SEATTLE — Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama have filed a notice to hold a unionization vote, in what could be a major labor battle against a company that has long opposed the unionization of its workforce.
While much of Amazon’s warehouse staff in Europe belongs to unions, the company has successfully fought off employees at its U.S. facilities. A small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at the company’s Middletown, Del., warehouse rejected union representation from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in 2014, after a hard-fought battle with the company.
Meanwhile, Amazon logistics employees around the world have voiced concerns about their safety during the coronavirus pandemic over the past few months.
Lawyers for the workers didn’t return calls or emails seeking comment. And RWDSU spokeswoman Chelsea Connor declined to comment. A website created by the union encourages Bessemer warehouse workers to join the organizing drive to secure not just better pay, but also improved safety standards.
“We face outrageous work quotas that have left many with illnesses and lifetime injuries,” the union said on the site. “With a union contract, we can form a worker safety committee, and negotiate the highest safety standards and protocols for our workplace.”
Amazon counters that its warehouses are safe and that it pays a minimum wage of $15 an hour, as well as offering such benefits as health care, vision and dental insurance, spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said in an emailed statement. “We don’t believe this group represents the majority of our employees’ views."
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The effort did win immediate support from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“All workers are entitled to decent wages and working conditions, which is why I stand with the Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama exercising their constitutional right to form a union,” Sanders tweeted. “Mr. Bezos, the wealthiest person in America, must not interfere in this election.”
The Bessemer warehouse is among the newer Amazon facilities. It began operating in March and is one of dozens of new logistics sites the company has opened since the pandemic began to address the surge in online buying caused by consumers’ reluctance to shop in person.
The notice of the workers’ filing with the labor board offers few details about the effort. In addition to listing the location and number of employees that would be part of the bargaining unit, the filing notes that the union would cover “All hourly full-time and regular part-time fulfillment center employees including leads and learning ambassadors.” It would exclude truck drivers, clerical, maintenance and engineering employees, and supervisors, among others.
To file the NLRB notice, the union needed to have cards authorizing the RWDSU to represent workers in collective bargaining signed by at least 30 percent of the proposed negotiating unit, said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. But she noted that very few unions would file for a union vote without “a very strong majority” of cards signed, or support at the Alabama warehouse from well over 750 workers.
And it’s particularly notable that the effort is in Alabama, a state that is seen as hostile to organized labor, Givan said.
“That this is happening in a deeply anti-union state is really bold,” Givan said.
Amazon can contest the size and composition of the proposed bargaining unit. And it can raise questions over the authorization cards. Givan anticipates Amazon will use all the tools at its disposal to beat back the union drive.
“We can expect a full-court anti-union press,” Givan said.
Amazon fired a worker at a Staten Island, N.Y., warehouse who helped organize a protest raising concerns about unsafe working conditions at the facility in March. Amazon said it fired the worker after he ignored a request from his manager to stay home because of his contact with a worker who tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Workers at several of Amazon’s U.S. facilities have raised concerns during the pandemic about their safety, protesting in front of the company’s warehouses to demand better pay and safer working conditions. Amazon offered workers a temporary $2-an-hour wage bump in March, though it eliminated that pay hike at the end of May.
And weeks after the pandemic began, the company instituted social distancing workplace rules to protect employees, as well as providing them with masks and offering coronavirus testing sites at some of its facilities.
Efforts to fight the union drive have their own perils. Some of Amazon’s technical workers have offered support for their warehouse colleagues, including top software engineer and vice president Tim Bray, who quit Amazon in May to protest the company’s firing of warehouse workers, as well as climate activists.
And consumers still view warehouse employees as essential, said Joshua Freeman, a labor history professor at Queens College at the City University of New York.
The union “may have a moral edge,” Freeman said. “Covid hasn’t gone away.”