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Milestone Amazon union vote nears end, but the battle may just be beginning

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One year to the day after workers first stepped inside a new Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, a milestone union vote at the facility is set to come to an end.

Monday is the final day for ballots to be received by the National Labor Relations Board in order to be counted in the election. The vote — a tally of which is expected later in the week — will determine whether the Bessemer workers form the first US union in Amazon’s 27-year history.

For nearly two months, thousands of Amazon warehouse workers have been eligible to cast their vote by mail on whether to unionize. Workers have had to make the decision while sifting through competing messages from union organizers, celebrities, politicians — including President Biden — and Amazon which had been posting signs in bathroom stalls and pulling workers into meetings before the start of the election period.

The heated back-and-forth around the union election is only set to intensify in the final days of the vote. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has long been critical of the e-commerce giant — over such issues as how much it pays in federal taxes and how it compensates warehouse workers — is planning to rally with workers at the union headquarters in Birmingham Friday as part of a last-minute push that also includes the Atlanta rapper best known as Killer Mike and actor and activist Danny Glover.

The tension around Sanders’ visit is palpable. Amazon executive Dave Clark took jabs at the Senator Wednesday in tweets: “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.” Clark touted Amazon’s $15 minimum hourly wage as proof, a benefit it set in 2018 after backlash from critics including Sanders.

While there’s been a drumbeat of support from well-known figures in recent weeks, it’s unclear what influence that may have had on workers. For Jennifer Brown, a training ambassador at the Bessemer facility, not even Glover, who campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote outside the fulfillment center in late February, could sway her decision to vote ‘no.’ “Amazon has been great for me,” she told CNN Business. “I haven’t had any real problems.”

For others, the messages may have reached them too late, given the length of the election period and the chance to change their mind. The outcome of the vote remains uncertain but one thing seems clear to union organizers and labor experts: the vote tally likely won’t mark the end of this high-profile fight.

“We’ve always known that this campaign is just a beginning no matter what the result is. It is about a lot more than Bessemer,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is conducting the union drive for Amazon workers at the Bessemer facility. “What we have done — which is crucial — is we have opened the door to union organizing at Amazon, we’ve gone further than anyone else has come close to in the past … and Amazon never anticipated it.”

Workers in other locations are watching

The workers at Bessemer are just a fraction of the company’s hundreds of thousands of US-based warehouse employees. While the pandemic has been a boon for Amazon’s business, safety precautions related to the virus, as well as general workplace conditions, have also been a factor behind a more general employee uprising at its facilities.

In recent months many of the same frustrations that Bessemer workers are hoping to improve with the help of union representation have similarly been expressed by Amazon workers at other facilities. The issues involved include adequate break time, better procedures for filing and receiving responses to grievances, higher wages as well as protection against Amazon wrongfully applying policies like social distancing to discipline workers.

More than 1,000 warehouse workers around the country have contacted the RWDSU union, according to Appelbaum, as well as others outside the United States. “Some workers from South Africa even recently contacted us to know if we can help them organize. It is not something we do, but it really tells us that this campaign has struck a chord with people everywhere,” he said.

Tyler Hamilton, a warehouse worker who has worked at Amazon’s Shakopee, Minnesota, facility since 2017, called the Bessemer workers “ahead of the pack.”

“Normally it takes time for people to figure out the system — how Amazon works, and to get pissed with it,” he said, adding that the Bessemer workers pushing to unionize have changed the conversations amongst workers at his facility. “Ultimately I think it is inevitable that Amazon warehouses — maybe not all of them, but I’m sure a good number of them — will become unionized.”

The Bessemer union push has also once again cast a harsh light on the realities of working for Amazon, including from recent testimony by one of the facility’s workers, Jennifer Bates, before the Senate Budget Committee. Bates, a vocal organizer behind the union push, described “grueling” work conditions, including 10-hour shifts with just two 30-minute breaks that are “not long enough to give you time to rest” given the facility’s expansive size.

“We take employee feedback seriously, including Ms. Bates’, but we don’t believe her comments represent the more than 90% of her fulfillment center colleagues who say they’d recommend Amazon as a great place to work to friends and family,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement last week. The spokesperson added that Amazon employees “earn at least $15 an hour, receive comprehensive healthcare and paid leave benefits.”

What happens after the vote

Rebecca Givan, a labor expert and associate professor at Rutgers University, said she doesn’t expect either side to give up — whatever the outcome of the vote. “We can already start to see the legal strategy on both sides depending on the outcome,” she told CNN Business.

If the vote is successful, Amazon would need to come to an agreement with the union on a contract, something that the e-commerce giant could draw out. Givan said it could “eventually try to decertify the union,” referring to the NLRB process where employees can vote to get rid of the union representation.

Jeffrey Hirsch, a labor law professor at the University of North Carolina, said there’s precedent for employers fighting back in a variety of ways. Hirsch recalled the successful Walmart union effort by a group of butchers in 2000; months later, Walmart said it would cease in-house butchering services in favor of supplying pre-packaged meat. At the time, a company spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal the change was planned before the vote and “is the way the whole industry is going.”

“You can’t just shut down a plant and reopen it somewhere else non-union; that’s called a runaway shop. But you have much more leeway as an employer to change your business, in this case, saying you’re not going to be butchering anymore,” said Hirsch. He called the comparison notable given Walmart was “sort of the Amazon of its day” and similarly had staunchly fought unionization, but dissimilar in that the Walmart union only applied to a small group of workers doing a certain type of job.

To avoid the runaway shop problem, according to Hirsch, Amazon needs a legitimate reason and to be able to “convince the NLRB that it’s really the reason and not just pretext to avoid the union.” (Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox declined to comment on “hypotheticals” to CNN Business, including a question about whether it would accept the results of the vote count.)

If the union vote falls short, Givan said the union may seek to file unfair labor practice claims against Amazon, including around a mailbox that has popped up outside the facility.

According to Appelbaum, a government mailbox appeared on the Bessemer property near the exit, and workers were encouraged by texts from Amazon to mail their ballots via the mailbox. “It makes no sense. You receive your ballot at home, you can mail it the way you mail any other ballot,” he said. “Everything you do at Amazon you know is surveilled, everything is monitored, and you have every reason to believe that if you mail from that box it is going to be monitored, as well.”

Amazon’s Knox told CNN Business in a statement that “the USPS recently installed a mailbox onsite for the convenience of our employees.”

“As we have said all along, every employee should have the opportunity to vote in this important decision. This mailbox is enclosed in a tent making it convenient, safe, and private for our employees to vote on their way to and from work if they choose to, or use it for any of their other mailing needs. Only USPS can collect the outgoing mail from this box or put incoming mail into it,” the statement continued.

The NLRB declined to comment on the situation.

For some workers at Bessemer, the conclusion of the months-long union fight comes too late. Shelia Ross, who started working at the Bessemer facility in September 2020 only lasted about six months before deciding she’d had enough. Ross, who said she was previously undecided about the union effort, told CNN Business she voted in favor of representation only to resign this month.

She said “the place isn’t for the workers,” but that she’s hopeful it gets better for the people still employed by the company.

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