A federal official has recommended overturning the results of a union election at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Alabama, giving the retail union an opportunity to reverse its defeat, according to people familiar with the issue.
After losing the election in April, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union appealed the outcome to the National Labor Relations Board, setting in motion a contentious hearing in May that was presided over by NLRB hearing officer Kerstin Myers.
The defeat had been seen as a major setback for union organizers, who have struggled to make significant inroads among workers at the e-commerce giant.
But now, Myers has recommended the election be run again, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the recommendation isn’t yet public. The recommendation will be considered by a labor board regional director, and Amazon has the right to appeal the ruling to an NLRB panel in Washington. If a new election is called, it could happen later this year.
The union has accused Amazon of making anti-union threats, firing an employee for distributing union cards and pressuring workers to cast their votes in a mailbox the company had installed in a tent on its property, in view of surveillance cameras. Amazon denied any wrongdoing.
Myers’ recommendation centers on the mailbox, according to one of the people familiar with it. During the NLRB hearing, an employee said Amazon security guards used keys to open the mailbox, testimony that former NLRB chair Wilma Liebman said could be reason enough to overturn the result. Amazon has said that it had no access to the outgoing mail and that it asked the Postal Service to install the mailbox in order to boost voter turnout in the union election. The labor board has the authority to invalidate election results in response to conduct that could have changed the outcome and prevented employees from making a free choice about whether to unionize, which can include even creating the impression of surveillance or interference by management in the balloting process.
Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU president, said the union presented “compelling evidence” that the e-commerce company sought to interfere in the election.
“The question of whether or not to have a union is supposed to be the workers’ decision and not the employer’s,” Appelbaum said Monday in a statement. “Amazon cheated, they got caught, and they are being held accountable”.
Amazon vowed to appeal. “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,” an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement. “Their voice should be heard above all else, and we plan to appeal to ensure that happens”.
The ruling is a blow for Amazon, but there’s no guarantee the union will prevail a second time around. While the pandemic hampered the RWDSU’s first campaign, union membership was a tougher sell in Bessemer, Alabama, than in larger cities. Amazon’s starting wage of $15 an hour goes a lot further in Bessemer than in more expensive locations. The company also provides health benefits not offered by many local employers.
Moreover, Amazon can be expected to wage as fierce a campaign as it did last time — holding mandatory “information sessions” with employees, where managers argue that a union won’t necessarily improve wages and benefits. Such direct appeals likely helped the company win handily last time. Of the more than 3,000 ballots cast, Amazon garnered 1,798 no votes to 738 yes votes in favor of the union. While federal officials set aside 505 contested ballots — most of them disputed by Amazon, according to the union– there weren’t enough to change the result.