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Amazon's Union Vote : From Breaks to Wages, What's at Stake in Alabama

04/05/2021 | 05:28pm EDT

By Sebastian Herrera

The ballot-counting process in a closely watched union election by thousands of Amazon.com Inc. workers in Bessemer, Ala., continued Monday, with an outcome possible this week.

The National Labor Relations Board has been going through mail-in ballots since March 30, the day after the voting period ended.

As the count has proceeded, Amazon has sought to highlight its $15-an-hour pay and benefits, even as the company has come under fire from critics over its working conditions and tax payments. The company apologized Friday for a tweet published on March 24 by its news account that incorrectly challenged accounts of workers having to at times urinate in bottles because of Amazon's demanding schedule to deliver packages. The company said that while warehouse employees are able to use the restroom when needed, "we know that drivers can and do have trouble finding restrooms because of traffic or sometimes rural routes."

As the voting process ended, Amazon began to defend itself on Twitter over its wages and other matters. Twitter Inc. last week also permanently suspended several accounts that had purported to be Amazon warehouse employees, according to a Twitter spokesman. The accounts had resembled those of "FC Ambassadors," warehouse workers which Amazon has enlisted to post about the company on social media, including with comments that often defend it or speak positively about working conditions. Amazon said it didn't have any connections to the fake accounts.

The election in Bessemer will determine whether the warehouse employees will become the first group to unionize among Amazon's roughly 950,000 U.S. workers. Pro-union employees have sought help from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU, a frequent Amazon opponent that would represent the workers if they vote in favor of unionizing.

Organizers have said that forming a union would allow workers to collectively bargain over safety standards, training, breaks, pay and other benefits. Those topics have been at the center of disputes between Amazon and its workforce sprawled across hundreds of facilities. Some employees have complained about what they say is a grueling workload and how the company monitors employees through an internal tracking system and cameras.

Amazon has said that it offers some of the best pay and benefits available for comparable jobs in similar industries, and that the company provides a competitive compensation package that includes 401(k) and healthcare coverage. The company is on pace -- based on recent hiring trends -- to overtake Walmart Inc. as the largest U.S. employer within a few years.

Here is what you need to know about the coming election results:

When will election results be revealed?

Results could come this week. The count has taken days because of the number of ballots and because both parties can dispute votes. The NLRB would recognize the union, if it receives a majority of votes.

The board is used to typically gathering results from a single-day, in-person election, but the Covid-19 pandemic drove the election to be held by mail, extending the process.

The counting process started on March 30. Names of voters are being read during a private session, and the NLRB is setting aside challenged ballots. Next, reporters will be allowed through a videoconference to tune in when the NLRB begins to count the yes or no votes of the unchallenged ballots. The timing of the final outcome is unclear.

The NLRB is expected to announce results at the end of the count. The outcome could be affected if the challenged ballots exceed the margin of victory. In that scenario, the NLRB could hold a hearing to sort out the disputed votes. Each side could also contest the outcome of the election and file actions accusing the other of violating election standards, further delaying the final outcome.

Why has this election received so much attention?

Amazon, already one of the country's most powerful companies before the pandemic, has grown substantially in the past year. Amazon made $386.1 billion in sales in 2020 and saw its share price rise about 76%. Union supporters say the company's success, when weighed against the working conditions of its hourly workers, represents a symbol of the overbearing power of big tech companies and inequality plaguing America. President Biden and other high-profile figures have weighed in to support the Bessemer workers.

The union battle has heightened emotions between company representatives and union supporters. Dave Clark, a senior Amazon executive, recently criticized independent Sen. Bernie Sanders's visit to Alabama on March 26 to meet with workers. Mr. Clark pointed out that the minimum wage in Vermont, which Mr. Sanders represents, is lower than Amazon's starting wage. Mr. Sanders said Amazon's wealth and success should enable the company to provide higher pay to its employees while easing some of its workplace policies. "They know if you succeed here, it will spread all over this country," Mr. Sanders said of Amazon during his visit. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) has also publicly expressed support for the union, as have celebrities like Tina Fey and Danny Glover.

Why did workers organize?

RWDSU leaders have said they believe the coronavirus pandemic, together with the past year's civil-rights movements in America and tense political climate, has encouraged people to act. The union has touched on themes related to racial empowerment, as many of the employees at the Amazon warehouse are Black and have been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. Labor experts say that unionizing in Bessemer could lead to similar efforts at other Amazon facilities. The company employs roughly 950,000 people in the U.S., most at its warehouses across the country.

Regardless of the outcome in Bessemer, Amazon faces pressure from staff world-wide to make changes to its working conditions. Amazon employees outside of Alabama are gathering petition signatures, discussing potential strikes and consulting with unions about possible demands. The groups are seeking to alter company policies on the rate at which they must prepare packages as well as break time and shift schedules. Such issues are central for many employees amid Amazon's expansion and push to speed up delivery times.

What will happen after the election?

Ballots were mailed to roughly 6,000 employees. The majority of voters would have to support unionizing to be represented by the union. Amazon and the union battled for votes through varying employee outreach. Even if workers vote to unionize, it could take years of bargaining to reach a first contract between Amazon and the union. Either side could also contest the results of the election.

Would a union change Amazon?

Initially, not much. The company would have to start working toward a contract with Bessemer workers and worry about similar efforts popping up at other facilities. Eventually, it could push the company to alter its policies, such as break times or pay. Many employees have also long sought change to the rate at which they work, with employees typically having to fulfill hundreds of items per working hour, while the company monitors them closely.

Amazon helped boost pay for low-wage workers in 2018 when it raised its hourly rate to $15 an hour, though it simultaneously did away with certain incentive pay and stock compensation. The company the next year committed to retraining one-third of its workforce, in part to help its employees move into more advanced jobs inside the company or find new careers outside of it.

Amazon is in a favorable position to handle threats to its business. Roughly 40% of online sales are made on Amazon, according to market research firm eMarketer. The company's recent success has come up among some workers, who point to its profits and growth as a sign that Amazon could make changes to improve conditions.

Why has Amazon opposed unionization?

Many companies don't favor unions because it can limit flexibility and force them to negotiate on workplace issues that executives might want to set on their own terms. Although Amazon has dealt with labor unions among its employees in Europe for years, the company has opposed unionization attempts in the U.S. in the past.

An effort backed by the RWDSU in 2018 to organize employees at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market fizzled. About four years earlier, a small number of maintenance and repair technicians voted down a unionization attempt at a Middletown, Del., facility. During the Whole Foods campaign, Amazon used a training video to coach Whole Foods staff on how to spot organizing efforts. The company has said this video is no longer in use.

And last year, Amazon posted -- and later removed -- job listings for analysts that included descriptions on monitoring labor-organizing threats. Amazon has said the postings weren't an accurate description of the roles and were made in error.

How did each side campaign in the vote?

Organizers set up a presence outside the 855,000-square-foot warehouse on an almost daily basis, talking to workers, handing them leaflets and calling them. The union also launched an information website and sought to garner support by rallying employees through family members and union members who work in other industries.

Meanwhile, Amazon created a website -- DoItWithoutDues.com -- to encourage workers to vote against unionizing. Signs were posted around the facility, and managers initially held frequent meetings there with workers. A central focus of the company's message revolves around the cost of union dues. Amazon has argued that a union is unnecessary because its workers receive better pay and benefits from the company than they would in other comparable jobs. Amazon hasn't made as clear to workers, however, that Alabama is a so-called "right to work" state, meaning employees would have an option on whether to be union members and pay dues.

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04-05-21 1727ET

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