Exclusive-White House pulled into unionization effort at Amazon facility

Story originally posted by Reuters 

Amazon, America’s second-biggest private employer behind Walmart Inc, does not have any union labor in the United States, and workers at its fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, would be the first to join if they vote in favour.

The last attempt by Amazon workers to unionize was in 2014.

A White House spokeswoman, who declined to comment directly on the Alabama effort, said President Biden supports union organizing and collective bargaining and has urged employers not to run anti-union campaigns or interfere with organizing and bargaining. He has also called for holding employers accountable and increasing penalties when they do, she added.

RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told Reuters the conversation with a top advisor to President Joe Biden took place after the inauguration and focused on their efforts to organize the facility in Alabama.

“We wanted to inform the White House that this campaign was taking place and that they would be hearing about it... we did not make any specific request,” Appelbaum said, adding that the Biden advisor was interested in learning more about the situation in Alabama.

Appelbaum said labor leaders “connected to the RWDSU” spoke to the White House, but he declined to name who they spoke with. He also said another senior advisor to Biden has been tracking the Alabama effort.

“The larger labor movement has indicated to the White House that this is an important campaign, that this is a priority,” Appelbaum said.

On Feb. 8, the National Labor Relations Board will mail ballots to 5,805 workers at the facility near Birmingham, who will then have seven weeks to decide whether they want the RWDSU to represent them.

The effort to secure White House support by labor leaders underscores the high stakes involved, as Amazon fights its biggest labor battle yet in the United States. A victory for the union could encourage workers attempting to organize at other Amazon facilities.

Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty said the company does not “believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees’ views.” The company’s employees choose to work at Amazon because “we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire, and we encourage anyone to compare our total compensation package, health benefits, and workplace environment to any other company with similar jobs,” she added.

Amazon has long avoided unionization, and it has trained managers to spot organizing activity. A website advocating Amazon workers shun unions, doitwithoutdues.com, warned the Bessemer employees, “why pay almost $500 in dues? We’ve got you covered* with high wages, health care, vision, and dental benefits.”

The COVID pandemic spurred labor organizing in different parts of the company and the world’s largest online retailer has faced a barrage of criticism over its handling of a coronavirus outbreak at its warehouses and other facilities.

Amazon, reporting more than 19,000 COVID-19 cases as of September, has said it increased cleaning, implemented virus tests and temperature checks, and added other measures to protect associates.