The vote will determine whether workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, will become the first group of American Amazon employees to be represented by a union.
(CN) — Sitting in the middle of a long table in the National Labor Relations Board’s office in Birmingham, Alabama, Joseph Webb, field attorney for the agency, read out the first few mint-colored ballots in a loud voice behind his mask: “No!”
At 2:41 p.m. on Thursday afternoon, the NLRB began to tally the votes that will determine whether the approximately 5,800 workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, will become the first group of Amazon employees to be represented by a union in the United States.
Should the union drive prevail, the workers will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which has a regional headquarters in nearby Birmingham. Advocates say the outcome could have implications for the labor movement.
At a March 5 press conference, RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum said, “Every working person in this country has a stake in what happens in this election.” He said Amazon is a company that has dehumanized employees while enjoying subsidies and paying little in taxes.
Workers advocating for the union – such as Jennifer Bates, who testified in a Senate hearing the workers were the ones who made Amazon its billions – have described a fast-paced work environment that gives little time for lunch or bathroom breaks combined with an impersonal management style.
Lawmakers such as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders expressed support for the drive and, speaking to Amazon workers in Birmingham on March 26, he predicted a successful union vote in Bessemer could inspire other workers to unionize around the country.
In its public statements about the union drive, Amazon has urged lawmakers to institute a $15-an-hour minimum wage nationwide – like it has done in its fulfillment centers around the country.
And while Amazon may be famous for its data crunching and technology – employees at the plant work alongside the company’s robotics, for instance – the count at the NLRB office in Birmingham was old fashioned: by hand, one-by-one.
The NLRB received 3,215 ballots before the deadline on March 29, mailed in because of the pandemic. In the days following, hundreds of the ballots were challenged, according to the union, and those challenges will be resolved after the public tally.
The federal agency broadcast the public portion of the count over Zoom. Before the proceedings began, NLRB officials reminded viewers to keep video off and audio muted and warned there was to be no recording, screenshots or broadcasting.
Three NLRB officials sat at a long table in the hearing room. Before Webb, the agency’s attorney, sat four white trays labeled yes, no, void and challenge. Two officials on either side of Webb unfolded the ballots held in cardboard boxes and placed them facedown on the table in stacks.
Two observers wearing dark masks and face shields sat behind them on wooden benches. More observers for Amazon and the NLRB watched over Zoom and kept their own tallies.
About 18 minutes later, an observer from Amazon watching over Zoom notified the NLRB that 100 no votes had been counted.
The vote stopped, the bundle of 100 no votes recounted and then an NLRB official folded the bundle in half and secured it with a rubber band. The counting resumed.
The NLRB has said it does not know when the count will conclude but after about two hours of counting, it had gone through about 860 ballots.