Harried, sleep-deprived, and again on his way back to Bessemer, Ala. for what could be the most momentous week of his professional life, labor boss Stuart Applebaum compared the difficult process of unionizing thousands of Amazon warehouse workers in the deep south to the 1960s civil rights movement.
This has breathed new life into the labor movement, said Applebaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, when reached in New York on his cell phone over the weekend. People all over the globe are inspired. This is about civil rights.
More than 5,800 Amazon workers in Alabama are currently voting by mail on whether to organize under the RWDSU, an 80-year-old organization led by Applebaum since 1998. Voting ends on Tuesday and counting begins to decide if Bessemer will be the first unionized workforce in Amazons 26-year history (more on the upcoming process below).
At stake isnt just union representation for several thousand Alabama-based employees of the online retail giant, but also the companys ongoing relationship with hundreds of thousands of its lowest-paid workers across the country.
And in some ways, the vote has also become a proxy for the health of the national labor movement as a whole.
If you pull this off here, believe me: workers all over this country are going to be saying, if these people in Alabama could take on the wealthiest guy in the world, we can do it as well,’ Sen. Bernie Sanders said at a rally near Bessemer on Friday.
Labor organizers see Bessemer as either the kindling to heat up a modern unionization movement in Amazon and elsewhere or, if it fails, as the type of frigid, enthusiasm-dampening shower common in the companys hometown of Seattle.
So far, Amazon has been winning into its effort to prevent any unionization foothold. But Applebaum said it wont be like that forever. In fact, he added, it might not be like that anymore in just a handful of days.
Win or lose, the union is going to keep pressing Amazon, he said.
We already see this as a win, he said, noting President Bidens endorsement of union rights earlier this month and the calls he now gets from other fulfillment centers across the country. This (fight) will determine the nature of work itself. Lose or win we are still not going away.
Amazon executives have taken a significantly dimmer view of Applebaums effort to unionize the companys workers at the fulfillment center called BMH1. The company leaders have indicated that theyd like to see the union enthusiasm grind to a halt forever in the 26,000-person town.
To that end, Amazon leaders, such as Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark, took to social media last week to criticize the push for union representation and politicians who are sympathetic to the effort, such as Sen. Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
1/3 I welcome @SenSanders to Birmingham and appreciate his push for a progressive workplace. I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but thats not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace https://t.co/Fq8D6vyuh9
Dave Clark (@davehclark) March 24, 2021
This is extraordinary and revealing. One of the most powerful politicians in the United States just said shes going to break up an American company so that they cant criticize her anymore. https://t.co/Nt0wcZo17g
Amazon News (@amazonnews) March 26, 2021
Clarks tweets and subsequent comments from Amazons PR account were reportedly sparked by Bezos himself, with Vox detailing how Bezos wanted the company to defend itself more strongly against criticism.
Labor organizers have countered with an array of accounts of Amazons alleged union-busting tactics that include intimidation of union-sympathetic workers in places previous to Bessemer.
At Bessemer, workers have complained of Amazon flooding employees with anti-union rhetoric on posters in bathrooms, hallways, and in mandatory staff meetings. Organizers even claimed that Amazon appealed to the city to get traffic signals changed to make union organizing harder. Amazon denied the allegations.
Certification votes must be in by Tuesday, but effectively the mail-in ballots should have been sent well before then. Overseen by the National Labor Relations Board, the vote will be authenticated and then counted in the coming days with legal challenges from both sides expected.
Unless the ballot is a landslide either way, the issue isnt likely to be settled this week as both sides are expected to mount legal challenges to individual ballots.
Union organizers have focused on Amazons aggressive work rate and minimal breaks, the fact that thousands of its warehouse staff still qualify for food stamps, and the 100% annual employee turnover in many of the companys fulfillment centers.
Publicly, Amazon executives have defended company policies by noting that its $15-an-hour wage, health benefits, retirement benefits, and upward mobility opportunities set it apart from many warehouse jobs. The company notes that it exceeds the state minimum wage in most places where its warehouses are located and that it consistently works to improve conditions for its employees.
A New York Times report earlier this month noted that the median wage for greater Birmingham, where Bessemer is located, was almost $3 above Amazons base pay at BMH1.
Weve reached out to Amazon for comment and will update this story if we hear back.
Heres a rundown of what to expect for the union voting process:
- Mail-in ballots must arrive at the National Labor Relations Board office in Birmingham by Tuesday morning, March 30. The NLRB office is 21 miles from BMH1.
- At 10 a.m. on March 30, ballot inspection begins. This is the stage in which Amazon or the RWDSU can challenge a ballots legitimacy. Representatives from both sides can observe the ballot sorting but this session is closed to the general public and media.
- Ballots can be challenged under two broad categories: 1- eligibility of the person and eligibility of the ballot. For example, a ballot can be tossed out if it was cast by an employee who actually is ineligible to vote, such as certain managers or someone who left the company after voting. It also can be discarded if it isnt clearly marked.
- Challenged ballots will be set aside for a hearing and decision by the NLRBs Region 10 director. We expect a lot of them, said RWDSU spokesperson Chelsea Conner.
- The remaining eligible ballots will then move to a public counting process at the NLRBs Birmingham office. This likely would happen a day or few days after the initial sorting process. Voting observers can attend this count by Zoom. This is the vote to determine if a majority of employees have elected a union.
- EXCEPT: If the number of challenged ballots could mathematically flip the election, then the counting process holds until the Region 10 director renders a decision on the undetermined ballots.
- The election could then be called after the challenged ballots are ruled upon and counted.
- HOWEVER, both sides have opportunities for challenges and appeals to the process that could eventually reach federal court and leave the election undetermined for a while.