Skip to main content
The Bessemer workers who support the union complain about aggressive productivity goals Amazon sets for them, targets that can be exhausting for employees racing to stow, pick or pack goods at the massive warehouse. Many of the employees remain concerned about catching the coronavirus at the facility, where the company has noted in a filing that 218 of the 7,575 employees of Amazon and third parties who work at the facility tested positive for the virus in the two weeks preceding Jan. 7. And some want Amazon to restore the $2-an-hour bonus it instituted at the start of the pandemic but eliminated at the end of May.

Almost as soon as its Bessemer workers filed paperwork in November with the NLRB to hold a vote to join the RWDSU, Amazon began a campaign to thwart that bid.

Now that the seven-week mail-in voting period has begun, Amazon has stopped the mandatory meetings, which are proscribed during the voting period. But it has engaged in other anti-union tactics that have riled the union.

In a January filing with the NLRB, the company suggested conducting in-person balloting in a tent set up in the parking lot outside the warehouse, committing to agency rules to avoid creating “the impression that any party controls employee access to the Board’s election processes.” The NLRB rejected that proposal, instead calling for mail-in ballots to protect workers, as well as agency staff, from the spread of the coronavirus.

But just as the mail-in voting began, a mailbox appeared in the parking lot in front of the warehouse, inside a tent.

“Speak for yourself! Mail your ballot here,” reads a banner on the tent.

The mailbox — the type of unmarked units with individually locked compartments and a mail slot that are common in apartment and condo buildings — doesn’t have U.S. Postal Service markings. But the Postal Service owns the box and suggested putting it at the warehouse, Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer said. He declined to elaborate on why the agency, which counts Amazon as its largest corporate client, decided to install the mailbox at the start of the mail-in election, or what led it to put the mailbox on Amazon property.

In a text to Bessemer employees, Amazon wrote that only the Postal Service has the key to access outgoing mail.

“As we have said all along, every employee should have the opportunity to vote in this important decision,” Knox said in an emailed statement. “This mailbox is enclosed in a tent making it convenient, safe, and private for our employees to vote on their way to and from work if they choose to, or use it for any of their other mailing needs.”

But placing a mailbox on company property with company signage could lead workers to think that Amazon has some role in collecting and counting ballots, which could influence their votes, said Craig Becker, the AFL-CIO’s general counsel and a former NLRB member appointed by President Barack Obama.

“They are trying to assert control over the mechanics [of the election] in a way that has already been rejected by the regional director and the board,” Becker said.

The union is also concerned about an Amazon initiative to pay unhappy warehouse workers to leave. In late February, the company extended what it calls “The Offer.” It’s a bonus, starting at $1,000, to quit.

Amazon began the initiative in 2014 and extends the offer to all its warehouse staff in North America. Only full-time workers who have been with the company for a year qualify. That limits the number of eligible workers at the Bessemer warehouse, which opened at the end of March 2020, to employees who transferred there from another Amazon facility, company spokeswoman Rena Lunak said. She declined to disclose the number of Bessemer workers who do qualify.

But the union expects the election to be close and sees The Offer as a way to weed out Bessemer workers who might have otherwise sided with them, because the ballots of ex-employees won’t count.

“They are trying to get people who are not happy workers to quit because they know unhappy workers are the ones who will vote for the union,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said. “They know perfectly well what the impact would be in Bessemer.”

One Bessemer worker has filed an unfair labor practices claim with the NLRB about Amazon’s anti-union website — The site falsely argues that workers would have to pay dues in Alabama, a “right-to-work” state where dues-paying isn’t required with unionized employers. In a handwritten filing on Feb. 11, the worker, whose name the NLRB redacted when it released the document, accuses the company, through the website, of trying to “restrain” employees from forming a union.

“The statements on the site aim to intimidate employees and coerce them into not organizing, and thus interferes directly with the proposed formation” of the union, the filing claims.

Lawmakers, too, have raised questions about Amazon’s tactics to thwart unionization. Last fall, four senators, including Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), sent a letter to Bezos asking him to respond to a report in Vice that the company infiltrated private social media groups to track employee discussion of unionization, and a report by Recode that it invested in technology to track union organizing.

The company doesn’t track individuals who participate in “protected activities,” such as union drives, Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, wrote in reply.

“Amazon does not discourage workers from organizing,” Huseman wrote. “Rather, Amazon recognizes all of our associates’ rights to decide whether union representation is right for them.”

In the United Kingdom, the GMB Union is targeting two other Amazon facilities in the country after coming up short at Rugeley, the union’s Rix said. He declined to name them. But this time, Rix said, the union is pressing to get more than half of the proposed bargaining unit at the Amazon sites to pay membership dues, which is how the country’s regulators determine their support for an organizing drive. It’s a much harder task, but one that might preempt Amazon’s anti-union efforts, Rix said.

“We’ve got to do the job in a harder way,” Rix said.

Amazon is fighting a different set of workers in Canada. The United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Local 175 accused the company’s Canadian subsidiary in a filing to the Ontario Labour Relations Board of illegally orchestrating a union-busting campaign at the subcontractors who deliver packages in the province. The union claims Amazon pushed to fire union organizers at the delivery companies, many of whose workers wear Amazon uniforms and exclusively deliver Amazon packages. Amazon also cut business to delivery services with unionized drivers, ultimately putting them out of business, according to the union’s filing.

“Amazon has engaged in a course of conduct intended to defeat unionization by contracting shell companies or subcontractors to supply it with courier drivers over whom Amazon has complete direction and control,” the union alleges in its filing, which is still pending.

The tactics have discouraged drivers, many of whom are recent immigrants to Canada, from unionizing, said Tim Deelstra, a spokesman for two UFCW locals in Ontario.

“It sent a chilling effect throughout the community,” Deelstra said.

When a group of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Shakopee, Minn., walked off the job during the company’s Prime Day yearly sales event in 2019, the company hired more than a dozen off-duty city police, stationing them inside and outside the facility, said Tyler Hamilton, a 24-year-old trainer at the site.

“That’s very intimidating,” Hamilton said, noting that many of the warehouse workers are recent East African immigrants. “That’s a show of force.”

He supports the union drive in Bessemer, in part, because he thinks it will send a message to Amazon, and to its workers globally.

“That would set a precedent,” Hamilton said. “That starts opening doors.”

Source: The Washington Post