On Friday, January 21, Isaiah Thomas, a shipping dock worker at BHM1, Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, was given a letter from management informing him that he had violated the company’s solicitation policy by discussing unionization with his coworkers.
“While we understand your activity may have occurred during your break time, you were interfering with fellow associates during their working time, in their work areas,” read the memo. “Amazon respects your right to engage in lawful solicitation in accordance with our lawful policy.”
The letter is the subject of the unfair labor practice (ULP) charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is preparing for a second union election at BHM1. The NLRB ordered the election be rerun after finding that Amazon “hijacked the process” by getting a mailbox installed near the warehouse’s entrance, thus creating the appearance of surveillance and disturbing the “laboratory conditions” required during a union vote. The memo to Thomas could also count as a violation of Amazon’s settlement with the NLRB, which prohibits the company from interfering in organizing.
Even as ballots are to be mailed to the 6,143 eligible workers on February 4, the mailbox remains on the Bessemer site. It has been moved further away from the warehouse after the NLRB ordered it to be placed in a “neutral location” but workers have asked for the mailbox be entirely removed. In a request for review filed by RWDSU this week, the union argues that there is no neutral location for such a mailbox at the facility. As BHM1 worker Darryl Richardson told reporters this week, “This whole election was overturned because of the mailbox. . . . I don’t understand why it’s still out there.”
At a press conference earlier this week, workers spoke of the process by which they have been organizing for the new election. Rerun votes are a particularly arduous challenge for union drives, with around 41 percent of such attempts ending in unionization, compared to 68 percent for first-time union elections.
“That loss was a blessing,” said Kristina Bell, who works in BHM1’s stowing department and was present for the prior election (the union estimates that slightly more than half of the workers voting in this round were present for last year’s vote; Amazon warehouses have been found to experience annual turnover rates as high as 150 percent).
“A lot of people didn’t vote,” explains Bell. “A lot of them were young people and they didn’t understand the importance of the union. But after we lost that vote, a lot of people went home and talked to their parents and grandparents. . . . They didn’t care before, but they care now.”
In addition to holding union meetings, door-knocking to speak with coworkers outside of the facility, and holding regular solidarity T-shirt days to publicly show their support for the union, workers have been contesting the message presented to them on-site during captive-audience meetings, in which management or anti-union consultants urge workers against unionizing, hoping to generate enough fear, doubt, and confusion to move workers to vote no.
“We’ve been shutting down those meetings,” says Thomas, the worker to whom Amazon served a warning against solicitation. “We ask, ‘Why are you lying to us? Why are you giving us misconstrued facts about collective bargaining and status quo?’”
When workers asked a consultant leading one such meeting to identify herself, she responded with three different names over the course of the conversation. “Amy, Sarah, and Jamie — what’s up with that?” recounted Thomas. “I tell my coworkers, when these consultants come up to you, ask them, ‘What is your name and how much are they paying you?’ Those consultants always run away because they don’t want to tell their name and they don’t want to say how much they get paid to intimidate workers.”
The shipping dock department recently delivered a petition to management with a host of demands, including higher pay, an extension of break times to one hour, better communication with employees about the rate target at the start of a shift, and that workers be “treated with dignity and respect at work.” Such efforts not only serve as attempts to rectify long-standing problems at work; in the context of a union drive, they give organizers a sense of how many workers will publicly voice their concerns and stand with their coworkers. Thomas says a majority of the shipping dock workers signed the letter.