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Amazon Warehouse Workers In Alabama Plan Vote On 1st U.S Union

A worker pulls a pallet jack with plastic crates at an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey. The company is facing its biggest labor battle yet with a unionization vote expected at a facility in Alabama.
A worker pulls a pallet jack with plastic crates at an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey. The company is facing its biggest labor battle yet with a unionization vote expected at a facility in Alabama.

Amazon workers at an Alabama warehouse are getting closer to holding a vote on whether to form the first U.S. union at one of America's largest employers — a groundbreaking possibility closely watched by the company's ballooning workforce.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is looking to represent hundreds of employees at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Ala. This week, federal labor authorities gave the green light for the workers to hold the election on whether to unionize.

The National Labor Relations Board will hold a hearing on Friday to hash out how and when the unionization vote might take place. The hearing will also address a dispute between the Bessemer workers and the company about the size of the potential bargaining unit.

Much of Amazon's workforce in Europe is represented by unions, but the company has so far successfully fought off labor organizing efforts in the United States.

A unionization petition typically requires at least 30% of the workers to sign paperwork saying they want a union. Alabama workers' petition said the union would represent 1,500 employees. Amazon argues the Bessemer warehouse employs over 5,000 people, suggesting the petition didn't have enough support.

The labor board, however, "is administratively satisfied that there is a sufficient showing of interest to continue processing the case," said Terry D. Combs, assistant to the regional director for the NLRB's Atlanta region.

Amazon, known for its opposition to unionizing, said the petitioners did not represent "the majority of our employees' views" and touted the facility's average pay of $15.30 per hour, benefits and "long-term career growth."

The company has said that between March and mid-September, it employed almost 1.4 million front-line workers across Amazon and Whole Foods in the United States.

The last time Amazon workers came this close to joining a union was in 2014, when a small group of maintenance and repair technicians at a Delaware warehouse held an election but ultimately voted against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

The Alabama workers' petition does not list specific grievances, but a union-backed website calls for changes to procedures for disciplining, firing and safety.

"Nineteen workers have died at Amazon facilities. We face outrageous work quotas that have left many with illnesses and lifetime injuries," the website says. "With a union contract, we can form a worker safety committee, and negotiate the highest safety standards and protocols for our workplace."

Amazon representatives argued the company offers "some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire" and that most of the workers at the Bessemer warehouse "say they would recommend Amazon as a good place to work to their friends."

A union spokesperson declined to comment. In Alabama, the RWDSU already represents workers in poultry, healthcare and other industries. The union also was among most vocal critics of Amazon's push for a second headquarters in the New York borough of Queens.

Editor's note:Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.