It’s been a star-studded, action-packed seven weeks since the union ballots shipped to the workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, fulfillment center on February 8. President Joe Biden tweeted out a video of support. Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, and The Matrix director Lilly Wachowski signed a petition urging workers to vote yes. Amazon’s PR team started a Twitter beef with several Congressmembers including Bernie Sanders, who visited Bessemer on Friday, over issues like whether or not their workers pee in bottles. (They do.) In short, the union election—the first at a US Amazon warehouse—has blossomed into the highest-profile labor event in a generation.
The campaign has been featured in at least 53,000 stories by more than 2,000 reporters spanning two dozen countries and six continents, according to Chelsea Connor, the very-in-demand communications director for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is vying to represent the workers. Today marks the end of the voting phase: The warehouse’s 5,800 eligible workers have until the end of the day to get their ballots into the hands of National Labor Relations Board officials. Then all eyes turn to the board’s Birmingham office, where, starting tomorrow, NLRB staffers will begin tallying up the votes. For the union to win, a majority of those votes need to be “yes.”
Fair warning: You’re not going to get the result overnight.
If even half of the eligible workers return ballots, it could take days for the board to finish its tally. NLRB representatives will conduct a hand count in front of observers from both sides, first extracting each ballot from its signed yellow envelope. As officials read off the names, both sides can (and probably will) issue challenges, either on procedural grounds—things like unreadable signatures—or by disputing a worker’s eligibility to vote. Challenged ballots will be set aside, and the remaining anonymized ballots will be placed inside a ballot box for a public count. If, after the count, the number of challenged ballots is enough to affect the outcome, it means more waiting. The regional board will hold a hearing to rule on the disputed votes, potentially adding weeks to the process.
Things could get gnarlier from there. After the tally, each side has seven days to file objections to the way the election was conducted, including charges of Unfair Labor Practices. In an election that saw an unmarked ballot box of mysterious origin appear on company grounds, a website spread misleading information about dues-paying, and the timing change on a traffic light where organizers talked to workers, some observers believe the RWDSU has ample grist for a ULP charge or three against Amazon. A guilty verdict could overturn the results or trigger a do-over. Outside of the election process, there’s also the little-deployed option of suing the NLRB directly, should either side believe the agency mishandled the election. While this is rare, this election has been anything but ordinary.
The Bessemer warehouse opened one year ago this month, just as the rest of the country began shutting down. As demand for ecommerce exploded, workers there pushed to meet demanding productivity quotas while grappling with their own safety concerns. In June, a worker named Darryl Richardson began Googling unions and found the RWDSU. He filled out a form on their website. In late summer, he and other workers snuck off to hotels, restaurants, and parks to meet with organizers. In November they filed for an election, held by mail because of high Covid-19 case counts around Bessemer.
The workers began their drive on the heels of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Over 80 percent of the facility’s workers are Black, and the BLM organization has since become a partner, leading a horn-blaring “Union Yes” caravan around the fulfillment center a couple weekends ago. RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum sees the Bessemer campaign as “renewing the alliance between the civil rights movement and the labor movement.” Black and immigrant workers, whose labor has long been exploited in the US, have often led the fight for labor rights. In 1963, RWDSU organizers helped plan Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Appelbaum believes the union will win, but he concedes that the outcome might hinge partly on when workers voted. He says dozens of early “no” voters asked if they could change their ballots after hearing the union’s pitch later in the voting period. (They couldn’t.) Amazon, for its part, has said it doesn’t think the union represents a majority of their workers’ views.
Perry Connelly, a 58-year-old stower at the Bessemer warehouse, works 10-hour days scanning incoming products and placing them in barcoded bins. He says Amazon’s automated “Time Off Task” system, which tracks and penalizes workers if they spend too long without scanning, doesn’t accommodate the ebbs and flows of the job. “A lot of the TOT is because they don’t have a steady flow of work coming to the station. While you stand around waiting, the computer sees you’re not putting any work into the system, so your TOT is gradually building up.” He hopes a union can help negotiate a less rigid system and higher pay. While the starting pay is about $15 an hour, he says it’s also not far from “your ceiling” unless you’re promoted into a higher tier job.
Connelly got into debates with the representatives Amazon brought in to host mandatory union “information sessions.” They suggested workers’ pay could drop if the union won. (Union dues are voluntary in Alabama, a right to work state, and any pay changes would have to be approved by the majority of workers when ratifying a contract.) “I said, why don’t y’all open the doors then, and let the union come in here and save Amazon money?”
In a statement, Amazon’s Vice President of Worldwide Communications Drew Herdener called Appelbaum’s criticisms “alternative facts.” He continued, “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. We encourage all of our employees to vote.”
The stakes of the outcome are sky-high—for Amazon, its workers, and the future of work more broadly. Organizers see the company as a standard setter for labor conditions, a standard they decry for its high turnover and injury rate, low pay given the job’s physical toll, and constant electronic surveillance. Covid-19 has put Amazon under even more scrutiny, for its slow pandemic response, time-limited hazard pay, and alleged lax safety measures in its warehouses. The company has previously called claims of unsafe conditions misleading and untrue.
As Amazon continues on its path to becoming the world’s largest employer, these concerns transcend borders. Last week in Italy—where workers are unionized—Amazon drivers and warehouse workers held the country’s first nationwide strike against the company, demanding more humane working schedules. Appelbaum chairs the Amazon Global Alliance, an international network of unions from about a dozen countries that coordinate strategy. “People are complaining about the same conditions in different languages,” he says.
For Amazon, a union win in Bessemer would force the company to cede some control to its workers and likely overhaul its management style, which heavily relies on automated tracking and discipline. Some workers have expressed concern that Amazon might shut down the warehouse before swallowing a union win. While it’s illegal to close a facility for the purpose of deterring other workers from unionizing, the penalties for violating labor law are so puny that 41.5 percent of employers are charged with lawbreaking during union campaigns, according to a 2019 Economic Policy Institute study. However, as MWPVL International logistics consultant Marc Wulfraat points out, the real deterrent might lie in the building itself. Each fulfillment center costs north of $300 million dollars to build and typically carries a 20-year lease. “That’s way too much of an investment to walk away from,” he believes. “And even if they did walk away, there’s no guarantee the same thing wouldn’t happen elsewhere.”
No matter the outcome of Bessemer’s election, the union horse may have finally left the gate after two decades of Amazon aggressively tamping down organizing activity. The RWDSU says over 1,000 Amazon workers have reached out about organizing their own facilities, and the Teamsters have seen a spate of interest from both warehouse workers and delivery drivers, who face a rockier road since the company classifies them as subcontractors and gig workers. Alabamians have even speculated that the effort could spill over into the state’s many auto plants, which have thus far fended off unionization. But Amazon’s deep pockets and employer-friendly US labor law mean any workers who want a union face steep odds.
One Amazon worker who recently spoke to WIRED works at a warehouse several states away from Alabama and has followed the election closely. He’s middle-aged and has held a number of jobs, but he says Amazon is “the worst place I’ve ever worked.” He recently spent several days out of work after collapsing during his shift from back spasms. “We overly earn that $15,” he says. “Your body, mind, wrist, back, everything is being overwhelmed.” For him, Bessemer offered hope. He’s begun discussions with his regional RWDSU branch about unionizing.
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