The labor union challenging its election loss at an Amazon warehouse cleared its first major hurdle this week, with a preliminary finding that the online retailer violated labor law during the closely watched union campaign in Alabama earlier this year.
A hearing officer for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a report this week recommending that workers vote in a fresh election because Amazon tainted the mail-in election that ended in April. The finding undermines what Amazon had cast as a clean and resounding rejection of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) by its workers.
The NLRB official said Amazon spoiled the process for a fair election in two particular ways. The company distributed “vote no” paraphernalia to workers in front of supervisors, which may have been coercive, and pressured the U.S. Postal Service to place a mailbox at the warehouse for the election.
The election was done through mail ballots, and the NLRB had determined beforehand that there would not be drop boxes onsite. Amazon’s insistence on placing a mailbox at work “usurped the [board]’s exclusive role in administering Union elections,” the hearing officer, Kerstin Meyers, wrote.
The mailbox alone “destroyed the laboratory conditions and justifies a second election,” she concluded.
Meyers’ finding does not guarantee another election will be held. Her recommendation will now go to a regional director at the NLRB, and after that, potentially to the five-member board in Washington that ultimately settles such disputes on appeal.
The Senate recently confirmed two of President Joe Biden’s picks for that board, assuring that Democrats will have control of it by September. A Democratic majority is more likely than a Republican majority to rule in favor of unions in contentious cases.
Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU’s president, said the union supported Meyers’ findings.
“Amazon’s behavior throughout the election process was despicable,” Appelbaum said in a statement. “Amazon cheated, they got caught, and now they are being held accountable.”
Amazon defended its decision to have a mailbox placed onsite by noting that it was the U.S. Postal Service that put it there. But Meyers wasn’t buying that argument, calling it “mere scapegoating.” She noted that Amazon had procured its own mailbox in case the Postal Service did not decide to place one there.
“Amazon’s behavior throughout the election process was despicable.”
What’s more, Meyers found that the Postal Service, an independent federal agency, went to unusual lengths to help Amazon, a major client, in what turned out to be a violation of labor law: “In an effort to placate [Amazon], the USPS officials at the highest levels jumped through hoops” to get the company a mailbox as quickly as possible.
A Postal Service spokesperson did not immediately provide comment when asked for a response.
Most of the union’s objections to Amazon’s conduct were thrown out.
Amazon said in a statement that it plans to appeal any determination that the election be re-run.
“Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate, and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers and the company,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Their voice should be heard above all else.”
The vote at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, was the most closely watched union election in years. Amazon deals with unions in Europe but has so far remained union-free in the U.S. Had the RWDSU won the election, it would have represented a bargaining unit of roughly 6,000 workers and gained the first toehold for labor inside Amazon’s U.S. workforce.
Amazon ran an aggressive anti-union campaign aimed at fraying support for the union. When the ballots were counted, workers had voted 1,798 to 738 against unionization. However, hundreds of ballots were challenged and never counted, and those may have favored the union.
If the NLRB orders a new election, it could be many months before the next vote takes place, and the RWDSU would have a lot more organizing to do if it hoped to win. Thanks to Amazon’s sky-high turnover rate, many of the new workers voting in the second election would not have been around for the first union campaign.