expected to be present directly to observe the process.
After the two sides have a chance to contest eligibility, the NLRB will begin counting untested ballots. After every 100 votes, the labor committee will re-count those votes until the votes have been counted. This section will be devoted to videoconferencing reporters.
If there are more disputed votes than untested, it could potentially cause legal debates between the union and Amazon over the eligibility of each disputed ballot. Each side has about a week to present their case before the NLRB certifies their vote.
Each side can dispute whether the vote was conducted fairly or not. For example, a union could argue that the company took steps to undermine the vote, potentially scaring workers into retaliation if they supported the organization.
If the union prevailed, the workers feared that the company might close the warehouse. Amazon has pulled out of positions that gave it a headache in the past. In 2000, it shut down a customer service office trying to consolidate, saying the shutdown was the result of a reorganization. It stopped building on an office tower when Seattle wanted to tax the company, and abandoned plans to build a second headquarters in New York City after it met with growing opposition.
However, the company has pledged to hire more than $ 360 million and equipment for the Bessemer warehouse, and the voting of a large black workforce could backfire publicly, said Marc Wulfraat, a private investor The logistics company said closely follow-up.
Regardless of the outcome, Mr. Wulfraat says the election is a sign Amazon must do. “For most companies that end up with organizing labor in some capacity,” he said, “that’s not successful because they’re doing a great job in managing people.”
If the alliance loses, Amazon will lose at least one customer: Michael Render, the rapper of Killer Mike. Appearing with Mr. Sanders on Friday, he said, “If that vote doesn’t go through, if these conditions don’t improve, I won’t order from Amazon anymore.”
Sonam Vashi contributes reports from Bessemer, Ala.