The Amazon union case has come down to a mailbox

For months during the union drive, Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, felt like they were being watched. There were cameras around BHM1, the 855,000-square-foot warehouse where workers sorted, scanned, and packed boxes. A uniformed police officer patrolled the parking lot all hours of the day and night. Managers came up to peoples’ workstations to ask how they felt about the organizing campaign. So when Amazon had a new USPS mailbox installed — ostensibly to increase voter turnout — many felt they couldn’t trust it.

“Amazon said only the post office had access to it, but that’s not how it felt,” said Serena Wallace, an employee BHM1 who testified on behalf of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). “I avoided the mailbox.”

Wallace’s comments came during a National Labor Relations Board hearing, where the union is contesting the results of the election it lost in early April. Like most court proceedings, it is both theatrical and crushingly boring. RWDSU is trying to convince the labor board to throw out the results of the vote by proving Amazon violated US labor law. Amazon is trying to paint RWDSU as living in fantasy land, refusing to admit that workers simply do not want a union.

In a statement emailed to The Verge, an Amazon spokesperson said: “Despite heavy campaigning from union officials, policymakers, and even some media outlets, our employees overwhelmingly rejected the union’s representation. Rather than accepting that choice, the union seems determined to continue misrepresenting the facts in order to drive its own agenda. We look forward to continuing to present the facts of this case.”

During the first week of the hearing, the union brought up workers to testify about each of its 23 objections. One of these workers was Hope Pendleton — an employee at BHM1. Pendleton said she attended a captive audience meeting in February where she was told that her benefits and health insurance could be taken away if the union drive was successful. The anti-union messaging was relentless, Pendleton explained. “It was a lot.”

Employees said Amazon texted them multiple times a day with anti-union messages. “Don’t let outsiders divide our winning team,” read one, according to More Perfect Union. “The union may accept fewer benefits for you in return for taking dues directly out of your check and sending them directly to the union.”

Kristine Bell, another worker at BHM1, said she attended a meeting where Amazon managers handed out car tags with anti-union messages like “leave RWDSU in the rear view” and “Vote no.” When a manager asked Bell how she felt about the union, she said she felt good. “But it’ll change the way we communicate and what I can do for you,” the manager allegedly responded. “What have you ever done for me?” Bell asked.

Workers testified that they were told that the union would take away their voice and that they wouldn’t be able to speak to managers if they had concerns in the workplace. (This is false; unionized workers can of course still raise concerns to managers.) Amazon’s broader message was clear: the union would come in between the company and its employees — and leave workers worse off.

The barrage of communications made some workers feel pressured and monitored. Voting was supposed to be anonymous — but the constant surveillance made some doubt that was possible. If they supported the union, would Amazon know? Could they lose their jobs in retaliation? The atmosphere grew more tense as the vote drew near.

The environment workers describe here is critical for the proceedings. The union doesn’t need to prove that Amazon had access to how people voted or manipulated the results. If RWDSU can demonstrate that employees believed the company held sway over the vote, it could be enough to overturn the results, Bloomberg reports.

That’s why so much of the case hinges on the mailbox. Employees who testified during the hearing say they were suspicious about its providence — particularly when Amazon erected a tent around it with signs that read “Speak for yourself!” and “Mail your ballot here.”

Witness testimony also alleged that Amazon security guards had access to the mailbox and were seen opening it on at least one occasion. RWDSU even presented emails showing that Amazon executive Dave Clark supported the mailbox installation.

An Amazon spokesperson said the company only had access to incoming mail addressed to the building. “As we’ve said from the start, this mailbox was secure and Amazon had no access to outgoing mail. Similar to any other mailbox that serves businesses, we had access only to the incoming mailbox where we received mail addressed to the building.”

During cross-examination, Amazon’s lawyers tried to get workers to say they hadn’t been forced to use the mailbox, regardless of what it looked like. Here’s an exchange between an attorney for the online retail giant and Darryl Johnson, a BHM1 employee.

Amazon attorney: You understood that you could mail your ballot at any mailbox in the Birmingham area, and to the extent that anyone wanted to use that mailbox, that was their choice, right?

Johnson: You could say that.

Amazon attorney: Amazon never required employees to use that BHM1 mailbox to mail their ballot, right?

Johnson: You mean did they tell employees to use it?

Amazon attorney: No, did they require it? Did they command it?

Johnson: You could say that.

Amazon attorney: The mailbox was a choice.

Sounds like it!

“Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a dropbox on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,” said RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum in a previously published statement. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.”

Amazon’s lawyers have suggested that the mailbox was just an option; no workers were required to use it. But the pressure-cooker atmosphere that workers described during the hearing suggests otherwise. Whether that will be enough to convince the labor board to throw out the results of the election is anyone’s guess.

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