The results of a do-over vote for a milestone union election at an Amazon (AMZN) warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, were too close to call on Thursday.
A total of 875 workers at the Bessemer facility voted for joining a union and 993 voted against it, marking a much closer split than the original high-profile election last year when the anti-union side easily triumphed. An additional 416 ballots were challenged by either Amazon or the union – enough to sway the final vote.
The National Labor Relations Board expects to hold a hearing to review the contested ballots in the next few weeks. (Each side was able to challenge ballots prior to the public portion of the vote count due to improper job classification, ineligibility based on dates of employment, issues with the physical ballot, and more.)
Meanwhile, at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, the pro-union side had a significant lead in a separate election whose results were also counted on Thursday. There were 1,518 votes in favor of a union and 1,154 votes against, with an unknown number of votes left to count on Friday.
If either effort is successful, it would mark Amazon’s first union in its 27-year history. The Bessemer union vote, organized with a more established union, took place by mail over a nearly two-month period ending on Friday. That same day, an in-person election began at Amazon’s Staten Island facility, organized by a newly established union. Thousands of Amazon warehouse employees were eligible to vote in each election.
Last year, the Bessemer vote indicated the union effort had failed, but the results were tossed after a National Labor Relations Board regional director determined Amazon had illegally interfered and “made a free and fair election impossible.” At the time, an Amazon spokesperson called the decision “disappointing.”
At the start of the do-over election, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is behind the Bessemer drive, said it had received a list of 6,143 eligible employees, or nearly 350 more than it received last year. About 2,300 ballots, or 39% of those eligible to vote, were ultimately received by the NLRB, according to the RWDSU. That’s significantly lower than turnout the year prior when 3,215 ballots were received.
In the original Bessemer election, 1,798 workers had voted against unionizing with RWDSU, well above the 1,608 needed for either side to prevail. More than half of those eligible to vote this time were eligible to vote last time, according to the RWDSU.
Both the Bessemer and Staten Island union efforts grew out of frustration about Amazon’s treatment of workers in the earliest days of the pandemic and were further fueled by increased attention to racial justice issues across the country. The initial Bessemer drive, in particular, helped shine a spotlight on workplace conditions inside the facilities of the country’s second largest private employer.
Jennifer Bates, an Amazon employee at the Bessemer facility, testified before the Senate Budget Committee in March 2021 about workplace conditions she equated to “a nine-hour intense workout every day” that led her and others to organize with RWDSU. Celebrities and politicians, including President Joe Biden, publicly supported workers like Bates.
But the two union efforts are distinct. The Bessemer election was organized by workers in tandem with the 85-year-old RWDSU. The Staten Island effort, on the other hand, is being led by a newly established group called Amazon Labor Union (ALU) comprised of current and former Amazon workers.
The face of the ALU is largely Christian Smalls, a former Amazon worker who was fired in March 2020 after leading a walkout at the facility to protest pandemic-related health and safety concerns. (Smalls says he was retaliated against; Amazon says he was terminated for violating its policy that required him to quarantine after being notified of a possible Covid-19 exposure.)
Since then, Smalls has continued organizing, turning to crowdsourcing for donations to support the group’s efforts. ALU has also garnered enough signatures for an NLRB election at a nearby Amazon facility in Staten Island slated for late April.
Amazon has previously said its “employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union” and that it is focused on “working directly with our team to make Amazon a great place to work.”
But Amazon has also attempted to combat unionization efforts, including with text messages, signage throughout the warehouses and, before the election period began, with required group meetings where company representatives conveyed its anti-union stance to workers. The latter is the subject of one of several unfair labor practice complaints filed with the NLRB this year. The RWDSU argues that requiring attendance at these meetings, a common tactic similarly used by a number of other employers and one that is legally permitted, violates workers’ right to refrain from organizing-related activities and is asking the NLRB to review the law. (Amazon said the complaint has no merit.)
In a statement to CNN Business earlier this year, Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said: “If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site, which is why we host regular informational sessions and provide employees the opportunity to ask questions and learn about what this could mean for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”
Regardless of the outcome of the two votes, more union efforts may follow as labor organizers have been increasingly circling the company. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents UPS workers, voted last year in favor of making Amazon a key priority and helping its workers achieve a union contract. And this month, the president of American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations said it would help the Teamsters take on Amazon.
Catherine Thorbecke contributed to this report.