Amazon Employees Close to Vote on Becoming a member of Union at Alabama Warehouse

Thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse near Birmingham, Alabama got closer this week to a vote to form a union, a milestone for the fastest growing major employer in the country and an organized labor coup that does so Tried for years Make strides at the e-commerce giant.

After three days of National Labor Relations Board hearings that concluded Tuesday, Amazon and the union agreed on one of the key details of an election: What types of workers in the facility are allowed to vote?

The agreement between Amazon and the retail, wholesale and department stores union creates one of the few times that company employees have had the opportunity to vote on union formation.

Voting at the fulfillment center in Bessemer, Ala., About 14 miles from Birmingham, could involve around 5,800 workers, including full-time and seasonal workers.

Amazon and the union have yet to agree on whether the vote will take place by mail or in person. The election is expected to take place early next year, although the N.LR.B. still have to set a date.

In 2014 Amazon’s previous union elections involved a few dozen technical workers at a Delaware warehouse. They decided not to form unions.

Amazon is embarking on a historic hiring frenzy during the pandemic, hiring 1,400 people a day and making the company the largest private employer in the country in just a few years.

“We don’t think this group represents the majority of the views of our employees,” an Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox said in a statement about the union. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we have some of the best jobs available anywhere, and we encourage everyone to compare our overall salary, accomplishments, and work environment with those of other companies with similar jobs.”

The retail, wholesale and department store union represents workers at brick and mortar retailers such as Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, H&M and Zara. The union ranks include a diverse mix of workers in places like the General Mills factory, which produces grain in Iowa, and poultry factories in the south.

The union was involved in rejecting Amazon’s proposal to set up a second headquarters in New York around the same time it was trying to organize workers in the company’s large warehouse on Staten Island. However, those 2018 efforts never resulted in a formal union election.

Economy & Economy

Updated

Apr. 22, 2020 at 6:02 am ET

The pandemic reignited the attention of Amazon’s workforce. This was part of a broader focus on the safety, pay and sacrifice of key workers in grocery stores and e-commerce centers who helped keep goods flowing to domestic consumers during this year’s shutdown.

Amazon is increasingly being scrutinized both on Capitol Hill and by state officials for its growing power in retail and its role as a major employer.

Amazon has commended its investments in security and offered its employees free Covid-19 tests in laboratories it set up and operated. It also points out the starting wage of $ 15 an hour and health benefits. Labor advocates and some elected officials have still raised concerns about camp injury rates, inflexible work schedules, and monitoring workers to maximize productivity.

The company was also accused of taking revenge on workers who spoke up. Last week, the NLRB said it substantiated a worker’s claim that Amazon stood up against him illegally for protesting outside the Staten Island warehouse this spring to raise concerns about safety during the pandemic. Amazon said the worker was fired for “a clear violation of our standards of conduct and harassment guidelines.”

The Bessemer warehouse opened when Covid-19 arrived in the US. Amazon announced plans for 2018 that are part of an expansion into medium-sized metropolitan areas to allow the company to store more products closer to customers for fast delivery. The local economy used to be dependent on steel jobs, but those jobs have largely disappeared and Amazon, which committed to employing 1,500 people, received $ 51 million local and state tax incentives. The average pay at the warehouse is $ 15.30 an hour, Ms. Knox said.

In November, the union petitioned to hold the elections, saying it had sufficient support among workers whom it said should be part of the bargaining unit. The company asked for more time to prepare a response, citing the busy Christmas shopping season.

“This year, more consumers are shopping online than ever before and are expecting fast and accurate deliveries,” said Amazon in a message to the NLRB

Haggling over the terms of a union election can go on for months, but the process has been relatively rapid. The union filed for election with the NLRB about a week before Thanksgiving.

During the hearing, which began Friday, union and Amazon lawyers discussed how many workers at the center could vote. Amazon argued that agency workers who are typically hired during the holiday season should be included, as well as full-time and part-time workers performing the same tasks.

The union agreed to include the seasonal workers, although this means expanding the pool of workers it needs to attract. But by admitting the seasonal problem, the union has likely avoided days of Amazon testimony that stretch well beyond Christmas and could slow some of the organizational momentum.

“Our interest is to ensure that there are elections soon,” said Richard Rouco, the union’s lawyer, on Monday.

The other sticking point is whether the vote should be done in person or by post. Amazon wants the elections to be in person, despite the NLRB having raised serious concerns about exposing its election observers to coronavirus in the Bessemer area, where there has been a high rate of viral infection.

Harry Johnson, an Amazon attorney, suggested renting local hotel rooms and buses exclusively to federal officials to prevent them from being exposed during the election.

Mr. Rouco replied, “I’m not going to let Amazon buy a city” to prevent workers from voting in the mail.

The regional office of the N.LR.B. in Atlanta is expected to decide on the issue of postal voting early next month.

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