Black workers in Alabama lead effort to organize first unionized Amazon warehouse

Twitter / WBHM Union supporters rallying near the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama Feb. 6.

“It cannot be overstated how powerful it will be if Amazon workers in Alabama vote to form a union,” Bernie Sanders texted Saturday. “They are taking on powerful anti-union forces in a strong anti-union state, but their victory will benefit every worker in America.”

This week approximately 5,800 workers at the Bessemer, Alabama Amazon warehouse will begin voting by mail to decide whether they want to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). No other Amazon warehouse has attempted to form a union since 2014, when a group of technicians at a Delaware facility voted against unionizing.

According to RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum, Amazon employees reached out for representation last summer. Workers had complained about working conditions–employees reported that they are constantly and closely monitored– the lack of grievance procedures, discipline policy, and unfair terminations.

Organizers had to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to allow the vote for the union to be conducted by mail so as to safeguard against a large in-person turnout of workers seeking to vote, which would put them in danger of contacting COVID. Amazon had insisted that there be an in-person vote despite the risks, but were overruled by the NLRB.

Bessemer is 80% Black, and the workforce at the Amazon facility is largely Black and female.

If the workers succeed, the Bessemer facility will be the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the nation. Other workers at facilities around the country have held temporary strikes and demonstrations, including in the Twin Cities where workers have complained of mistreatment and unfair working conditions at the Fullfilment Center in Shakopee.

Twitter / WBHM Union supporters gathered near the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama Feb. 6.

Workers mistreatment

“Amazon doesn’t treat their employees like people. We’re treated like we’re robots,” said Jennifer Bates, who works at the Amazon Bessemer Distribution Facility, in an interview with local Birmingham TV station CBS42.

This is not the first time Amazon employees have complained of being treated like robots. Last year Amazon executive Jeff Wilke responded to the accusation saying, “Well, that’s not the experience that I had in setting it up or that I’ve seen. It’s certainly true that these jobs are not for everybody, and there may be people that don’t want to do this kind of work,”

The organizing effort speaks to the fact that there is more involved in keeping workers content than simply decent pay. Amazon pays twice the Alabama minimum wage of $7.25 and Bessemer was a town that needed the economic shot in the arm that Amazon brought.

Amazon highlights their pay and benefits in its postings around the Bessemer workplace urging its employees to reject the union. According to employees, Amazon has gone as far as posting messages in bathroom stalls in the workplace.

One of the posting headlines reads, “UNIONS CAN’T WE CAN.” The first lines of the notice read, “As an Amazon associate you already have great rewards and benefits. Remember everything you already have without giving any of your hard earned money to the RWDSU.”

But it was other concerns that primarily motivated the desire among some to organize a union. Bates said they work long hours and are allowed two 30-minute breaks, but workers are disciplined if they take even a few minutes longer.

“Amazon said the union can’t make promises, [but] Amazon hasn’t made any promises either,” said Bates. The workers describe grueling productivity quotas and want more say in how people at Amazon work, get disciplined or get fired.

“A lot of people are getting fired for mundane things, and they never get the chance to tell their side of the story,” said Bates. The RDWSU on its website promises “it will help improve working conditions, grievance procedures, and require a just-cause in employee disciplinary actions.”

In a letter to the press responding to the workers’ efforts, Amazon spokesperson Rachel Lightly wrote, “Direct dialogue is essential to our work environment in which we encourage associates to bring their comments, questions and concerns directly to their management team with the goal of quickly improving the work environment and challenging leadership assumptions. We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce.”

Because the city is predominantly Black, the Amazon union campaign is evoking social and racial justice themes. “We see this as both a labor struggle and as a civil rights struggle, which has often been the story of the labor movement in the South,” said Appelbaum in an interview with National Public Radio.

National support

On Monday, Minnesota Senator Tina Smith and several of her senate colleagues signed a letter supporting the union organizing drive.

 “They have put in long hours and risked their own health during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet increased demand, and they deserve to share in the success they have made possible. Amazon’s employees have the right to join together to bargain collectively for a voice in their workplace, and to vote to establish their rights to negotiate. They also deserve to receive the compensation, benefits and respect that reflect their true value to the company and to their communities,” wrote Sen. Smith and her colleagues.

Bessemer workers also received support from 50 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who signed on to an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos last week. The letter criticized the company’s efforts to prevent a union from being organized at its Bessemer facility and said this was “an opportunity for a reset.”

The union organizing effort has also received support from local chapters of major unions including the Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The workers also received support from the National Football League Players Association union (NFLPA).

“Everyone deserves to have a voice, and we’re proud that you’re even considering taking the step to unionize,” tweeted NFLPA President JC Tretter on January 25.

“Our union supports y’all,” tweeted Houston Texans safety Michael Thomas.“I applaud y’all for trying to unionize, and I understand how important it is to try to make a decision, and it’s during a pandemic. But understand we’re part of a union, and our job is to protect our workers.”