Federal officials began mailing ballots to Amazon workers in Alabama on Friday, kicking off a closely watched do-over election to determine if one of the retailer’s warehouses will unionize.
Workers in Bessemer voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union in a mail-ballot election last year, but officials with the National Labor Relations Board, which referees collective bargaining in the private sector, determined that Amazon had broken the law.
Their remedy was to run a second election. Workers have until March 25 to return the ballots, meaning both the union and the company will spend the next seven weeks trying to convince workers how to vote.
The stakes are high for Amazon. Although the retailer deals with unions in some other countries, it has managed to remain union-free in the U.S., thanks in large part to its aggressive response to organizing drives.
Amazon has held group meetings at the facility — called “captive audience” meetings in the labor world — where workers hear negative talking points about unionization. Ahead of the first election, the company was paying union-avoidance consultants a daily rate of $3,200 each to persuade workers not to vote for the union.
The second election is happening because Amazon ran afoul of labor laws during the first one. The company arranged to have the U.S. Postal Service install a mailbox for ballots on warehouse grounds, where it was surrounded by Amazon propaganda, even though the NLRB had determined it did not want onsite drop boxes for the election.
In a decision ordering a do-over, NLRB Regional Director Lisa Henderson reprimanded Amazon for meddling in the election and giving workers “a strong impression that it controlled the process.”
“This dangerous and improper message to employees destroys trust in the Board’s processes and the credibility of the election results,” Henderson wrote.
The union lost the original election by a lopsided margin, with workers voting 1,798 to 738 against joining the RWDSU. Hundreds of ballots were challenged and never opened, however, and those may have favored the union.
Amazon is battling organizing efforts on a few different fronts right now.
Workers at a warehouse on Staten Island in New York have petitioned the labor board to hold an election for them to join the independent Amazon Labor Union. The board has said the union reached the threshold needed to trigger a vote, by gathering signatures from at least 30% of the anticipated bargaining unit.
Unions typically want to file with a strong majority of workers onboard, since they would need to receive more than 50% of votes to win. Amazon Labor Union previously withdrew an earlier petition for an election at the same warehouse.
The union has also petitioned for a separate election at a smaller Amazon facility on Staten Island. A board spokesperson said Friday that the agency has not yet determined whether the union has a large enough showing of interest at that worksite for an election to move forward.