On the Clock is Motherboard’s reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.
BESSEMER, ALA.—Unionizing Amazon workers in Alabama received a mailer from the company with instructions imploring them to “Vote NO” on the historic union election and to then “mail the … envelope right away to make your vote count!” A USPS mailbox intended for mailing union ballots was recently installed just feet from where Amazon workers exit and enter the warehouse, a move that workers say makes them feel surveilled in the election, which is supposed to be anonymous.
In recent days, Amazon has also sent text messages imploring workers to use that on-site mailbox to cast their ballots, despite the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rejecting Amazon’s request for in-person voting in February.
“Voting has begun! The US Postal Service has installed a secure mailbox just outside the BHM1 main entrance, making mailing your ballot easy, safe, and convenient. Vote now! BE DONE BY 3/1!” a text message recently sent to warehouse workers seen by Motherboard reads.
The text message asks workers to vote by March 1, even though workers have until March 29 to vote to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
“Management is telling us to vote at that mailbox,” Jennifer Bates, an Amazon warehouse worker at the Bessemer facility, told Motherboard. “I feel like they’re doing it so they can monitor us and gauge how many people are using the mailbox. I talked to workers and they say this box is making them feel rushed to make a decision.”
“I want to know: if this mailbox isn’t about the union election, then why wasn’t it there before?” Derrick Medlock, another Amazon employee at the facility in Bessemer said.
Employers seeking to defeat union drives typically favor in-person voting because companies must stop holding education meetings once an election begins but unions can keep engaging with workers until voting finishes. Amazon’s mail-in election will last seven weeks.
The glossy mailer, on the other hand, is titled “Look Out for Your Ballot,” which offers step-by-step instructions for voting in the union election and urges workers to vote “no.” “Mark Your Ballot. Protect what you have. Vote No,” one of the instructions reads in bold.
The mailer also lists a set of misleading reasons for voting “no,” including ” “a union cannot guarantee greater job security or better wages or benefits” and “you pay for the union with dues they collect from your paycheck each month.” While unions cannot guarantee specific working conditions, unionized workers in the United States earn an average of 11 percent more than their non-union peers in the same industry. Because Alabama is a right-to-work state, unions cannot legally deduct dues from any worker without their consent.
This week, Motherboard has been reporting from Bessemer and nearby Birmingham, where workers and organizers are trying to become the first Amazon facility in the United States to unionize, which could have a ripple effect across the country. In addition to the mailers, text messages, an anti-union website, and the installation of the USPS mailbox, Amazon has also pushed anti-union ads on Twitch, the video game streaming giant that it owns.
Amazon has also posted anti-union literature posted in bathroom stalls, passed out t-shirts, and requested the city of Bessemer change the traffic lights outside the warehouse, making it more difficult for union organizers to talk to workers during shift changes.
Heather Knox, an Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard that the mailbox outside the warehouse was installed by the U.S. Postal Service, not by the company.
“The USPS recently installed a mailbox onsite at BHM1 for the convenience of our employees,” Knox told Motherboard. “As we have said all along, every employee should have the opportunity to vote in this important decision.
“This mailbox is enclosed in a tent making it convenient, safe, and private for our employees to vote on their way to and from work if they choose to, or use it for any of their other mailing needs,” she continued. “Only USPS can collect the outgoing mail from this box or put incoming mail into it.”
John Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University who researches the union avoidance industry, told Motherboard that while installing mailboxes at worksites isn’t a traditional union busting strategy, Amazon has taken a number of unprecedented steps to thwart the union drive, including requesting the city shorten traffic lights.
“I would consider these mailboxes to be an anti-union tactic,” Logan said. “Mail-in voting was relatively new and rare in the history of NLRB union elections until COVID-19 hit, and we haven’t seen a huge range of tactics used to discourage mail-in voting, but Amazon is notorious for doing things that we haven’t seen before to bust unions. This is one of them.”
Logan says while it’s illegal to surveil how workers are voting during a union election, “knowing workers who are definite ‘no’ votes and ‘yes’ votes and targeting people who they think are definitely no and encouraging them to vote is what union avoidance consultants do.” Amazon is paying union avoidance consultants $3,200 a day to thwart the unionization effort, according to the Intercept.
In the lead-up to the election, Amazon hired one of the country’s top anti-union legal firms, Morgan Lewis, to argue to the National Labor Review Board (NLRB), the federal agency which monitors union elections, to allow 5,800 workers to vote in-person rather than by mail. Typically, the NLRB favors in-person elections, but 90 percent of union elections during the pandemic have been vote-by-mail to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In early February, the NLRB rejected Amazon’s request for an in-person vote.
Employers seeking to defeat union drives typically try to push for in-person voting to increase their chances of winning. According to a blog post on a top anti-union law firm’s website, mail-in voting can therefore lessen “the impact and momentum of the employer’s voter education campaign.” In the case of the Bessemer union drive, the NLRB forbade Amazon from holding anti-union education meetings after February 8 when voting began.
Do you have a tip to share with us about Amazon’s anti-union tactics? Please get in touch with the author Lauren at [email protected] or privately on Signal 201-897-2109.
Holding in-person elections can also be favorable to employers because workers tend to fear retaliation or surveillance if they’re voting under the watch of their employer.
“The mailbox could be grounds for an unfair labor practice charge,” Logan, the San Francisco State University professor, said, referring to an action the union can take against Amazon if they believe the company has violated the National Labor Relations Act. “But it’s unclear how the labor board would interpret it because there’s no precedent for this.”