United States: Amazon workers fight for a union, dignity

Union banner at Amazon\s Bessemer warehouse. Photo: Sweet Alabama/Twitter

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting on whether to become the first unionised Amazon warehouse in the United States.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) mailed ballots to nearly 6000 Amazon workers, who will decide whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

“The battle at the Bessemer warehouse, which opened in March last year, has emerged as one of the largest, and most closely watched, union fights among private US employers in recent history,” wrote Jay Greene in The Washington Post.

The union filed a petition with the labour board in November to hold the vote and won the right to hold a seven-week postal ballot that ends on March 29.

Amazon is the second-largest employer in the US, and one of the most powerful companies on the planet. Its chief executive Jeff Bezos is the richest person in the US, according to Forbes.

Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders told the Post: “What you are seeing right now in Bessemer is an example of the richest person in this country spending a whole lot of money to make it harder for ordinary working people to live with dignity and safety.”

The process

Under US industrial law, workers must sign representation cards to get the Labor Board to call an election.

Thirty percent of workers must sign before the union can begin the election process. A majority of workers must vote in favour in the ballot to certify the union.

Amazon sought to stop the process as quickly as it could. No organising drive has ever reached an actual vote at an Amazon “fulfilment centre” before. As has been the case in other union organising attempts, if enough cards are not signed and then certified, there is no election. But more than 30% of workers at the Bessemer facility signed, and the NRLB called an election.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, voting is by postal ballot. Amazon objected to this — as did former US president Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

That the Bessemer workers stood up to Amazon’s anti-union smear campaign to get an election called in a notoriously racist and anti-union state, shows the strong support of the mostly Black workforce and surrounding community.

The wave of protests and walkouts at Amazon last year over COVID-19 safety measures and other issues won some partial gains. But forming a Bessemer warehouse union would give workers the power to negotiate an agreement that could lock in durable changes to wages and working conditions. It could also inspire other Amazon warehouses to organise.

According to The Verge, one of the primary issues driving the union push is Amazon’s gruelling and automatically enforced productivity metrics, a complaint that has prompted protests at other Amazon facilities.

Legacy of BLM and civil rights campaigns

One Amazon worker, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Verge that[by] trying to make every little extra dollar, at the expense of the person actually doing the work,” Amazon “has really frustrated people down here”.

This frustration coincided with a rising tide of activism at the facility.

The majority of workers are African American, and many have been galvanised by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests following the police killing of George Floyd in May last year.

“I think it also correlated with the recent racial justice movement,” said the employee. “There’s a lot of support for the movement in that building.”

The city of Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham, is more than 70% African American.

Lead RWDSU organiser Joshua Brewer told The Verge: “A lot of these workers are involved in [BLM], especially a lot of these activists that have really worked hard to get their co-workers on board,” he said. “You feel that kind of spirit throughout the campaign.

“It’s a union town, so they go home to their families, and they hear from their aunts and uncles and dads and grandparents that worked in the steel industries or in the mines, and they say unions are good, you need to sign that card and get involved.”

“The Birmingham-Bessemer region was once a centre of the steel and iron industries, as well as home to coal and iron-ore mines,” wrote New Republic’s Alex Press.

“Coal strikes were a regular occurrence, and it was a stronghold of the United Mine Workers of America, responsible for Alabama having a 25% union membership rate by the mid-20th century.

“For context, that is higher than any state’s current union membership rate. Deindustrialisation decimated these numbers. Last year, only 8% of Alabama workers were union members.

“While there were segregated union locals, as in much of the legally segregated South, there were also left-led, multiracial unions, such as the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. In the latter, as described by historian Robin DG Kelley, ‘the prevalence of Black workers and the union’s egalitarian goals gave the movement an air of civil rights activism’.”

Kelley told Alabama guest columnist Eli Cohen the RWDSU is “politically, ideologically, tactically, a descendant of Bessemer’s [Mine Mill union].”

Lack of respect

Pay is not the central issue. Amazon’s entry wage for all employees it calls “unskilled labour” is $15 an hour in a state where the legal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. It also provides health care and pension benefits. However, according to the New York Times, the median wage in greater Birmingham is nearly $3 above Amazon’s pay, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Most workers, however, are angry because they are treated as less than human. “Lack of respect is Amazon’s business model,” wrote Press.

Its warehouses had nearly double the standard rate of serious injuries in the industry, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread across the country.

“Workers are monitored down to the second, and reprimanded if they spend more than the company’s preferred amount of ‘time off-task’,” wrote Press.

Amazon’s warehouses are huge — Bessemer is 82,210 square metres. Workers delay toilet breaks and, in some cases, “pee in bottles”.

One Bessemer worker told The Prospect: “They work you to death.”

To clean up its anti-union image, Amazon has given US$10 million to Black rights organisations fighting for racial justice and equality in solidarity with the BLM movement. Yet, during the COVID-19 pandemic last year, it eliminated a US$2/hour hazard payment after only a few months.

Many whites oppose the union drive and hold racist and anti-union views.

According to the NYT, one white man approached union campaigner Mona Darby outside the Bessemer warehouse and told her Amazon doesn’t want a union and that he didn’t want her “Black ass on our property”.

“You are going to see my Black ass out here all day, every day,” she told him.

“A flyer distributed in the 1930s by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham read: ‘Alabama is a good place for good negroes to live in, but it is a bad place for negroes who believe in social equality’,” wrote Press.

“Over the last century, local union organisers have faced assassination attempts, near-fatal beatings and arrests.

“This isn’t ancient history.

“As deindustrialisation led to an increase in police violence, the concentration of poverty, and the rise of Black elected leadership, anti-racism and a desire for respect are animating concerns for Bessemer workers on and off the shop floor.

“That RWDSU has chosen to embrace a worker-led, anti-racist model suggests that this is very much a living legacy.”

Union and workers confident

“As in all anti-union campaigns, management is depicting its workplace as a haven of harmony,” wrote The Prospect's Luis Feliz Leon.

“Through text messages to their phones and their A-to-Z work app, workers receive management messages telling them: ‘We are a winning team, and we believe working together directly is most effective. Don’t let outsiders divide our winning team! We don’t believe that you need to pay someone to speak for you.’”

Resha Swanson, policy and communications coordinator at the Adelante Alabama Worker Center in Birmingham, told The Prospect: “For generations, Black workers have risked their lives to spearhead worker rights efforts — fighting for their lives in the face of lynching, death threats, job loss, and most of all, white supremacy.

“Amazon’s workers’ partnership and unionising with RWDSU is just an extension of the legacy of worker militancy.”

What happens next is up to the Bessemer workers. Employers rely on workers’ labour, and when workers use that power, what seems impossible can quickly become reality.

[This article was updated on March 19 to include the median wage figure for Birmingham, Alabama.]