By Sebastian Herrera
Amazon.com Inc. has taken a wide lead in a closely watched union election by warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., after federal officials counted about half the ballots cast.
Of votes counted, about 70% of the Amazon employees sided against unionization Thursday, according to a Wall Street Journal tally. Officials from the National Labor Relations Board counted votes for hours in a broadcast. A total of 3,215 ballots were submitted, and officials will resume counting Friday, when a final outcome could become clear.
The NLRB has processed ballots for days since the voting concluded on March 29 to ensure they were valid, and it allowed both parties an opportunity to contest the eligibility of each one. Bessemer workers are trying to become the first Amazon employees to be unionized and would be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
As the tally swug widely in Amazon's favor Thursday, the union criticized the company's tactics during the election, including how it held mandatory meetings to discourage workers from voting in favor of the union and a mailbox that appeared near the Bessemer facility.
The U.S. Postal Service installed a mailbox outside the Bessemer facility close to when the mail vote began in February after requests from Amazon, according to email records viewed by The Wall Street Journal. The union took issue with the mailbox because it said it could intimidate voting workers to think Amazon was conducting the election.
The mailbox incident is among issues the union is expected to file against the company after the election ends. The Washington Post earlier reported about Amazon's requests.
"Our system is broken, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign," RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said Thursday in a statement. "This still represents an important moment for working people and their voices will be heard."
An Amazon spokeswoman said the mailbox, "which only the USPS had access to, was a simple, secure and completely optional way to make it easy for employees to vote, no more and no less." The company declined to comment on Thursday's initial results.
The election has drawn national attention because a vote to unionize in Bessemer could fuel other unionization attempts throughout the company, which employs roughly 950,000 people in the U.S., most at its hundreds of warehouses.
Organizers have said that forming a union would allow workers to collectively bargain over issues including safety standards, training and compensation. Some employees have complained both publicly and to the company about their workload and how the company monitors them through internal tracking systems. About 6,000 people work at the Amazon facility in Bessemer.
Amazon has said its pay and benefits rank among the best available for comparable jobs -- employees are paid at least $15 an hour, more than double the minimum wage in Alabama. The company says it provides a competitive compensation package, which includes retirement and healthcare benefits that many workers appreciate.
Amazon is the nation's second-largest employer after Walmart Inc. The tech giant added 500,000 workers globally last year as its business thrived while many others were hammered by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
NLRB officials started counting votes in favor and in opposition to the union in Bessemer during a live broadcast Thursday that reporters and others were allowed to watch. The labor board is expected to announce results at the end of the count.
The winning side will have to gain a majority of the total number of votes cast. If there isn't a clear majority, given hundreds of votes that were contested by the parties for voter eligibility, the matter could be decided in a federal hearing. Both Amazon and the union could also file actions to contest the outcome.
Amazon faces pressure from staff world-wide to change workplace policies related to employees' break time, pay and the rate at which they prepare packages. Employees are expected to fulfill hundreds of orders an hour while being monitored by Amazon and having two to three breaks during what can typically be 10-hour shifts.
Both the union and Amazon used a variety of tactics to reach workers, including mailing leaflets and sending texts. Amazon held meetings with employees to discourage them from voting to unionize and posted signs around the warehouse.
Celebrities and politicians from both major parties voiced support for the Bessemer workers, casting their effort as part of a wider battle for equality for working-class people and a check on Amazon's growth and power. President Biden in February called the election a "vitally important choice," and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also publicly expressed support for workers, as did actors and athletes.
Union supporters and the company increasingly clashed as the final ballots were turned in. Dave Clark and Jay Carney, both senior executives at Amazon, have used Twitter, highlighting Amazon's pay and benefits, to counter claims by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), a frequent adversary, that the company mistreats its workers.
--Inti Pacheco and Paul Ziobro contributed to this article.
Write to Sebastian Herrera at Sebastian.Herrera@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires