The vote count for one of the most consequential union elections in recent history begins this week. The results could lead to Amazon's first unionized warehouse in America.
Voting officially ends Monday for some 5,800 Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Ala., who have been casting ballots by mail on whether to unionize. It's the first union election in years at Amazon, the country's second-largest private employer with 800,000 workers.
Amazon, which has long fought off labor organizing among its workers, staged a hard-nosed campaign to sway its Bessemer workers against unionizing.
The stakes are high for the company — and for the American labor movement.
Not only has the vote prompted hundreds of inquiries to labor unions from workers at other Amazon warehouses, but workers at southern auto plants and other facilities are watching, too.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is looking to represent Amazon workers in Bessemer, has called this union push "the most important labor struggle in more than half a century." The process was kicked off in November, when about half of the workers at the Bessemer warehouse had signed cards to petition for the election, according to the union.
On Tuesday, federal labor authorities will begin tallying the votes — a process that could take a few days. Regardless of the outcome, Amazon or the union are expected to pursue legal challenges.
The vote count will start with a video stream where observers from Amazon and the union will be able to watch as National Labor Relations Board officials call out each voter's name. The two sides will have an opportunity to raise objections over the eligibility of each ballot, without opening them. Afterward, on a separate video stream open to the media, the NLRB representatives will tally yes and no votes by counting anonymous ballots by hand.
Unions historically have been a tough sell in Alabama. And Amazon unleashed a strong pushback, with lengthy mandatory "information sessions" and blanketing the warehouse with messages, arguing the union was not necessary for its workers.
"We don't believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees' views," Amazon has said in its statements, touting its pay and benefits. "Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire."
Workers at Bessemer reached out to the union last summer, a few months after the warehouse first opened. They described grueling productivity quotas, and wanting more say in how people at Amazon work, get disciplined or get fired.
"It could be an awesome place to work ... but there are some things that need to be repaired. And so I chose and others chose to stand up and do something about it," said Jennifer Bates, one of the pro-union workers at the warehouse.
Unions are a prominent presence at Amazon in Europe. But in the U.S., the last time Amazon workers got to vote on unionization was in 2014. A small group of maintenance and repair techs at a Delaware warehouse chose not to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers union. A union drive in 2000 tried to organize 400 Amazon call-center workers in Seattle, but the company shuttered the center amid a dot-com-bust reorganization.
Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Danny Glover as Donny.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Around 5,800 Amazon employees in Bessemer, Ala., have now had a chance to vote on whether to unionize. The vote count starts today. If it's a yes, Bessemer would become Amazon's first unionized warehouse in this country, and it could juice the movement for organized labor. Amazon is one of NPR's financial supporters, but we cover them like we cover any other company. With me now, NPR business correspondent Alina Selyukh, who's been following this. Hi, Alina.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: When will we know how they voted?
SELYUKH: Well, so what's happening today is the tally begins, which is actually giving me a bit of a throwback to the time a few months ago when, you know, the whole country watched a live feed of the Pennsylvania vote count in the presidential election...
SELYUKH: ...Because we're expecting to have this Web stream where federal officials are going to be counting, by hand, the ballots that Amazon workers from Bessemer have been mailing in. And first, they'll have to sort out whether the union or the company wants to challenge each voter's eligibility. So long answer short, this count could take a few days.
KING: It is only one warehouse. That said, there's a lot at stake here.
SELYUKH: Yes, it's a really big moment, both for Amazon and for the American labor movement. Union membership has been declining for a while now. And this is Amazon. It's a big one, the second-largest private employer in the U.S. Its warehouse workforce seems to balloon every year. For years, Amazon has fought off labor organizing around the country, so unionizing nearly 6,000 employees in this one warehouse could be a catalyst. This has pro-union workers at Bessemer really feeling the pressure. Here's Darryl Richardson, who helped organize the vote.
DARRYL RICHARDSON: Very, very nervous. I think - I ain't going to say if - when we win, I believe I'll just drop down to my knees and cry.
SELYUKH: Some experts think that even if the union loses by a small margin, it would send a similar message. Union leaders say already the vote by itself has prompted hundreds of new inquiries from other facilities elsewhere. Of course, a big loss for the union would only solidify Amazon's success in evading labor organizing efforts around the U.S.
KING: You've been following this story for a while.
KING: Do you have a sense of whether they'll vote yes or no?
SELYUKH: Not really. For its part, the union points out the fact that more than half of the warehouse workers in Bessemer had signed cards saying they wanted a union shop, you know, when they petitioned for this union election in the first place. But historically, unions have been a tough sell in the Southern states. And Amazon staged a big campaign. It's been touting the pay and benefits that it offers, arguing that the union just wanted workers' dues money. I talked to Bessemer worker LaVonette Stokes who voted against unionizing.
LAVONETTE STOKES: Most of the people who are complaining about it are people who are not compliant. It's an unskilled job, easy to attain. There are a gallimaufry of people who never have a issue.
SELYUKH: And she says she didn't think the union would give workers anything Amazon doesn't already offer.
KING: So what happens once a vote is announced?
SELYUKH: Well, first, it will probably get a ton of really high-profile reactions.
SELYUKH: You know, the union push has gotten a ton of attention, including endorsements from celebrities, from politicians, even President Biden. But it will not be the end of the story for the Bessemer warehouse. Whatever the outcome, either Amazon or the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is the union vying to represent workers here - one of them would probably pursue a legal challenge to the vote. And then if the vote succeeds, workers likely face a difficult and protracted negotiation over their first collective bargaining contract with Amazon.
KING: OK. So either way, it takes time. NPR's Alina Selyukh.
SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.