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Amazon effort to thwart Alabama union drive suffers early defeat at labor board

SEATTLE — The National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday rejected Amazon’s bid to delay a hearing on the union drive of Alabama workers into January, as the e-commerce giant signals its willingness to vigorously battle employees trying to organize.

Bessemer warehouse workers notified the NLRB last week that they want to hold an election to create a bargaining unit that would cover 1,500 full-time and part-time workers, represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The agency had scheduled a Dec. 11 hearing to determine, among other items, whether to call a union election.

But Amazon failed to persuade the agency to delay the hearing by at least a month. The union opposed rescheduling the hearing at all. The NLRB decided to push the hearing back a week to Dec. 18 without offering an explanation.

As part of its battle against workers trying to organize, the company retained Morgan Lewis & Bockius, “premier anti-union lawyers,” according to Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. Amazon used Morgan Lewis when it successfully fought off a union representation bid by small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at its Middletown, Del., warehouse in 2014.

Rather than vigorously battling unionization, Amazon retained Morgan Lewis “to help support the procedural components of this process,” spokeswoman Heather Knox said via email. She didn’t comment on the NLRB’s scheduling ruling. RWDSU spokeswoman Chelsea Connor declined to comment.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos privately owns The Washington Post.)

The hiring of Morgan Lewis is one piece of Amazon’s efforts to thwart the organizing drive in a major labor battle against a company that has long opposed the unionization of its workforce. It’s also turning to the playbook companies often use to fight union drives, Givan said. One tactic: Push to include more workers in the proposed bargaining unit to make it harder for the union to reach those workers.

To file its NLRB notice, the RWDSU needed to have cards authorizing it to represent workers in collective bargaining signed by at least 30 percent of the proposed negotiating unit, which it claims is 1,500 workers. Amazon, though, argued in its filing that the proposed unit totals 5,723, though it didn’t explain how it came to that figure.

When Amazon opened the Bessemer warehouse in March, the company told local media it would employ 1,500 workers, a figure the city echoed on its website. The union questioned Amazon’s math, noting that the warehouse couldn’t possibly fit as many workers as the company argued should be in the proposed unit.

It “defies logic that a facility built to accommodate around 1,500 full time associates can accommodate 5,723 employees,” the union argued in its filing.

But Amazon’s Knox said the company currently employs more than 5,000 full-time, permanent workers at the 885,000 square-foot Bessemer facility.

Amazon also cited the busy holiday shopping season as a reason to delay the hearing. Warehouses such as the Bessemer facility ship about 30 percent more packages per day now than the rest of the year, occupying executive time and rendering Amazon’s lawyers “simply unable to gather the information needed” to file accurate legal documents and adequately prepare for the hearing, the company argued.

The union countered that there is no legal basis to support Amazon’s argument, calling it “a stretch to argue that any time spent discussing appropriate unit issues with managers would be extremely disruptive to fulfillment center’s operation.”

Employers battling unionization commonly try to delay NLRB hearings, Givan said. The longer the process, the more likely union-supporting workers in its warehouses, where turnover can be high, will move on, she said.

“It also gives the employer time to mount a massive anti-union campaign,” Givan said. “I think they are going to try every tactic to delay.”

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