A group of 30 workers at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Middletown could make history today by voting to forge the online retail giant's first unionized workforce.

A group of 30 workers at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Middletown could make history today by voting to forge the online retail giant's first unionized workforce.

The first group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians is expected to vote in a conference center at the 15-month-old distribution center, starting at sometime around 1 p.m. Members of the night shift are expected to cast their ballots sometime after 8 p.m., with a final result anticipated late tonight.

"It's hard to say at this point what the outcome might be," said John Carr, a spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), which is seeking to represent the small fraction of the distribution center's 1,500 full-time workers. "[Amazon] still has the ability to drop a bombshell today, whether it be some kind of accusation or innuendo. [Other companies have] even fired people before. We don't expect that today, but it has happened."

Carr said Amazon has held numerous meetings with employees at the facility since the IAMAW first filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking today's vote, which is believed to the closest any employees at the Seattle-based company's 96 international locations have come to forming a collective bargaining unit.

The outcome of today's vote will be determined by a majority of the workers who actually cast secret ballots. While the result will be binding for all 30, it will not immediately affect the remainder of the workers at the Middletown distribution center or Amazon's employees elsewhere.

But it would give the 700,000-member IAMAW a toe-hold in the company, which has successfully resisted similar efforts during its 19-year history.

Company spokeswoman Mary Osako said via email last month that Amazon already provides competitive wages and comprehensive benefits, as well as bonuses, stock options and, in some cases, pre-paid tuition fees.

She said the core of Amazon's business model also depends on rapid innovation, flexibility and open lines of direct communication between managers and employees, which it calls "associates."

"We respect the individual rights of our associates and have an open-door policy that allows and encourages associates to bring their comments, questions and concerns directly to their management teams," she wrote. "We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce, and do not believe there is a need for third-party representation."

Carr said Amazon's open door policy is at the heart of the workers' desire for a labor contract.

"For instance, right now, if they bring a potential safety concern to management, there is no recourse to ensure that it's going to be addressed properly," he said. "A contract would fix that by requiring the creation of a safety committee and a standard procedure for handling grievances."

Amazon officials, meanwhile, insisted worker safety is a top priority at their fulfillment center.

"It's safer to work in the Amazon fulfillment network than in a department store," spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman said via email on Wednesday.

But, Carr said, the company's desire to handle employee issues on a strictly individual basis has created a large degree of uncertainty among the workers, a problem made worse by numerous changes in management at the Middletown facility.

"To my knowledge, these guys have never once raised an issue with their wages, outside of wanting to know the procedures for reaching the next pay level," he said. "Instead, they want to know that the rules today will be the rules tomorrow and that one employee will get the same treatment as another."

Carr this week dismissed concerns that a vote by the workers to unionize could convince Amazon to close its 1-million-square-foot distribution center in Middletown.

"That's a concern the workers should have every day they report for duty without a contract," he said. "In today's economy, that could happen tomorrow and, as it stands now, they would have no protections, including guarantees like having the option of transferring or receiving a severance package, that would part of a negotiated contract."

Cheeseman said Amazon believes its employees are fairly compensated without union representation.

"We are committed to providing not just competitive wages and comprehensive benefits, but also a network of support to ensure our employees succeed," she said in a statement. "In addition to highly-competitive wages, comprehensive benefits on day one, bonuses and stock awards, we offer innovative benefits, such as the Career Choice Program, where we pre-pay 95 percent of tuition fees, so associates can pursue their aspirations whether at Amazon or elsewhere."