Amazon Faces Unionization Push in Alabama, a Test in Labor Organizing Bid

Amazon.com Inc.

AMZN 2.40%

workers at an Alabama warehouse received approval to hold a unionization vote, the first such election since 2014 at the nation’s second-largest employer, testing the potential for additional labor organizing at the retailing giant.

The National Labor Relations Board Tuesday ruled that employees at Amazon’s Bessemer, Ala., warehouse can decide whether to create a bargaining unit within the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, according to an NLRB official. The date of the election and other terms have yet to be determined. A hearing about the vote is scheduled for Friday.

A majority of the workers would have to choose unionization for the employees to gain representation. The Alabama warehouse has about 1,500 full- and part-time employees, according to the union, although Amazon has said the total is higher.

Though many hurdles remain, labor experts say a successful campaign by workers could inspire similar efforts at other Amazon warehouses. The company has more than 800,000 U.S. employees, second only to

Walmart Inc.

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in the country, as well as more than 760 facilities in its fulfillment network, according to logistics consultant MWPVL International.

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company didn’t believe “this group represents the majority of our employees’ views. Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available.”

A spokeswoman for the retail and wholesale union, or RWDSU, declined to comment.

Hourly Amazon workers have never previously formed or joined a union in the U.S. The same is true at

Walmart Inc.,

which has about 1.5 million U.S. employees.

A vote to form a union “would be very significant because Amazon is such a dominant player in the warehousing sector and retail,” said Maria Figueroa, director of labor policy and research at Cornell University’s Worker Institute. “If Amazon were to eventually agree to a union contract, it would send a signal to the entire retail and e-commerce industry that it is possible.”

Amazon has hired at an unparalleled pace this year. The company has said it added more than 400,000 workers in 2020, bringing its global workforce to more than 1.1 million. The expansion has come as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, as Americans shopped more online because of lockdowns that forced them to work and complete school from home.

Such pandemic-driven sales and consumer shifts have been a boon to the company, which has posted record quarterly sales this year, taking in more than $260 billion in revenue through its first three quarters.

Past unionization efforts at Amazon in the U.S. have failed. In 2014, a small number of maintenance and repair technicians voted down a unionization attempt at a Middletown, Del. facility. Turnover is high at Amazon facilities relative to the overall warehouse industry, according to employment studies, making it difficult for workers to organize. Amazon has hired law firms, held meetings and taken other steps to counter organizing efforts in the past.

In 2018, an effort backed by the same retail and wholesale union to organize employees at Whole Foods Market, which Amazon had bought the previous year, failed to gain traction. Amazon in 2019 nixed its plans in New York for an expansion of its headquarters, and one factor in the decision was backlash from unions that included the RWDSU. They resisted the nearly $3 billion in government incentives the company would receive for its planned expansion.

The retailer has seen its toughest labor battles in Europe, where union participation is common in some countries and government authorities have been quicker to confront the company. A French court in the spring ordered Amazon to stop selling nonessential items while the company addressed coronavirus- safety measures, prompting Amazon to temporarily close its French warehouses.

While Alabama typically hasn’t been known for unionizing efforts, RWDSU represents workers across the poultry and healthcare industries in the state.

Bessemer workers in late November filed a notice with the NLRB to hold a union election. Organizers say they are fighting for better working conditions, as well as more leverage in any disputes with Amazon, according to the group’s website.

Amazon and the Alabama warehouse workers have disagreed about the size of the bargaining unit, or essentially how many nonmanagerial fulfillment workers are employed at the warehouse, which opened in the spring. To petition for an election, workers were required to prove to the NLRB they had ample support, which is typically measured as at least 30% of the bargaining unit.

Workers said the bargaining unit had 1,500 people, while Amazon said the number was 5,723. Amazon in a 2018 announcement of the facility said 1,500 people would work there.

The NLRB has determined there is enough support to hold an election, an official said. The board is working with both parties to determine the terms of the date, method and other terms of the election, according to the NLRB. A hearing scheduled for Friday could be canceled if the parties agree to terms before then.

Write to Sebastian Herrera at [email protected]

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