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E-mails show that Amazon pressed the Postal Service for a mailbox, a move a union says violates labor law

Michael Foster of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union held a sign outside an Amazon facility where labor is trying to organize workers in Bessemer, Ala.
Michael Foster of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union held a sign outside an Amazon facility where labor is trying to organize workers in Bessemer, Ala.Jay Reeves/Associated Press

SEATTLE — E-mails among US Postal Service employees in January and February show that Amazon pressed to install a mailbox outside its Bessemer, Ala., warehouse, revelations the union battling to organize workers there say violate labor laws.

The Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union is fighting to represent 5,805 workers at the facility in one of the most high-profile labor battles in years, and the National Labor Relations Board was expected to begin counting votes Thursday.

The union has complained about the mailbox, which the Postal Service installed shortly before the start of mail-in balloting for the union election in early February. It is argued that the mailbox could lead workers to think Amazon has some role in collecting and counting ballots, which could influence their votes.

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The e-mails, obtained by the union through Freedom of Information Act requests, could extend that battle if the union loses the vote, providing fodder for unfair labor practices charges that provide grounds to overturn the results. The e-mails show that Amazon pressed the Postal Service to install a mailbox urgently just as the seven-week mail-in balloting began.

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

“We have not heard anything back on the install of this collection box,“ a Postal Service account manager wrote to Alabama colleagues on Jan. 14. “Amazon is reaching out again to me today about the status as they wanted to move quickly on this.“

Six days later, the manager sent another e-mail to her colleagues in Alabama that “Amazon’s expected set-up date for this collection box is February 7, 2021.“ The manager also noted in a Jan. 8 e-mail that a person, whose name was redacted, “at Amazon HQ would like to (be) kept in the loop on this progress.“

Representatives for Amazon and the Postal Service did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox has said that the mailbox provides a “convenient, safe, and private [way] for our employees to vote on their way to and from work if they choose to.“

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The e-mails among Postal Service workers show the lengths to which Amazon will go to fight unionization, RWDSU president Stuart Appelbaum said.

“Even though the NLRB definitively denied Amazon’s request for a drop box on the warehouse property, Amazon felt it was above the law and worked with the postal service anyway to install one,“ Appelbaum said in a statement. “They did this because it provided a clear ability to intimidate workers.“

The mailbox — the type of unmarked units with individually locked compartments and a mail slot that are common in apartment and condo buildings — does not have US Postal Service markings, and the union has said that could signal to workers that the company has a role in running the election.

The union has called Amazon’s campaign to get employees to bring their ballots to work and use the mailbox is an unlawful form of ballot harvesting. It has said the push to get workers to use the mailbox helped the company determine which employees supported the union because they would be less likely to vote on company property.

The e-mail exchanges contradict comments about the mailbox Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer gave to The Washington Post last month, when he said the agency suggested putting the box at the warehouse, not Amazon. At the time, Partenheimer declined to say why the agency, which counts Amazon as its largest corporate client, decided to install the mailbox at the start of the mail-in election, or what led it to put the mailbox on Amazon property.

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The mailbox appeared in the parking lot in front of the warehouse, inside a tent just as the mail-in voting began, a mailbox appeared

“Speak for yourself! Mail your ballot here,“ reads a banner on the tent.

One reason the mailbox is controversial is that the NLRB, which is overseeing the election, rejected Amazon’s request to put ballot boxes at the warehouse for in-person voting. The board cited concerns about the safety of Amazon workers and agency staff members during the coronavirus pandemic in ruling that balloting should be sent to the NLRB by mail.

And the use of social distancing procedures Amazon employs at its warehouses to ensure that workers do not get too close to one another during the pandemic “to monitor the line leading to the voting tent would give the impression of surveillance or tracking,“ Lisa Henderson, the acting regional director of the NLRB’s Atlanta office, wrote in her ruling setting election rules.