The One Place Progressives Want the Vote Suppressed: Union Elections

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Big business has a new weapon to use against organized labor: mailboxes. That is what the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) claims is the key reason behind its recent failure to organize an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, where only 13 percent of workers backed the union in an organizing election.

The union doesn’t mean “mailbox” as a euphemism or a metaphor. It means an actual, official United States Postal Service (USPS) mailbox that was provided specifically for the union election. This, says RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum, was a devious plan to undermine the workers’ rights.

“[E]ven though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one. They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers,” Appelbaum said in a statement announcing RWDSU’s plan to file unfair practice complaints against the company.

How exactly did a mailbox, of all things, give Amazon the “clear ability” to bust a union? Well, the RWDSU told Business Insider that the mailbox could make it appear to the Alabama workers as though their employer would be able to see their votes. The union claimed that might scare workers into voting against collective bargaining.

AFL-CIO lawyer Craig Becker told The Washington Post that the mailbox could lead the workers to think that Amazon itself would collect and count the ballots. Becker, a former National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) member, warned that Amazon was “trying to assert control over the mechanics” of the election.

It is surprising that Amazon’s critics would make this claim. Amazon workers’ very jobs are based on shipping and distributing items through the U.S. mail, so it is highly unlikely that they may not understand how the U.S. postal system works.

The facts are this: RWSDU made a bid late last year to organize the workers at Amazon’s Alabama facility. The union initially told the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees union elections, that it wanted to organize 1,500 workers, about a quarter of the total workforce there. The union claimed that it thought that number included all of the workers, citing reports from when the facility opened in 2020 that it would employ that number. In fact, the facility employed about 5,800. Amazon had ramped up its operations during the COVID-19 crisis, hiring an additional 175,000 people in 2020. The American Prospect contends the Alabama facility’s expansion was trick to undermine the organizing bid.

Amazon said that if there was going to be a union election in Alabama, it should involve all workers at the facility. The RWSDU decided to accept this because fighting it could have resulted in the NLRB delaying or even refusing to hold the election.

The union did catch a lucky break from the NLRB when it decided that the election should be done with mail-in ballots. Ordinarily, the NLRB hosts union elections at the specific worksite. This ensures a higher turnout because employees can vote when they arrive at work. The board, not unreasonably, said that the COVID-19 crisis made that too risky.

This gave the union a natural advantage because a worker who wants to have a union is more likely to be motivated to fill out a ballot and mail it in than a worker who isn’t interested or indifferent. Unions don’t have to win a majority of all workers in an election. They merely have to win a majority of the votes cast. Political elections work the same way—whoever gets the most votes wins, even if its from just a fraction of the possible voters. Holding a mail-in election is what Appelbaum meant by the NLRB “definitively” denying Amazon’s request for the vote to be held at the facility.

Amazon asked the USPS to put a mailbox at the Bessemer facility and it complied. The union and its allies would seem to suggest there was something deeply sinister about this. True, the mailbox did have the effect of countering the union’s built-in advantage from having a mail-in election. But how did it constitute a company trying to prevent workers from casting their votes?

The Amazon worksite had 5,876 workers eligible to vote, but only 3,041 cast their ballots, according to the NLRB. RWSDU only needed the backing of 1,521 of those workers— about a quarter—to win the election. Ultimately, only 738 Amazon workers voted for the union, about 13 percent of the Amazon workers. This might explain why the RSWD only wanted an election involving 1,500 workers. It might have been able to win that.

In other words, if the RWSDU had had its way, it would have excluded about 4,300 workers from the election. The union is now crying foul because those workers were not only allowed to vote but their ability to cast a ballot was made easier.