The National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday said evidence submitted by the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union concerning Amazon’s conduct during a union vote in Bessemer, Alabama, justified holding a hearing to review the evidence and determine whether to redo the election.
“The evidence submitted by the union in support of its objections could be grounds for overturning the election if introduced at a hearing,” the NLRB said.
The NLRB’s ruling clears the way for a hearing, which it plans to hold on May 7, where it will review the RWDSU’s evidence. If the NLRB finds Amazon illegally interfered in the election, it can void the results and re-run the election.
Amazon has denied any wrongdoing.
The RWDSU, the union which Amazon’s employees voted on whether to join, failed to secure enough votes from Amazon warehouse workers to form a union in a highly publicized election earlier this month.
When the NLRB publicly announced the vote count on April 9, the tally was 1,798 votes against unionizing and 738 votes for the union, with 505 ballots challenged and 76 ballots voided – 70.9% of valid votes counted were against the union.
But the RWDSU subsequently filed 23 objections against Amazon and how it acted during the contentious March election, claiming Amazon’s conduct prevented employees from having a “free and uncoerced exercise of choice” on which way to vote. The RWDSU alleged Amazon’s agents unlawfully threatened employees with closure of the warehouse if they joined the union and that the company emailed a warning it would lay off 75% of the proposed bargaining unit because of the union.
An Amazon spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the NLRB’s statement.
At the May 7 hearing, the NLRB would have the option to overturn the election results if any evidence of illegal action is ruled credible.
(Reuters reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Chris Reese)
After one of the most high-profile union – and anti-union – campaigns in recent history, Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, voted overwhelmingly against unionizing, with the National Labor Relations Board confirming Friday that 71% of eligible ballots were cast in opposition.
But eight labor experts told Insider that focusing on the vote tally misses the bigger takeaway from this saga: that American workers are demanding better workplaces and a voice on the job, and America’s current labor laws simply aren’t designed to help them accomplish that goal.
Still, they said, Bessemer put a spotlight on how stacked the deck is against workers, and that the broad, diverse public support for the union drive showed the US labor movement is gaining more steam than it has in decades.
Amazon, which had aggressively opposed the union effort, undoubtedly won a significant battle this week (pending likely legal challenges from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union). But it may have put a target on its back that could prove costly in what’s likely to be an ongoing war over how companies treat their workers, the experts said.
The fight was never going to be fair
Amazon responded to the vote Friday by saying its “employees made the choice to vote against joining a union” and that it was glad their “collective voices were finally heard.”
But experts said that misrepresents what has happened since November, when Bessemer employees officially asked the NLRB to hold a union election.
“The result reflects the imbalance in current US labor law, rather than any genuine expression of whether workers would like to have more of a voice in their workplace,” Rebecca Givan, an associate labor and employment professor at Rutgers University, told Insider.
“This demonstrates just how hard it is for workers to gain a voice on the job when the employer has unlimited resources, full access to workers all day long, and very few legal constraints on what it can do or say,” she said.
In Bessemer, workers had a much tougher road to travel.
“Unions lose in 90% of the cases when management opposes the organizing effort,” which Amazon’s management did, Tom Kochan, a professor of management at MIT, told Insider.
That’s depite a surge in pro-union sentiment in the US in recent years. Kochan’s research in 2017 found that around 48% of non-union workers would join one if they had the opportunity, while a Gallup poll from August found that 65% of Americans approve of unions – the highest percentage in nearly 20 years.
But under US labor law, companies have lots of tools at their disposal to try to prevent employees from unionizing, from forcing them to listen to anti-union messaging in “captive-audience” meetings, to having a significant say over which employees are eligible to unionize in the first place. Even when companies violate those laws, the NLRB, which oversees union elections, lacks the power to issue fines, which experts said gives companies little incentive to play fair.
“The most important story is not the fact that the union didn’t win. Rather, it’s that they got as close to winning as they did,” Erin Hatton, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Buffalo whose research focuses on work and labor movements, told Insider.
“Through legal coercion and illegal tactics, employers spend a great deal of money to keep unions out and it usually works. So this outcome isn’t all that surprising. And yet the workers were incredibly successful in so many ways,” she said.
Anti-union tactics in the spotlight
One of those successes, experts said, was bringing attention to Amazon’s industry-standard, but still aggressively anti-union tactics.
“Amazon’s tactics during the campaign and voting process were successful for them but now are being questioned legally and in the public view,” Lynne Vincent, an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University, told Insider.
Once employees took their union drive public, Amazon enlisted expensive “union avoidance” consultants to help kick its union-busting tactics into overdrive. Amazon pushed its anti-union message through websites, t-shirts, frequent texts to employees, and midnight “education” meetings, which labor experts told Insider were fairly typically in union campaigns like this.
But the company also sought to shape the voting process itself.
The NLRB has allowed mail-in voting in union elections since March 2020 due to the pandemic, but Amazon (twice, unsuccessfully) tried to get the NLRB to hold an in-person election. When that failed, it reportedly pressed the United States Postal Service to install a mailbox outside the Bessemer warehouse.
An Amazon spokesperson previously told Insider that the USPS installed the mailbox “for the convenience of our employees.”
But the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union – under which Amazon’s Bessemer employees would have unionized if the vote had passed – accused Amazon of using the mailbox to intimidate workers and plans to file unfair labor practices charges with the NLRB that, if serious enough, could cause the NLRB to throw out the election result.
John Logan, a labor and employment professor at San Francisco State University who specializes in companies’ union avoidance strategies, told Insider that the mailbox’s placement likely gave employees an impression that “Amazon was playing some kind of direct role in monitoring and even perhaps in counting the votes, which clearly creates an atmosphere of pressure and potentially unlawful intimidation.”
Vincent said that companies who use a similar anti-union playbook to Amazon “may see validation in the effectiveness of the tactics,” but that the Bessemer campaign may also cause politicians to reexamine and ultimately outlaw some of those tactics.
What’s next for American workers?
Kochan said the Bessemer union drive was “another clear indication that [US] labor law is broken, perhaps in its current form, beyond repair.”
But many of the experts who spoke to Insider said the massive amount of attention and public support it generated suggest there may finally be an appetite to begin those repairs.
Under the Trump administration, the NLRB “systematically rolled back workers’ rights,” according to an analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. President Joe Biden has already signaled he intends to be much more pro-worker than his predecessor, releasing a video in support of unionization efforts and against corporate “anti-union propaganda” – as Amazon employees were voting.
“Given the pro union sentiment in many areas, as well as the clear backing of the current administration, it would still not be surprising to see successful efforts to unionize businesses in other areas, and eventually, even at Amazon itself,” Joseph Seiner, a labor and employment law professor at the University of South Carolina, told Insider.
Veena Dubal, a law professor at UC Hastings who researches how technology impacts workers’ lives, said that the Bessemer vote may push regulators to look more closely at how giant tech firms like Amazon exert power over workers.
“A lot of regulatory focus has hinged on anti-trust regulation-the need to break up Amazon because of its significant market power-but the truth is, Amazon also exerts monopsony power in labor markets. In areas where Amazon warehouses exist, wages go down, not up,” Dubal said.
The COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice protests following George Floyd’s death last May have also forced Americans to reckon with how race plays a role in the workplace. That became a focus in Bessemer, where the RWDSU estimated that 85% of Amazon’s employees are Black, according to The New York Times.
“The core issue in the campaign was not about specific concessions but worker power. And in this case, it can’t be distinguished from the struggle for racial equity,” Premilla Nadasen, an associate professor of history at Barnard College who researches alternative labor movements, told Insider. “Black people are being disenfranchised electorally and subject to systemic violence. So, the struggle for economic control over matters more.”
“Official union membership figures aside,” she said, “more and more working-class Americans are recognizing the need to have a collective voice.”
A total of 3,215 employees at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, cast ballots in a closely watched vote over whether to unionize, according to a press release from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
The warehouse has more than 5,800 employees, meaning roughly 55% of employees voted.
The RWDSU, under which Amazon’s warehouse workers would unionize, said the National Labor Relations Board has cleared all unchallenged ballots, but that “hundreds of challenged ballots” remain, most of which were challenged by Amazon, and that “more issues could impact the final results.”
The NLRB will likely start its public count of the votes via video conference on Thursday afternoon or Friday morning Eastern Time, according to the RWDSU.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
In the contentious union vote, Amazon has repeatedly contested aspects of the voting process to the NLRB, which denied the company’s request to install cameras monitoring the ballot room in the NLRB’s Birmingham office.
Union organizers have also complained about Amazon’s tactics, which have reportedly included enlisting local police to monitor organizers and requesting that traffic lights near the warehouse be reconfigured to limit the amount of time organizers have to speak with employees entering and leaving the facility.
The National Labor Relations Board ruled Thursday that Tesla repeatedly violated labor laws by trying to prevent workers from organizing and discussing working conditions.
In a 3-2 vote, the NLRB found Tesla broke the law by “coercively interrogating” workers engaged in legally protected organizing activities, using gag orders to prevent them from talking to the media, and firing union activist Richard Ortiz in 2017 (the board ordered Tesla to rehire the worker).
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
The NLRB also ruled CEO Elon Musk “unlawfully threatened” workers in a 2018 tweet and must remove it.
“Nothing stopping Tesla team at our car plant from voting union. Could do so tmrw if they wanted. But why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing? Our safety record is 2X better than when plant was UAW & everybody already gets healthcare,” Musk said in the tweet.
US labor law allows companies to claim bad things could happen if workers unionize, but it doesn’t allow them to punish workers if they do unionize. So, the NLRB said, Musk violated those laws by saying employees “would lose their stock options if they chose the Union as their representative.”
Musk’s tweet came in response to increased efforts by workers at Tesla’s Fremont, California, plant to form a union with the United Auto Workers (the “UAW” Musk referenced in the tweet) amid what they said were grueling working conditions.
Musk has clashed with workers at the Fremont factory over working conditions since then, as well.
Last May, after public health orders required nonessential businesses to shut down in Alameda County, Musk reopened the factory in defiance of those orders. The county eventually reversed course and let the factory restart operations after Tesla sued.
The National Labor Relations Board has accused Amazon of illegally firing a worker who advocated for better working conditions during the pandemic, BuzzFeed News reported Friday.
The NLRB filed a complaint against Amazon last month for firing former warehouse worker Courtney Bowden, meaning her case will be heard by a federal judge in March, according to BuzzFeed News.
Amazon fired Bowden in March after she tried to organize her coworkers to push for paid time off for part-time workers, claiming she had gotten into an altercation with a coworker, The Wall Street Journal reported in April.
Bowden disputed Amazon’s claims, telling The Wall Street Journal at the time that the company was “trying to get rid of organizers,” adding: “We are being targeted.”
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Amazon started paying workers an extra $2 per hour in March as hazard pay, but dropped the practice in May, and offers limited sick pay beyond a two-week period for employees who test positive for COVID-19. The company has previously said it has taken a variety of steps to limit the spread of the virus in its facilities, including providing protective gear, implementing temperature checks, conducting some in-house testing, and implementing additional cleaning measures. The company said more than 19,000 workers have tested positive for COVID-19.
Amazon has also come under scrutiny for its increasingly aggressive efforts to monitor workers and discredit their claims about working conditions. Days after firing Smalls, a leaked memo obtained by Vice News revealed that Amazon’s top executives had planned to mount a negative PR campaign against Smalls.
“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position,” Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky wrote in notes sent to other top executives, adding that there was “general agreement” on the strategy, which was devised in a meeting attended by CEO Jeff Bezos and operations chief Dave Clark, according to Vice.
Earlier this week, over four hundred lawmakers from 34 countries signed an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos saying that Amazon’s “days of impunity are over,” accusing Amazon and Bezos of underpaying and intimidating workers, contributing to climate change, and paying unfairly low taxes.