Amazon workers at an Alabama warehouse are moving closer to holding a unionization vote, laying the groundwork to establish the first-ever labor union representation at a U.S. Amazon facility.
Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., located outside Birmingham, notified the National Labor Relations Board last month that they planned to hold an election to create a bargaining unit represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The NLRB on Thursday said it found “sufficient showing” to allow for a vote, rejecting Amazon’s claims that the union hadn’t drummed up enough support.
At a hearing on Friday, Amazon and the union continued to disagree over the size of the potential bargaining unit and what employees should be eligible to vote. The hearing is also meant to iron out details such as when a union vote will happen and how it will take place. It’s possible the hearing could take several days to resolve.
“The parties to this case have differing positions on certain job classifications as to whether those employees should be included in or excluded from an appropriate bargaining unit,” said Terry Combs, assistant to the regional director for the NLRB’s Atlanta region.
To get the greenlight for an election, the NLRB typically wants 30% of workers to sign union authorization cards or petitions. In its petition, the union said the bargaining unit would cover 1,500 full- and part-time workers at the facility.
Amazon has argued in documents submitted to the NLRB that the facility employs more than 5,700 people, suggesting that the union gathered fewer signatures than it needed to move forward with an election.
It’s unclear how Amazon arrived at that total. Amazon said in a 2018 announcement that it would employ 1,500 people at the facility.
Heather Knox, an Amazon spokesperson, said Amazon has created more than 5,000 full-time jobs in Bessemer, with average pay of $15.30 per hour, health care and other benefits.
“We don’t believe this group represents the majority of our employees’ views,” Knox said in a statement. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our overall pay, benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs.”
An RWDSU spokesperson declined to comment.
Labor unions have organized some of Amazon’s European workforce, but no U.S. facility has successfully formed or joined a union. A successful union drive in Alabama would represent a groundbreaking shift for the country’s second largest employer, which counts more than 1.37 million front-line Amazon and Whole Foods workers in the U.S.
The push to unionize in Alabama comes as Amazon has experienced growing unrest within its warehouse and delivery workforce during the pandemic. In recent months, some employees have held protests to demand safer working conditions, created online petitions to draw attention to their concerns and formed new worker groups.
A website advertising the Alabama campaign says a union would help employees advocate for changes around safety, pay, disciplinary procedures and other workplace issues.
“Amazon has built decades of increasingly bold and aggressive attacks on workers’ rights that have dramatically eroded union density, harmed working conditions, and lowered the standard of living for many workers. And it’s not stopping,” the website states. “Our union will not back down until Amazon is held accountable for these and so many more dangerous labor practices.”
Labor experts say the hearing is just the beginning of what’s likely to be a long road ahead for the Alabama workers’ union drive. Amazon has taken an aggressive stance against unions in the past, by clearly voicing its opposition to them with workers.
But it could only take one successful campaign at an Amazon facility to inspire others to follow suit.
“If it’s successful, I think it will send a message that there is some hope for workers to organize,” said Tom Kochan, a professor of industrial relations, work and employment at MIT. “But it’s a big uphill battle because you’ve got to organize one warehouse at a time, which takes an enormous amount of resources.”