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Amazon Union Election Do-Over Recommendation Hinges on Mailbox

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(Bloomberg) -- Amazon.com Inc.’s decision to have a mailbox installed at its Alabama warehouse during a union election earlier this year figured prominently in a federal official’s call Monday for a do-over.

After losing the election in April by a substantial margin, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union appealed the outcome to the National Labor Relations Board, setting in motion a contentious hearing in May that was presided over by NLRB hearing officer Kerstin Meyers.

Besides accusing Amazon of making anti-union threats and firing an employee for distributing union cards, the RWDSU said Amazon had pressured workers to cast their votes in the mailbox, which was installed in a tent on the company’s property in view of surveillance cameras. Amazon denied any wrongdoing.

“Notwithstanding the union’s substantial margin of defeat, the employer’s unilateral decision to create, for all intents and purposes, an onsite collection box for NLRB ballots destroyed the laboratory conditions and justifies a second election,” Meyers wrote.

Her recommendation will now be considered by a labor board regional director, and Amazon has the right to appeal the ruling to an NLRB panel in Washington. If a new election is called, it could happen later this year.

Meyers’s recommendation means “there’s a strong likelihood” of a new election, said former NLRB member Wilma Liebman, who chaired the agency under President Barack Obama. Regional directors usually adopt the recommendations of hearing officers in such cases, Liebman said, and this case’s high profile could make the regional director that much more hesitant to overrule Meyers.

Meyers also found that the presence of “vote no” paraphernalia at mandatory employee meetings risked giving workers the impression their stance on the union vote was being tracked by the company. However, she recommended dismissing some of the union’s other allegations, including that Amazon had interrogated employees, manipulated the timing of a traffic light to interfere with organizers who were handing out fliers and hired off-duty police offers to surveil workers.

Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU president, said the union presented “compelling evidence” that the e-commerce company sought to interfere in the election.

“The question of whether or not to have a union is supposed to be the workers’ decision and not the employer’s,” Appelbaum said Monday in a statement. “Amazon cheated, they got caught, and they are being held accountable.”

Amazon vowed to appeal. “Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate, and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers and the company,” an Amazon spokeswoman said in a statement Monday. “Their voice should be heard above all else, and we plan to appeal to ensure that happens.”

The NLRB’s members in Washington, who would hear any appeal of the regional director’s ruling, are slated to be majority Democratic starting later this month, once the term of one of President Donald Trump’s appointees expires and he’s replaced by one of President Joe Biden’s. That makes the union that much more likely to get the new election it’s seeking, Liebman said. “The timing is pretty good for them,” she said.

The ruling is a blow for Amazon, but there’s no guarantee the union will prevail a second time round. While the pandemic hampered the RWDSU’s first campaign, union membership was a tougher sell in Bessemer, Alabama, than in larger cities. Amazon’s starting wage of $15 an hour goes a lot further in Bessemer than in more expensive locations. The company also provides health benefits not offered by many local employers.

Moreover, Amazon can be expected to wage as fierce a campaign as it did last time -- holding mandatory “information sessions” with employees, where managers argue that a union won’t necessarily improve wages and benefits. Such direct appeals likely helped the company win handily last time. Of the more than 3,000 ballots cast, Amazon garnered 1,798 no votes to 738 yes votes in favor of the union. While federal officials set aside 505 contested ballots -- most of them disputed by Amazon, according to the union-- there weren’t enough to change the result.

(A previous version of this story corrected the name of the hearing officer.)

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