As Amazon union vote count drags on, activists say "this is everybody's fight"
The public portion of the vote counting process to determine whether workers in a Birmingham, Alabama suburb will form the first-ever union at an Amazon warehouse is estimated to begin this week. The election will affect the 6,000 employees at the Bessemer warehouse.
But the final results could be delayed because both Amazon and the Retail, Warehouse, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) have an opportunity to issue legal challenges.
The public count was initially expected to begin last week but has been pushed back multiple times, signaling that challenges are potentially piling up. The National Labor Relations Board said starting the public portion has been a moving target and dependent on how quickly ballots and challenges are processed.
"The principal matter that has to be addressed is who is eligible to vote," said William B. Gould IV, a law professor at Stanford and former chair of NLRB.
Gould said challenges can arise based on when employment begins, whether a worker is still part of the labor force at that facility, and whether managers or supervisors voted. Labor law does not allow supervisors to join unions because they are considered part of management.
"I am sure there are lots of challenges that are being made by both sides," Gould said.
Elections to certify a union are decided by a majority of votes cast. The NLRB will call out each voter's name one-by-one, with representatives from all parties present. If a voter's eligibility is challenged, their ballot will remain unopened in a separate pile.
The NLRB will hold a hearing if the number of challenged ballots are enough to affect the outcome.
"If the number of challenges are not outcome determinative then the results will be certified right away," Gould said.
The historic effort to form a collective bargaining unit, which has gained the support of national politicians including President Joe Biden, is also energizing labor organizers in other parts of the country.
"This is everybody's fight. This isn't just the Amazon workers' fight," said Carlos Ramos, an organizer with the advocacy group Gig Workers Rising. "If you punch a clock, if you receive a paycheck, this is your fight, too," he added.
Employees at the Bessemer warehouse, which has only been open for less than a year, described working conditions as "grueling" and raised concerns about the lack of break times to use the restroom or eat meals. Workers say they are tracked throughout the day and could be fired if they fall behind on packing boxes.
"Our employees know the truth—starting wages of $15 or more, health care from day one, and a safe and inclusive workplace," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to CBS News.
"Amazon has an enormous advantage here, as many employers do because it has the ability to speak to the workers directly on company property and use company time," Gould said. "The union, under the law as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court, is barred from coming onto company property."
At a congressional hearing in March, Jennifer Bates, who started working at the Bessemer warehouse last year, said Amazon forced employees into hour-long meetings and tried to convince them not to unionize. Bates said Amazon also sent private messages to workers and posted anti-union signs in hallways and bathroom stalls to discourage employees from joining with the RWDSU, which represents more than 15 million workers nationwide.
A spokesperson for Amazon said the company doesn't believe Bates' comments "represent the more than 90% of her fulfillment center colleagues who say they'd recommend Amazon as a great place to work to friends and family." The spokesperson added that Amazon "encouraged" all of the workers to vote "and their voices will be heard in the days ahead."
Last week, fake Twitter accounts impersonated Amazon workers and tweeted anti-union messages before Twitter banned the accounts.
Once all the ballots are tallied, both sides can also raise objections regarding conduct during the election. The NLRB will investigate the claims and set a hearing date if there is enough evidence to support the case.
The results could be set aside entirely if it is found that conduct by the employer created an atmosphere of confusion or fear of reprisals.
"Whether or not the union does win at Bessemer, we do have strong momentum working in our favor and the employers are scared of that," said Grace Reckers, an organizer with the Office and Professional Employees International Union.
Reckers, whose focus is helping tech industry workers organize, said the "ambitious task to take on a union campaign of this magnitude" by workers in Bessemer is meaningful for the labor movement in other parts of the country.
She added that a major organizing effort led by Black workers is also challenging the stereotype that tech industry workers are White software engineers working in offices.
"Amazon is a tech company, they also have a huge workforce engaging in serious manual labor, who tend to be low wage workers and tend to be people of color," Reckers said.
Andre Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, told CBS News the unionization effort is "part of a larger movement that speaks to Black power in the United States."
"When it comes to economic and social justice, Black people have the led charge on so many fronts because we want to and oftentimes because we have to," Perry said.
Perry said the immediate need to address work conditions at the Bessemer warehouse will bring "dignity back to workers."
Amazon's sales and profits soared during the coronavirus pandemic and the wealth of the company's founder Jeff Bezos increased to over $200 billion between March and October 2020. As Amazon expanded its warehouse workforce, employees demanded raises, protested lack of protections from COVID-19, and asked for more transparency around coronavirus infections at its facilities.
"The workers who literally put their lives on the line for us to get through this pandemic want their humanity recognized and they're doing it by forming a union so that they can have representation," Perry said.
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