Thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse near Birmingham, Alabama, moved closer this week to holding a vote on forming a union, a milestone for the fastest growing large employer of the country and a coup for unions to break through at the e-commerce giant.
After three days of hearings before the National Labor Relations Board, which ended on Tuesday, Amazon and the union agreed on one of the most crucial details of an election: what types of workers to the institution would be allowed to vote.
The deal between Amazon and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union paves the way for one of the few times workers at the company have had the opportunity to vote to unionize.
The vote at the Bessemer, Alabama, distribution center, about 14 miles from Birmingham, could cover about 5,800 workers, including full-time and seasonal employees.
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 has to set a date.
The previous union election at Amazon involved a few dozen technical workers in a Delaware warehouse in 2014. They decided not to unionize.
Amazon is embarking on a historic hiring spree during the pandemic, adding 1,400 employees a day and putting the company on track to become the nation’s largest private employer in a few years.
“We don’t think this group represents the majority of the opinions of our employees,” Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox said in a union statement. “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available wherever we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation, benefits and work environment to that of any other company with similar jobs. . “
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union represents workers at physical retailers like Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, H&M and Zara. The union’s ranks also include a diverse mix of workers in places like the General Mills factory which makes grain in Iowa and poultry factories in the south.
The union opposed Amazon’s proposal to build a second headquarters in New York City, around the same time it was trying to organize workers at the company’s large warehouse on Staten Island. But that 2018 effort never resulted in a formal union election.
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The pandemic has rekindled the attention of Amazon’s workforce, as part of a broader focus on the safety, compensation and sacrifices of essential workers in grocery stores and ecommerce hubs that have helped keep goods moving to consumers confined to their homes during this year’s closures.
Amazon is also facing increasing scrutiny, both on Capitol Hill and by state officials, of its growing power in the retail industry and its role as a large employer.
Amazon has touted its investments in security, including providing its employees with free Covid-19 tests at the labs it has set up and operates. He also highlights his starting salary of $ 15 an hour and health care benefits. Union activists and some elected officials have again voiced concerns over injury rates in warehouses, rigid work schedules and monitoring workers to maximize productivity.
The company has also been accused of retaliation against workers who speak out. Last week, the NLRB said it found credit in a worker’s claim that Amazon illegally retaliated against him for staging protests this spring outside the Staten Island warehouse for draw attention to safety concerns during the pandemic. Amazon said the worker was fired for “a flagrant violation of our standards of conduct and our harassment policy.”
The Bessemer warehouse opened when the Covid-19 arrived in the United States. Amazon announced plans for this in 2018, as part of an expansion into mid-sized metropolitan areas so the company can store more products closer to customers for quick delivery. The local economy previously depended on jobs in the steel industry, but these have largely disappeared, and Amazon, which pledged to hire 1,500 people, has received $ 51 million in local and state tax incentives. . The average warehouse wage is $ 15.30 an hour, Ms. Knox said.
In November, the union submitted its petition to hold the election, saying it had sufficient support among workers it said should be part of the bargaining unit. The company requested more time to prepare a response, citing the busy holiday shopping season.
“It’s a year where more consumers than ever are shopping online and expecting fast and accurate deliveries,” Amazon said in a filing with the NLRB
Bargaining over the terms of a union election can go on for months, but the process has evolved relatively quickly. The union filed a petition for the election with the NLRB about a week before Thanksgiving.
During the hearing, which began on Friday, lawyers for the union and Amazon discussed how many workers at the center should be allowed to vote. Amazon argued that temporary workers, typically hired during the holiday season, should be included, along with full-time and part-time employees performing the same tasks.
The union has agreed to include seasonal workers, even if that means expanding the pool of employees it needs to win. But by conceding the seasonal issue, the union likely avoided days of Amazon testimony that could have stretched long after Christmas and slowed some of the organization’s momentum.
“Our interest is to ensure that there will be elections soon,” said Richard Rouco, a lawyer for the union, on Monday.
The other sticking point is whether the vote should take place in person or by mail. Amazon wants the election to be held in person, even though the NLRB has raised serious concerns about the exposure of its election observers to the coronavirus in the Bessemer region, where the rate of viral infections has been high.
Harry Johnson, an Amazon lawyer, suggested that hotel rooms and local buses could be rented exclusively for federal officials to prevent them from being exposed while they run the election.
Mr. Rouco retorted, “I’m not going to let Amazon buy a city” to prevent workers from voting by mail.
The regional office of the N.LR.B. in Atlanta is expected to vote on the postal ballot issue early next month.