How a mailbox could get the Amazon union vote overturned

The future of what could be one of the most consequential union organizing efforts in recent memory may rest on a mailbox.

Specifically, this gray multi-compartmented mailbox that was recently installed in the parking lot of an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama.

The mailbox.
Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

If you’ve been following the Amazon unionization story, you know that workers in its Bessemer facility have been organizing to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) since last summer, just a few months after the facility opened its doors in March 2020. And you know that the notoriously anti-union company has fought tooth and nail against this effort. While Amazon employees in some other countries belong to unions, an Amazon unionization attempt in the United States has never succeeded.

This one hasn’t, either … yet. The majority of voting employees ended up choosing not to unionize. But in an ongoing hearing before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the RWDSU is trying to overturn those results by arguing that Amazon interfered with the election.

The union vote was held over several weeks in February and March, with nearly 6,000 workers eligible to vote by mail. About 2,500 workers actually voted, with 1,798 of them voting against unionizing and 738 voting for it. Another 505 ballots were challenged — mostly by Amazon — and never opened because they wouldn’t determine the outcome of the election given the non-union side’s lead.

The RWDSU has asked the NLRB to throw out the election results. Among the union’s many objections — and what seems to be one of its strongest arguments — is that mailbox.

And it may have a real case here, according to former NLRB chair Wilma Liebman. “The mailbox issue, in large, creates strong grounds for overturning the election,” Liebman, who chaired the NLRB from 2009 to 2011, told Recode.

The mailbox has been an issue since it appeared in February. Amazon sent workers texts encouraging them to use the “secure mailbox,” which it said would be “easy, safe, and convenient.” The mailbox is located on Amazon grounds, where workers are notoriously under constant surveillance — that surveillance was actually one of the reasons workers cited for forming a union in the first place.

The mailbox was Amazon’s second choice. The company had first pushed to have ballot drop boxes placed on site, but the NLRB rejected that plan because it would give the appearance that Amazon was in charge of the vote and intimidate workers into voting Amazon’s way.

But after the United States Postal Service (USPS) approved of and installed the mailbox, Amazon erected a large tent around it and added signage encouraging employees to use it to mail in their ballots — despite the USPS denying Amazon’s request to place a “vote here” sticker on the mailbox itself. Amazon claimed that the tent was meant for the voters’ privacy. The RWDSU saw it differently, saying in its objection to the NLRB that it “created the impression that the collection box was a polling location and that the employer had control over the conduct of the mail ballot election.”

Despite RWDSU’s issues with the mailbox — union president Stuart Appelbaum told in February that it was unprecedented employer behavior and “pretty disgusting” — the union decided to go forward with the vote anyway.

But now it’s a key part of its case for why the results should be overturned — and new details revealed during the hearing seem to bolster that point.

An Amazon employee testified last week that he saw Amazon’s security guards opening the mailbox. Amazon has maintained that it didn’t have access to the outgoing mail compartment.

“Similar to any other mailbox that serves businesses, we had access only to the incoming mailbox where we received mail addressed to the building,” Kelly Nantel told Recode.

This might not even matter. Just the presence of the mailbox and how it came to be installed on the property could be a bigger factor.

For instance, also revealed during the hearing were emails to the USPS from Amazon regarding the company’s request for a mailbox that stated it was a “highly visible Dave Clark initiative.” Clark is Amazon’s head of worldwide consumer, and his apparent involvement indicates that Amazon was aggressively pushing for this mailbox at even its highest levels.

The emails also suggest that the highest levels of the USPS were involved, too, with one saying that the mailbox request had been “escalated” to the USPS’s commerce and business solutions chief, Jacqueline Krage Strako.

Simply put, Amazon really wanted this mailbox, and it really wanted its employees to use it when they cast their ballots. The union is arguing that it dressed it up to look a lot like the official polling station the NLRB said it couldn’t have. And Amazon isn’t just any private customer for the USPS — it was the agency’s biggest customer in fiscal year 2019, generating billions in revenue for the beleaguered agency.

“I would say it verges on brazen,” Liebman said of Amazon’s aggressive push for a mailbox and the tent and signage around it. “I have never heard of something like this. And you have to question, what’s the legitimate reason they did it?”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on the union’s allegations that the mailbox created a confusing and intimidating atmosphere for employees casting their votes. Amazon will have a chance to present its side next week; a decision isn’t expected for several weeks or months. Then we’ll find out just how important this mailbox is.