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Ballots go out in Amazon union battle in Alabama

Ballots go out in Amazon union battle in Alabama
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Ballots are being sent out Monday in one of the most significant union elections of the last decade, as workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama choose whether to unionize.

The almost 6,000 workers in Bessemer, Ala., will vote on whether to form what would be the first union at one of the e-commerce giant’s American operations.

“The importance of this vote transcends this one facility,” said Stuart Applebaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which would represent the warehouse if a majority of votes cast go its way.

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“Amazon is transforming industry after industry, and, especially given its size, is determining what the future of work will look like,” he added in an interview with The Hill.

The facility in Bessemer, known as BHM1, opened just last March but quickly drew criticism from workers who described exhausting work quotas, insufficient wages and a failure to protect them from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Similar concerns were raised at other Amazon facilities in protests and walk-outs throughout 2020. The company revealed in October that nearly 20,000 of its employees in the United States had tested positive for COVID-19. It has not publicly updated the numbers since.

In late July, aided by unionized workers from around the Bessemer region, BHM1 employees reached out to the RWDSU and began quietly organizing.

The union went public in October, the RWDSU filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in November and by December over 2,000 workers signed cards backing an election, according to the union.

An Amazon spokesperson told The Hill that the union does not represent "the majority of our employees' views," emphasizing that the company offers a $15.30 starting hourly wage and health benefits.

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"Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire," they said.

In January, shortly after the NLRB determined that conditions were adequate to hold the election, Amazon launched a website, DoITWithoutDues.com, aimed at discouraging workers from voting "yes" on the union. Though the title of the site mentions union dues, Alabama is a right-to-work state, so employees who are not interested in supporting the potential union would not have to pay dues.

Amazon also pushed to have the election conducted in-person, but the NLRB rejected that request on Friday. The agency has been primarily conducting mail-in elections during the pandemic.

Some workers say the company has engaged in an all-out messaging campaign to try to sway the voters, coating the facility in posters, holding captive-audience meetings pushing against the union and passing out candy and water to workers. 

"Amazon is in my texts, they're in our breakroom, and they're even in the bathroom telling us to vote union no,” said Darryl Richardson, a picker at the facility who backs the unionization effort. “It's an insane level of propaganda, and all of it is very misleading.”

Amazon has also retained Morgan Lewis & Bockius, a top anti-union law firm.

This is not the first union election at an American Amazon facility. In 2014, equipment maintenance and repair technicians in Delaware voted against unionizing.

Unions are much more common at Amazon locations in Europe, where members of Amazon Workers International have been pushing for higher wages and better working conditions since 2015.

Advocates for the union push at the plant in Alabama say it has the potential to alter workplaces across the country.

“Just the fact that we are going to an election is a game changer for Amazon,” Applebaum told The Hill. “The election itself now opens the door for more organizing at Amazon throughout North America.”

--Updated at 2:10 p.m.