It was a starry, action-packed seven weeks since the union ballots sent to workers at the Amazon Bessemer, Alabama, distribution center on Feb. 8. President Joe Biden tweeted a video of support. Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman and The matrix director Lilly Wachowski signed a petition urge workers to vote yes. Amazon’s public relations team launched a Twitter Beef with several members of Congress, including Bernie Sanders, who visited Bessemer on Friday, on issues such as whether or not their employees pee in bottles. (They do.) In short, the union election – the first in an Amazon U.S. warehouse – has become the most publicized union event in a generation.
The campaign was featured in at least 53,000 articles by more than 2,000 journalists in two dozen countries and six continents, according to Chelsea Connor, the in-demand communications director of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), who is vying to represent the workers. Today marks the end of the voting phase: the 5,800 eligible warehouse workers have until the end of the day to hand over their ballots to officials of the National Labor Relations Council. Then all eyes are on the council office in Birmingham, where, from tomorrow, NLRB staff members will start counting the votes. For the union to win, a majority of those votes must be “yes”.
Fair warning: you won’t get the result overnight.
If even half of eligible workers return their ballots, it could take days for the board to complete its count. NLRB representatives will conduct a manual count in front of observers on both sides, first extracting each ballot from its signed yellow envelope. As officials read the names, both parties can (and likely will) initiate challenges, either for procedural reasons – things like illegible signatures – or by challenging a worker’s eligibility to vote. The disputed ballots will be set aside and the remaining anonymized ballots will be placed in a ballot box for a public count. If, after the count, the number of disputed ballots is sufficient to influence the result, this means more waiting. The regional board will hold a hearing to rule on the disputed votes, potentially adding weeks to the process.
Things could get more nasty from there. After the count, each party has seven days to file objections to the way the election was conducted, including accusations of unfair labor practices. In an election that saw a ballot box of mysterious origin appear on the grounds of the company, a website disseminate misleading information about the payment of contributions and the change of schedule traffic light where organizers spoke to workers, some observers believe that the RWDSU has enough resources for a ULP or three indictment against Amazon. A guilty verdict could void the results or trigger a resumption. Outside of the electoral process, there is also the under-deployed option of directly suing the NLRB, if either party believes the agency mismanaged the election. Although it is rare, this election was anything but ordinary.
The Bessemer warehouse opened a year ago this month, as the rest of the country began to close. As demand for e-commerce exploded, workers there pushed to meet demanding productivity quotas while grappling with their own security concerns. In June, a worker named Darryl Richardson started searching for unions on Google and founded RWDSU. He filled out a form on their website. At the end of the summer, he and other workers snuck into hotels, restaurants and parks to meet with the organizers. In November, they ran for an election, held by mail due to the high number of Covid-19 cases around Bessemer.
The workers began their campaign in the wake of the Black Lives Matter summer protests. More than 80 percent of the facility’s employees are black, and the BLM organization has since become a partner, leading a resounding “Union Yes” caravan around the distribution center a few weekends ago. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum sees the Bessemer campaign as “the renewal of the alliance between the civil rights movement and the labor movement”. Black and immigrant workers, whose labor has long been exploited in the United States, have often led the struggle for labor rights. In 1963, RWDSU organizers helped plan Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.