Vote counting kicked off on Thursday in a consequential unionization drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, an effort seen as one of the most important labor fights in recent American history.
While results have not yet been finalised, it appeared on Thursday evening that warehouse workers were on track to reject unionization by a 2-1 margin, with almost half the votes counted. Vote counting will resume on Friday morning.
Of the received ballots, workers so far have voted 1,100-463 against forming a union at the warehouse in Bessemer. The election will determine if workers in Bessemer will form the first labor union at an Amazon warehouse in the US.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is organizing the Bessemer workers, said that 3,215 votes were sent in – about 55% of the nearly 6,000 workers who were eligible to vote. The union said hundreds of those votes were contested, mostly by Amazon. The union would not specify how many votes were being contested.
Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the RWDSU, struck a grim tone on Thursday in a statement ahead of the results: “Our system is broken, Amazon took full advantage of that, and we will be calling on the labor board to hold Amazon accountable for its illegal and egregious behavior during the campaign. But make no mistake about it; this still represents an important moment for working people and their voices will be heard.”
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency overseeing the election, is conducting the vote count in Birmingham, Alabama. The NLRB set up multiple cameras so participants and media could watch its agents count the votes.
Many observers expect the huge amount of challenged ballots to lead to a delay in any formal announcement of a result.
“There remain hundreds of challenged ballots mostly by the employer that will need to be addressed after the public count. As the ballot envelopes are opened and the ballots are counted there’s a possibility that more issues could impact the final results,” the RWDSU said.
The unionization drive has sparked huge political interest and a roster of leftwing politicians – and even some Republicans – have spoken out in support of it or visited the state. The US labor movement sees it as a bellwether case for hopes of expanding its power, especially in areas of the economy – such as online retail – that are increasingly dominant.
Ballots in the vote can be challenged based on several factors, such as the eligibility of the voter in regards to job classification or dates of employment. The NLRB will probably hold a later hearing on the validity of the challenged ballots, after unchallenged ballots are tallied, if the number of challenged ballots could affect the outcome of the election.
The union organizing drive in Bessemer grew from a 51-year-old warehouse worker, Darryl Richardson, contacting the RWDSU in June last year with interest in starting to organize a union at the warehouse. A former union member in his previous job in the auto industry, Richardson’s excitement to start the job months earlier quickly dissipated after witnessing co-workers face termination over productivity quotas, and seeing how wages lagged far behind the pay he received in the auto industry.
Richardson and other workers managed to obtain more than 3,000 union authorization cards, enough for the NLRB to determine the union had enough support to conduct an election. The union initially proposed a bargaining unit of 1,500 workers, which was later expanded to about 5,800 workers at the behest of Amazon.
Ballots for the union election were mailed out to eligible workers on 8 February and workers were given until 29 March to mail in completed ballots to the NLRB.
Depending on the outcome of the vote, other legal challenges or objections could further delay the official results. The election counting process has taken as long as it has due to the challenged ballot process and the large size of the eligible bargaining unit.