SEATTLE — The balloting in the high-stakes, high-profile union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama ends Monday, but the final tally may take days, or even weeks or months, to determine.
More than 5,800 workers at the e-commerce giant’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse are choosing whether to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The union drive has mushroomed into one of the most important labor battles in recent history, even drawing the attention of President Biden, who tweeted a video late last month saying workers should be able to make their decision in union elections without pressure from the company.
But it won’t be decided quickly. The first step is to count the votes, and there are several opportunities in that process for both Amazon and the union to contest results. They could challenge whether a ballot was properly signed, whether it’s real or even if the worker who cast it is legitimate.
“That’s not the end of the story, though,” said Alexander Colvin, dean of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
After the counting is done, the losing side could challenge the results through the National Labor Relations Board or in court, which could delay the outcome for weeks if not longer.
(Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The vote is Amazon’s first in the United States since 2014. A victory by the union could spark organizing campaigns at Amazon facilities around the world, and has already led to more than 1,000 of Amazon’s U.S. workers contacting the RWDSU to see what it might take to start an organizing drive at their facilities.
“The size of this facility and the fact that it’s Amazon makes this stand out,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University.
The tallying of worker ballots begins at the NLRB’s Birmingham, Ala., office at 10 a.m. local time Tuesday, and will be conducted virtually, with Amazon and the RWDU allowed four observers each to tune into the count.
Here’s why the workers are unionizing, how the vote tallying is expected to play out and when it might end.
Why do some workers say they want to unionize?
Pro-union Bessemer workers have raised a litany of grievances, complaining about the pace of their jobs, concerns about workplace safety, and Amazon’s decision to end a bonus-pay program, a short-lived perk that added $2 an hour to their checks at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Many of the workers in the Bessemer warehouse are Black, and the union has also framed the fight around issues of respect and dignity, saying the battle is as much a civil rights struggle as a labor one.
“We’re not making what we should be making,” Darryl Richardson, who picks items from shelves at the Bessemer warehouse, said as the balloting began.
Win or lose, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum believes the unionization drive has elevated the discourse about the role of labor in the country and given Amazon’s warehouse workers a voice.
“This campaign has already been a victory in many ways,” Appelbaum said in a statement. “Even though we don’t know how the vote will turn out, we believe we have opened the door to more organizing around the country.”
What is Amazon’s response?
The company has long fought unionization. In Bessemer, it has argued that workers there receive a starting pay of $15.30 an hour, well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. (Alabama has no state minimum-wage law.) Amazon has also noted that workers receive health care, vision and dental benefits, and a retirement plan.
The company has ramped up its rhetoric against critics, who have attacked the pace and safety record of its workplace, calling Appelbaum the union’s “Chief Disinformation Officer. “
“But our employees are smart and know the truth — starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace,” company spokesman Drew Herdener said in a statement Friday.
Appelbaum, who declined to respond to Herdener’s charge, wasn’t the only target of Amazon’s wrath. The company took a similarly combative tone toward two of its staunchest congressional critics, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), pushing back on their claims that Amazon mistreats workers and doesn’t pay its fair share in taxes. The attacks may reflect Amazon’s concerns about the union winning the election.
“That’s why you’re seeing a strong response from Amazon,” Cornell’s Colvin said.
Why are workers voting by mail?
Amazon had pressed for an in-person election, arguing against NLRB guidance to hold mail-in balloting in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. The company claimed in-person voting could be done safely with proper precautions. But the NLRB regional director overseeing the case rejected that argument, citing concerns about the safety of Amazon workers and agency staff members. And the full board at the agency rejected Amazon’s appeal.
That set up the unusual process of counting ballots in the NLRB’s Birmingham office while Amazon and the union observe remotely via video feed.
How long will the counting take?
It depends on how many workers voted. But if thousands participated in the elections, the count will take at least a few days, and possibly much longer. The first stage of counting will only be open to viewing by Amazon and the union. That’s to protect the privacy of workers, whose names will be called out when the agency holds up the yellow envelopes that have their names on them and contain their ballots. Amazon and the union can challenge any ballot they believe was invalidly cast. Those ballots are set aside.
The NLRB will open the yellow envelopes that are not challenged. Inside those letters are sealed blue envelopes, with no identifying information on them, that include white ballots with workers’ votes inside. The agency will set aside those unopened blue envelopes into a group to be counted later. The process of challenging ballots could last days, depending on how many warehouse employees voted.
Then, the portion of the vote count open to the media will begin. The NLRB will open the blue envelopes and count all of the uncontested ballots.
So is that the end of the count?
Not necessarily. If the margin of victory in the initial count is less than the number of uncontested ballots, the NLRB will need to determine if the challenged ballots should be counted. It would hold a hearing, giving Amazon and the union the opportunity to argue the validity of each challenged ballot. If there are only a handful of ballots challenged, the process could be quick. But with so much at stake, each side could challenge dozens, if not hundreds, of votes.
“It could take weeks or months,” Rutgers’ Givan said. “It’s not going to be a day or two.”
Then, any challenged ballots the agency determined were validly cast would be counted. And those results would be included to determine the election’s outcome.
If the majority of votes oppose a union, what happens next?
The RWDSU has made several claims that Amazon’s tactics during the election have improperly tainted the process. One issue the union cited is a mailbox that popped up in front of the warehouse just after voting started. The union says it could signal to workers that Amazon has a role in the running of the election. The union also complained about a financial offer Amazon made to lure unhappy workers to quit, arguing that the company provided an improper incentive to weed out pro-union workers. Amazon has said the mailbox provides a convenient way for workers to vote, and the pay-to-quit offer is extended annually to warehouse workers across the country.
If workers vote against unionizing, the RWDSU could file unfair labor practices claims over those and other Amazon tactics, and ask the NLRB to toss out the tainted election results. If the board chose to hear those arguments, it would need to schedule hearings to rule on the claims. And if it agreed with the claims, it could call for a new election, or even certify the union.
And the RWDSU has suggested it might do just that. In a statement outlining the election process, the union wrote that the NLRB could set aside the results if the union’s objections demonstrate that “conduct by the employer created an atmosphere of confusion or fear of reprisals and thus interfered with the employees’ freedom of choice.”
If the union wins, what happens next?
During hearings to establish terms for the election, Amazon pressed for rules the NLRB rejected, such as holding the vote in person rather than via mail. The company, like the union, will have five days after the votes have been counted to challenge the way the election was conducted.
Amazon could also file an unfair labor practices claim with the agency, alleging that the union violated election rules. And it could sue the NLRB in federal court to dismiss the election results. The company hasn’t indicated if it will use any of those tactics, but Colvin believes if Amazon files a suit, it could delay the resolution of the balloting by a year or longer.
If workers ultimately get their union, is that the end of the fight?
Hardly. The next step may be even more daunting for workers than forming a union. They need to negotiate with Amazon to ratify a contract. If the union succeeds at the ballot box, Amazon will probably “stonewall at the bargaining table,” Givan said.
Amazon fears that unions could lead to workplace rules that limit its ability to rapidly hire and cut workers to meet shopping demands that spike and recede throughout the year, former company executives have said. Amazon would probably reject any union efforts to curb that sort of flexibility it has long held, one more way to fight the RWDSU.
“It’s a little less obvious of a way to deny workers a voice,” Givan said.