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Amazon worker union effort in Alabama could spread to Spokane

UPDATED: Thu., April 8, 2021

This photo from last week shows a banner encouraging workers to vote in labor balloting at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. The vote count Thursday was trending against forming a union.  (Associated Press)
This photo from last week shows a banner encouraging workers to vote in labor balloting at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. The vote count Thursday was trending against forming a union. (Associated Press)

Even as a union vote by Amazon workers was trending toward failure Thursday in Alabama, a Spokane-area labor organizer said he believes a similar effort to organize could be coming to Spokane.

The vote tally at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, was tilting against the union by a count of 1,100 workers rejecting the effort to 463 voting in favor, when counting was stopped Thursday evening. The vote counting was to continue Friday.

But Eric Renner, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 1439, said he’s already heard from some Spokane-based Amazon employees who are among about 5,000 workers at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Airway Heights that opened in June.

“I think if you have a win (in Alabama), it increases momentum,” Renner said. “But at the same time, we are going to organize workers. They need to be represented, and the pandemic showed us that.”

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, 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, according to the Associated Press.

Union officials said hundreds of those votes were contested, mostly by Amazon, for various reasons such as the voter didn’t work there or doesn’t qualify to vote. The union officials would not specify how many votes were being contested.

The National Labor Relations Board was conducting the vote count in Birmingham, Alabama.

In order to determine a winner, the margin of victory must be more than the number of contested votes, otherwise a hearing would be held on whether to open the contested votes and count them toward the final tally.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum struck a grim tone 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,” Appelbaum said. “But make no mistake about it; this still represents an important moment for working people and their voices will be heard.”

Amazon could not be reached for immediate comment.

The vote itself has garnered national attention, with professional athletes, Hollywood stars and even President Joe Biden weighing in on the side of the union.

If the union wins, it would be the first such victory in Amazon’s 26-year history. But the vote also has wide-reaching implications beyond Amazon, which is now the second-largest private employer in the U.S. after retailer Walmart.

Whatever the outcome, labor organizers hope Bessemer will inspire thousands of workers nationwide – and not just at Amazon – to consider unionizing.

For Amazon, which has more than 950,000 workers in the U.S. and has fought hard against organizing attempts, a union loss could chill similar efforts around the company.

Spokane does not have a Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union local, but Renner said that union is affiliated with the UCFW, which he leads.

He noted Local 1439 recently won concessions for local grocery store workers, including better pay, more sick time and enhanced retirement benefits.

The Alabama effort is “huge for essential workers,” Renner said. “We have public support that we haven’t had in the past and a new recognition. While many people were sheltering in place, essential workers continued to work and face the hazards of COVID-19.”

While Renner said he’s been contacted by local Amazon employees, the effort to form a union takes several detailed steps. He typically wants to have about 70% of eligible workers indicate they support the union before he starts organization efforts.

“Organizing doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process,” Renner said.

But he said Amazon employees are able to see the new contracts for local workers that include “very good” wage increases and added benefits. “I’m sure (Amazon workers) would like to enjoy that as well,” Renner said.

In the Alabama effort, the labor board has already reviewed each vote, reading names and signatures on the envelopes with representatives from Amazon and the retail union, both of whom had a chance to contest those votes. Contested votes were put to the side and not opened.

Now the board is opening the uncontested votes from their envelopes and counting “yes” or “no” votes.

Even if there’s a clear winner, the battle may be far from over. If workers vote against forming a union, the retail union could file objections accusing Amazon of tainting the election in some way, which could lead to a redo of the election if the labor board agrees.

Amazon could file its own objections if the workers vote to form a union.

In Spokane, Renner said his union is already “contacting and talking to people,” but he reiterated that any push here must have clear support from workers based on Amazon’s reaction in Alabama. In Bessemer, they are spending millions of dollars on anti-union consultants,” Renner said. “So, we would want to make sure there is a firm commitment.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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