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Amazon Moves Closer to Facing Its First Unionization Vote in Six Years

John Tlumacki | Boston Globe | Getty Images
  • Amazon and a retail union seeking to represent some warehouse workers in Alabama came to an agreement Tuesday on the size of a potential bargaining unit, bringing the employees one step closer to holding a vote on whether to form a union.
  • However, the parties are still in disagreement over how the union election will be held, with Amazon arguing against workers submitting mail-in ballots.

Amazon and a retail union looking to represent some of the company's Alabama warehouse workers reached an agreement Tuesday on the size of a potential bargaining unit, bringing the union one step closer to an election.  

If successful, the Alabama union drive would establish the first-ever labor union representation at a U.S. Amazon facility. 

Unions have a stronger foothold among some of Amazon's European workforce, but the company has largely managed to thwart organizing efforts in the U.S. However, in recent years, protests tied to Prime Day and other events, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, have hinted at rising organizing efforts across the country. Amazon hasn't faced a substantial union vote since 2014, when repair technicians at a Delaware warehouse failed to garner enough votes to form a union.

Tuesday's agreement capped off a three-day long hearing in front of the National Labor Relations Board, during which lawyers for Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union ironed out details around what employees should be allowed to vote in the election. 

Last month, workers at the Amazon facility in Bessemer, Ala., notified the NLRB of their plans to hold a vote on whether to be represented by the RWDSU. In its petition, the union said the bargaining unit would cover 1,500 full- and part-time workers at the facility.

The NLRB last week said it found "sufficient showing" for a vote. Amazon said additional workers should be allowed to vote, arguing the facility employs 5,700 people.

On Tuesday, Amazon and the union came to a consensus to include a broader range of employees in the proposed bargaining unit, including seasonal employees brought on to help handle holiday demand, along with other positions concerning onsite medical care, training and safety, among other fields. It means that thousands of additional employees will be eligible to participate in the election.  

Now, it's up to the board to determine when and how the union vote will be held. The board is expected to issue a decision directing the election in early to mid-January, which means a vote likely won't take place until later that month. 

Amazon and union still at odds over election venue

Amazon and the union remain in disagreement over how the election should be held by mail or in-person at the Bessemer facility, known as BHM1. 

At Tuesday's hearing, an NLRB official highlighted that mail-in ballots have been used in all 30 cases that have been presented since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. The board also raised concerns that, in order to conduct an in-person election, additional NLRB board agents would be required to travel into Jefferson County, which has a high Covid-positive rate. 

Harry Johnson, a lawyer representing Amazon, argued the vote should take place at the Bessemer facility and pointed to the company's extensive efforts to sanitize the facility. Johnson also suggested Amazon could rent out a hotel for NLRB staff to stay at during the election.

Amazon's move to hold an in-person election drew a rebuke from Richard Rouco, an attorney who represents the union, who said: "I know Amazon thinks it has special rules, or that it can create itself a bubble or rent hotels or do a bunch of other things in order to contain the virus, but that's not the standard." 

In November, the NLRB released a set of guidelines around conducting elections during the pandemic, which suggested that mail-in ballots are preferred when the 14-day positivity rate in the county where the facility is located is 5% or higher. An NLRB official in the hearing said the positivity rate in Jefferson County is above 14%. 

Watch: How Amazon fends off unions as more workers hold protests

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