Federal officials have started counting votes in a historic election to determine whether workers at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, will become the first in the U.S. to join a retail union.
The National Labor Relations Board is tallying the ballots from its office in nearby Birmingham. News media are allowed to watch via Zoom, and the process is expected to take several hours. Various cameras are capturing the action, with one zoomed in on the green ballots. The first ballot was “no.”
Approximately 5,800 workers were eligible to vote on a proposal to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. RWDSU officials said 3,215 ballots were cast, for a rough turnout of 55%.
The election officially ended on March 29, but Amazon and the union spent several days reviewing sealed individual ballots for such irregularities as problematic signatures, ripped envelopes and ineligibility to vote. Contested ballots — which the union said were mostly objected to by Amazon — numbered in the hundreds. They were set aside and will be reviewed later only if there are enough to swing the outcome.
The fiercely fought mail-in election lasted seven weeks and attracted national attention. The last union drive targeting Amazon employees failed in 2014, when fewer than 30 machinists in Delaware voted not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
A RWDSU victory in Bessemer could eventually force Amazon into contract talks with the union, which is focused on improving working conditions for warehouse employees. The company notes that its $15 an hour starting wage is more than double the federal minimum and that it pays health benefits.
Amazon’s sales and profit soared during the pandemic when millions of shoppers stampeded online. The outbreak put a spotlight on the safety and working conditions of essential workers at supermarkets, big-box stores and online fulfillment centers.
In Bessemer, employees overwhelmed by the working pace and afraid of catching Covid-19 contacted the union, setting in motion a vote that’s already seen as a watershed for Amazon and organized labor. If the RWDSU prevails, the unionizing drive could spread to other Amazon facilities, some of which are already seeing stirrings of labor activism. A loss for the union would be a setback for the U.S. labor movement, which has been in decline for decades.