Fulfillment Center. Amazon is the Largest Internet-Based Retailer in the United States
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It’s been seven years since Amazon, the second-largest employer in the United States (after Walmart) and, according to labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein the fastest-growing workforce in U.S. history, presided over a union election in the United States. The 2014 union vote was Amazon’s first-ever on American soil. A proposed bargaining unit of about 30 technicians and mechanics working inside an Amazon warehouse in Delaware voted on whether to affiliate with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The vote failed, 21-6.

Now Amazon is preparing for its second-ever U.S. union vote on Feb. 8. This time the potential bargaining unit is much bigger—about 6000 warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama. Because the election is occurring in the midst of a deadly pandemic—a pandemic that gave Amazon the most profitable year in its history—Lisa Y. Henderson, acting regional director in the National Labor Relations Board’s Atlanta office, granted a request by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, with which the Bessemer workers would affiliate, to allow the warehouse workers to vote by mail. Henderson noted that in Jefferson County, where the warehouse is located, new COVID-19 cases had risen by nearly half over the previous two weeks, from 336 to 502, and that the testing positivity rate had reached 17 percent. Voting by mail, Henderson concluded, was “the safest and most appropriate method of conducting an election in view of the extraordinary circumstances presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

On January 21, Amazon appealed that decision. It doesn’t want its warehouse workers to vote by mail.

Amazon’s lawyers complained that this will be “by far” the biggest union election conducted since the pandemic began, an argument that would appear to undermine rather than support the company’s case; surely herding 6000 workers into and out of a polling facility would create a greater risk of coronavirus infection than herding, say, 600. The lawyers quibbled with Henderson’s observation that new COVID-19 cases had risen to 502, noting that they’d fallen after that. (Yes, they dipped a little after Jan. 2 to 480 new daily cases, averaged by week as of Jan. 21; it didn’t seem to interest Amazon that the positivity rate was now 18.3 percent, not the 17 percent Henderson cited.) The lawyers assured Henderson that “Amazon’s medical experts all agreed that a manual election would present near zero risk of virus spread among voter and participating agents.” I don’t doubt it! And they said the workers “have been reporting to work and successfully working in person” at the warehouse, where the 14-day positivity rate was 2.88 percent.

What Amazon’s lawyers didn’t point out was that this election is one that Amazon would prefer not to have at all. The Washington Post’s Jay Greene (who’s done an admirable job covering this dispute, even before one remembers that the Post is owned by Amazon’s chairman) reports that Amazon hired the same union-busting law firm, Morgan Lewis & Bockius, that it used to defeat the Machinists back in 2014, and set up this website to enumerate the various ways in which unions will rob a hard-working man blind. (“A union is a business that makes money from dues collected from workers’ paychecks each month…. A union cannot guarantee better wages and benefits” … and so on.)

Amazon is not trying to have a fair and safe election. It’s trying to have an election it can win. Remind you of anybody?

The company’s attempt to derail voting by mail seems awfully self-defeating. Amazon wants its workers to think that “when we work together to improve our business,” as opposed to joining a union, that’s better for everyone. Who needs a union when management has your best interests at heart? But if management has its workers’ best interests at heart, why is it trying to shut down a vote-by-mail organizing drive in the midst of a raging pandemic? The company’s resistance to this common-sense precautionary measure is itself a powerful argument for its employees to join a union. There’s some danger the warehouse workers in Amazon’s Bessemer plant will take notice of that.

Timothy Noah

Follow Timothy on Twitter @TimothyNoah1. Timothy Noah is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.