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Why a mailbox continues to loom over Amazon union vote at Alabama warehouse

During last year's high-profile union vote, an Amazon-branded tent cloaks a mailbox outside the company's warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.
Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union
During last year's high-profile union vote, an Amazon-branded tent cloaks a mailbox outside the company's warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

A maelstrom has spun up around a U.S. Postal Service mailbox that sits in the parking lot of an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

It's been studied and reviewed, covered in an Amazon-branded tent, then uncovered and moved. Now, as some 6,100 warehouse workers prepare to re-do their high-profile union election by mail, organizers want the mailbox gone.

"The mailbox's continued existence on Amazon's property stands as a stark physical memorial of a tainted election," Bessemer warehouse worker Jennifer Bates said at a virtual press conference organized by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

The group is pushing to form what would be the first unionized U.S. warehouse at Amazon, the country's second largest private employer. And the gray USPS cluster box has become an unlikely key plotline in this consequential labor effort.

Next week, new ballots will go out to almost 6,200 warehouse workers in Bessemer for a re-run of their union election after U.S. labor officials ruled that Amazonimproperly influenced the original vote. The mailbox was a central reason for scrapping those results. Now, the union has asked the National Labor Relations Board to scrap the mailbox, too.

The USPS originally installed the gray cluster mailbox at Amazon's request. The pandemic meant last year's election was by mail, and the company argued the mailbox would make casting ballots "convenient, safe and private." Bessemer workers voted overwhelmingly against unionizing.

Then, the union challenged the results, accusing Amazon of tainting the election with various anti-union tactics, including the mailbox. Workerstold reporters and later federal labor officials that its position inside an Amazon tent, right in front of a highly surveilled facility, made them feel the company was monitoring the vote.

The U.S. labor board sided with the workers.

"The mailbox likely caused employees to believe that the Employer – not the Board – controlled the election process," NLRB Regional Director Lisa Henderson wrote in her ruling for a re-run of the Amazon union vote.

Amazon "used its considerable resources and undeniable influence to have a postal mailbox quickly installed on its property," Henderson said, adding that the move "essentially highjacked" the voting process.

The NLRB directed the USPS to move the mailbox to "a neutral location" on Amazon's property, away from the entrance. In this week's request for a review, the union argues that a neutral location does not exist.

The mailbox is now farther away from the building, elsewhere in a vast parking lot. But pro-union workers say it remains in view of surveillance cameras, regularly patrolled, and leaves some employees under the impression they must cast their ballots there.

"This whole election was overturned because of the mailbox," Bessemer worker Darryl Richardson told reporters on Wednesday. After "what we all been through due to this mailbox... I don't understand why it's still out there."

Amazon and the NLRB did not comment on the union's push to remove the mailbox. A USPS representative referred NPR to an earlier statement:

"In the spirit of intergovernmental cooperation, the United States Postal Service has agreed to move the cluster box at the request of the National Labor Relations Board. Although we are not legally obligated to do so we are deferring to the Board's request in this instance, and moving the cluster box will not negatively impact Postal Service operations."

Bessemer workers will begin receiving their new ballots on Feb. 4 and the tally of their re-vote is expected March 28. The union is not asking federal officials to delay the election. The board says it allows requests for a review of the election process up until ten days after the results are certified.

Editor's note: Amazon is among NPR's recent financial supporters.

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Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
Stephan Bisaha