By Mike Spector
(Reuters) – E-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc interfered with a union election by installing a mailbox to collect ballots and by distributing paraphernalia encouraging employees to vote against organizing, according to a report by a U.S. National Labor Relations Board hearing officer.
The NLRB official on Monday recommended a rerun of the landmark Amazon union election in Alabama where employees overwhelmingly voted against making their warehouse the online retailer’s first to organize in the United States.
In the coming weeks, a regional director for the NLRB will decide whether to order the rerun based on the recommendation, said an official on Monday with the board, who asked not to be named.
The election results in April showed workers rejected the effort by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) to organize the Amazon facility by a more than 2-1 margin.
Amazon, recapitulating a statement it provided on Monday, said it would appeal.
“Our employees had a chance to be heard during a noisy time when all types of voices were weighing into the national debate, and at the end of the day, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a direct connection with their managers and the company,” the company said.
Amazon’s efforts to have the U.S. Postal Service install a mailbox outside the Bessemer, Alabama, fulfillment center usurped the NLRB’s exclusive role in administering union elections and interfered with conditions necessary to conduct a fair vote, according to the hearing officer’s report, which the NLRB released on Tuesday.
Security cameras overlooking the mailbox site gave employees the impression they were under surveillance, the hearing officer found. A tent erected around the mailbox adorned with a company campaign slogan, while not enough on its own to invalidate the vote, amounted to electioneering that tainted the election, she added.
The hearing officer also found objectionable Amazon’s distribution of “vote no” pins and other anti-organizing paraphernalia to employees in the presence of managers and supervisors.
Amazon has said the mailbox was installed to give nearly 6,000 eligible voters a convenient option for returning their ballots and that the tent shielded workers from cameras, which predated the collection box.
It argued that distribution of anti-union materials to employees in the presence of managers was not objectionable because the company did not maintain a list of workers who received the paraphernalia, according to the hearing officer’s report.
The hearing officer’s recommendation nevertheless casts doubt on Amazon’s victory over the unionizing effort in a contest that amounted to a setback for the U.S. labor movement. The unions organizing campaign drew implicit support from U.S. President Joe Biden and lawmakers, including Senator Bernie Sanders, who visited the warehouse.
U.S. labor law forbids companies from spying on organizing activities or leaving employees with the impression they are under surveillance. It also prohibits other actions if they are found to be coercive.
Still, employers such as Amazon have wide legal latitude to campaign aggressively, including by requiring employees to attend mandatory meetings that cast unions in a negative light. Amazon held such meetings, sent text messages to employees and even displayed campaign literature in at least one of the Alabama warehouse’s restroom stalls.
(Additional reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington and Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco. Editing by Anna Driver and Marguerita Choy)