Amazon union vote should be rerun, says US labour board official

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A failed vote to unionise at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama should be rerun over concerns the tech giant improperly influenced workers, a US labour board official has recommended.

Employees at the facility in the town of Bessemer voted overwhelmingly against unionisation in April, with a final tally of 1,798 votes to 738, following a campaign that drew international attention. Ballots were mailed in to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

It was the first union vote to take place at an Amazon facility in the US and was considered a breakthrough moment for organised labour in the country.

Following the result, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) immediately filed an appeal, accusing Amazon of illegal union-busting efforts.

A National Labor Relations Board hearing official on Monday sided with the union’s view, said a person familiar with the findings, and recommended the board’s regional director in Atlanta order a repeat election.

“Amazon’s behaviour throughout the election process was despicable,” said Stuart Appelbaum, RWDSU president. “Amazon cheated, they got caught, and they are being held accountable.”

The NLRB did not return a request for comment on Monday. The final decision on redoing the vote could take weeks to finalise, the NLRB has previously said, during which time each side could submit objections for the regional officer’s consideration.

If the regional officer upholds the hearing official’s recommendation — as is typical — Amazon can take its appeal to the NLRB in Washington.

In a statement, Amazon signalled it was ready to do that, saying it opposed any move for a second vote, which this time may be held in person if coronavirus infection rates are sufficiently contained.

“Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate,” Amazon said. “And at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favour of a direct connection with their managers and the company.”

“Their voice should be heard above all else, and we plan to appeal to ensure that happens,” Amazon said.

The hearing officer’s conclusion is understood to have focused on the use of a purpose-built mailbox in the warehouse car park, around which was a tent carrying pro-Amazon messaging. The union argued it gave workers the impression that their votes were being monitored.

Email correspondence obtained during the appeals process showed Amazon executives pressuring US Postal Service employees to install the mailbox quickly, in order to have it ready in time for the voting.

One Amazon manager, Becky Moore, wrote that the mailbox installation was a “highly visible Dave Clark initiative”, referring to the company’s head of worldwide consumer, and a direct report to the then-CEO Jeff Bezos.

A number of employees testified that they did not trust Amazon to leave the mailbox undisturbed, though the company said it did not have access to outgoing mail.

“Amazon said only the post office had access to it, but that’s not how it felt,” said Serena Wallace, a worker at the 855,000-sq ft plant.

The union also said workers were given inaccurate information during mandatory meetings about what would happen should the warehouse become a union shop.

In the wake of the April vote, Bezos said Amazon would now strive to become “Earth’s best employer”.

“Does your chair take comfort in the outcome of the recent union vote in Bessemer? No, he doesn’t,” Bezos wrote in a letter to shareholders on April 15. “I think we need to do a better job for our employees.”

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