By the end of Monday, thousands of yellow envelopes mailed to a squat brick building in Birmingham, Ala., will hold the fate of one of the most closely watched union elections in recent history, one that could alter the shape of the labor movement.
The envelopes contain the ballots of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer. Almost 6,000 workers at the building, one of Amazon’s largest, are eligible to decide whether they form the first union at an Amazon operation in the United States, after years of fierce resistance by the company.
The ballots were mailed out to workers in early February and must be signed and received by the labor board by the end of Monday. On Tuesday, the vote counting begins — a process that could take many days.
The organizers have made the case in a monthslong campaign that Amazon’s intense monitoring of workers infringes on their dignity, and that its pay is not commensurate with the constant pressure workers feel to produce. The union estimates that roughly 85 percent of the work force at the warehouse is Black and has linked the organizing to the struggle for racial justice.
Amazon has countered that its $15 minimum wage is twice the state minimum, and that it offers health insurance and other benefits that can be hard to find in low-wage jobs.
Whatever the outcome of the vote, the union drive has already succeeded in roiling the world’s biggest e-commerce company and spotlighted complaints about its labor practices.
The vote comes at a delicate time for the company, which faces increasing scrutiny in Washington and around the world for its market power and influence, which have grown during the pandemic as consumers flocked online to avoid stores. President Biden has signaled his support for the workers, as have many progressive leaders.
If the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union succeeds, it would be a huge victory for the labor movement, whose membership has declined for decades. If the union loses, particularly by a large margin, Amazon will have turned the tide on a unionization drive that seemed to have many winds at its back.
“Obviously, we want to win,” Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, said Friday when he visited Alabama. “But I think a major point has already been proven. And that is that workers, even in the Deep South, are prepared to stand up and organize and fight for justice.”
Mr. Sanders’s visit appeared to have struck a nerve with Amazon. After he announced the trip, Dave Clark, who runs Amazon’s operations and worldwide consumer business, attacked Mr. Sanders in a series of messages on Twitter, as did the company’s official social media account.
“I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace,” Mr. Clark wrote in one tweet.