NLRB officer says Amazon violated US labor law

An initial assessment from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has recommended workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama hold a new election to determine whether to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The recommendation comes from the hearing officer assigned to the case and is only a preliminary finding, but still hands the union a surprising win in a fight that many in the labor movement had considered lost.

In April, workers at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama voted not to unionize by a margin of more than 2-to-1. But in the aftermath of the result, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) alleged that Amazon had illegally influenced the drive and petitioned the NLRB to invalidate the result. In particular, the RWDSU raised questions around a USPS mailbox installed in the fulfillment center parking lot during the drive. The union alleged it gave some workers the impression that Amazon had improper access to mailed ballots.

The officer’s report gives new details on Amazon’s interactions with USPS in encouraging the installation of the box, as well as the effect of a “privacy tent” installed during the union drive. “It is clear that absent the tent, employees had reason to believe that the Employer could observe which employees accessed the CBU and/or used the box to deposit ballots,” the report reads. “Employees believed that the Employer had cameras that were tracking, at the very least, which employees entered the CBU tent.”

RWDSU’s defeat opened the door for other unions to announce plans to unionize Amazon workers. On June 24th, the Teamsters announced a nationwide campaign to organize Amazon’s sprawling workforce. The teamsters committed to spending “all resources necessary” to make the campaign successful.

Now, it appears RWDSU is getting another chance. “Throughout the NLRB hearing, we heard compelling evidence how Amazon tried to illegally interfere with and intimidate workers as they sought to exercise their right to form a union,” said RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum in a statement. “We support the hearing officer’s recommendation that the NLRB set aside the election results and direct a new election…Amazon’s behavior throughout the election process was despicable. Amazon cheated, they got caught, and they are being held accountable.”

Reached for comment, Amazon defended the initial vote. “Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate,” the spokesperson said, “and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers and the company. Their voice should be heard above all else, and we plan to appeal to ensure that happens.”

The hearing officer’s recommendation is only a preliminary assessment of the claim, and does not by itself have any legal force. A full ruling will only come when the acting regional director issues a decision for the case, which will likely not occur for serveral weeks. Parties to the case will still have the opportunity to file exceptions in the intervening time.

As the case proceeds, Amazon’s labor issues have spread well beyond Bessemer. In June, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters voted to prioritize organizing efforts for Amazon delivery drivers, creating a special division to focus on the company’s operations over the next five years. “Amazon workers are calling for safer and better working conditions,” said the project’s director at the time, “and with today’s resolution, we are activating the full force of our union to support them.”