Amazon Access to Mailbox Could Be Grounds to Overturn Union Vote

Testimony that Amazon.com Inc. had access to a mailbox installed for workers to vote in a recent union election could prompt the National Labor Relations Board to overturn the results, according to the agency’s former chair.

During an NLRB hearing on Friday, employee Kevin Jackson said Amazon security guards used keys to open the mailbox, which was located near the entrance of the facility in Bessemer, Alabama.

The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which lost the election last month, has accused Amazon of having the mailbox installed so it could spy on workers. Even just the impression of election surveillance by an employer can influence the vote’s outcome, so the hearing is focusing largely on what workers witnessed during the election.

If the board finds Jackson’s testimony credible, it should be reason enough to overturn the result, said Wilma Liebman, who chaired the NLRB under President Barack Obama. What Jackson is alleging “at a minimum creates an appearance of Amazon involvement -- if not an inference of actual tampering -- with ballots,” Liebman said via email Friday.

Amazon has denied an ulterior motive, saying it asked the U.S. Postal Service to install the mailbox in a bid to boost turnout. “As we’ve said from the start, this mailbox was secure and Amazon had no access to outgoing mail,” a company spokeswoman said Friday. “Similar to any other mailbox that serves businesses, we had access only to the incoming mailbox where we received mail addressed to the building. The facts will become clear when we have a chance to present them next week.”

Jackson testified that as he was leaving work one morning he saw security guards approach the mailbox and then watched one of them open a large box on the bottom labeled “1P.”

“What he was getting out or looking for, I’m not sure,” he said.

While it was dark at the time, Jackson said his headlights illuminated the area. He also testified that Amazon security guards used surveillance cameras to monitor the parking lot, including zooming in on particular cars to read license plates and see who was inside if they detected anything suspicious.

Under long-standing precedent, NLRB elections are supposed to be held under “laboratory conditions,” in which “employees are able to exercise free and uncoerced choice” about unionization, Liebman said. “This conduct certainly departs from that.”

“What legitimate purpose could there possibly be for Amazon security guards to be opening the box?” she asked.

In an April 16 complaint, the union accused Amazon of misconduct -- including issuing anti-union threats, firing an employee for distributing union cards and pressuring workers to use the mailbox to cast their votes. Amazon workers have been testifying all week about the mailbox and how the company encouraged them to use it as a secure way to submit their ballots.

A labor board hearing officer who will recommend a ruling on the matter asked Jackson several questions about what he saw, indicating she deemed his testimony potentially relevant to the case.

Like other Amazon employees who testified this week, Jackson said he was approached by managers asking him if he received a ballot and whether he voted.

One Amazon manager, whose name Jackson didn’t know, asked him “off the record” what he felt about the union campaign. Jackson said he responded by quoting scripture. The manager, Jackson said, told him, “That’s not the answer I was looking for,” and asked him again. Jackson said he repeated the same Bible verse.

“She was frustrated with my answer and walked off,” he said.

Jackson, who was recently hospitalized for an undisclosed health condition, testified via video conference while lying down. Amazon attorneys asked if he was taking any medication that would affect his memory and he responded that he wasn’t.

Amazon employees voted 1,798 to 738 against joining the union, with 505 other disputed ballots uncounted. The labor board has the authority to invalidate election results in response to conduct that could have changed the outcome and prevented employees from making a free choice about whether to unionize.

“This damning eyewitness testimony of an Amazon security guard opening the famous mailbox (to which the company insisted only USPS had keys) comes as no surprise,” said Representative Andy Levin, Democrat of Michigan. “But the worker’s riveting account of a supervisor asking him ‘off the record’ (right!) whether he was for the union is just as important. As I have suspected since my first visit to Bessemer, Amazon broke the law, and the NLRB will likely come to that conclusion.”

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