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  • Writer's pictureAlex Nelson

Amazon pushes back against Alabama workers who want union

In a controversial move, retail giant Amazon is attempting to require in-person voting — despite COVID-19 exposure concerns — for employees seeking to unionize at the company's Bessemer, Alabama warehouse.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused employees and employers around the world to re-evaluate workplace safety and worker rights. Amazon is no exception. The ubiquitous retailer employs over 1 million temporary and permanent staff, many of whom work in the company’s 185 global fulfillment centers.

In Europe, Amazon’s 2nd largest market, labor union membership amongst wage and salary workers is commonplace and many European workers, including those employed by Amazon, hold union membership. The 2 million member German retail union, Verdi, has waged war with Amazon in recent years over employee safety and fair pay. During the 2020 holiday season, Verdi coordinated several walkouts and strikes at Amazon, impacting Black Friday sales.

In the same week that Amazon's German employees went on strike with support from Verdi, employees at Amazon's Bessemer warehouse, supported by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, filed for a unionization hearing with the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. The RWDSU, on behalf of the 5,800 Bessemer workers, also created a website outlining their justification for forming a union at the facility. Amazon responded with its own anti-union website, emphasizing the burden of paying union dues and promoting the idea that union membership dilutes workers' individual voice.

Notably, many of the employees at the Bessemer plant are Black, placing them at greater risk for severe consequences related to COVID infection. The leaders organizing the push to unionize at the facility are also predominately Black. According to Amazon’s self-published workforce data, 26.5% of its U.S. employees identify as Black or African-American. Only 8.3% of those employees hold managerial positions.

Amazon's Alabama plant has repeatedly made international headlines as warehouse employees at the Bessemer facility have sought to raise wages and improve workplace safety. The activist efforts of the BHM1 warehouse have also made Amazon redouble its commitment to remain a union-free organization.

Last week, Amazon filed an appeal challenging an earlier, January 15 ruling by the National Labor Review Board that would allow the company's employees to vote on the union issue via mail-in ballot. Attorneys for the retail giant argue that mail-in ballots require too much time to process and require too many resources. However, according to the NLRB, between March and November 2020, 90% of union elections to were held using mail-in voting. Additionally, Amazon has filed a motion to stay, requesting that the election be delayed until the NLRB has reviewed their appeal.

In the January 15 report, NRLB regional director Lisa Henderson justified the decision to allow mail-in voting.

“The Employer argues that the virus spread in Jefferson County is irrelevant where the positivity rate within the Employer’s facility is only 2.88 percent,” Henderson wrote. “This argument is not persuasive. Neither employees nor party representatives, nor Board Agents exist entirely within the Employer’s facility. Employees venture into Jefferson County, and other parts of Alabama, each day…the overall state of crisis in Jefferson County cannot be ignored.”

Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox suggested to the the New York times that the company's benefits and work environment preclude the need for unions.

“Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs,” said Knox.

Professor Tom Kochan, an industrial relations, work and employment expert at MIT, contextualized Amazon's resistance to unions in a statement to CNBC on the matter.

“Amazon controls everything from bathroom breaks to communication with other employees,” explained Kochan. “If a union comes in, they’re going to lose some of that control and that’s ultimately what they fear most.”

Amazon has also been accused of surveilling employees via internal employee listservs and closed Facebook groups in an effort to stop pro-union activity.

If previous efforts by wage employees to form labor unions in Alabama are any indication of the outcome for the Bessemer workers, they should prepare for a challenge. Alabama has consistently ranked in the bottom 25, nationally, in terms of statewide labor union membership. In 2019, only 8.5 percent of wage and salary workers in Alabama belonged to unions, down from 9.2 percent in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics. In Europe roughly 23% of wage workers belong to unions, that figure drops to 10.3% for the U.S.

In the event that the NLRB rejects Amazon's motion to stay, union election ballots will be mailed to warehouse workers starting Feb. 8. Election results are expected to be tallied by March 30.


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