AnalysisLabor

Alabama workers fight to form first U.S. Amazon union

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, will soon vote on forming a union. If they vote yes, their warehouse will become the first Amazon facility in the U.S. to unionize.

Some 5,800 workers from an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, will vote in February on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The workers are upset with algorithms that track productivity as well as unfair disciplinary processes.

According to the union drive’s website, “Amazon warehouse workers face outrageous work quotas that have left many with illnesses and lifetime injuries.”

Despite the warehouse only opening in March 2020, these conditions have caused the workers to rapidly move toward unionizing. By the end of last summer, the workers met with RWDSU representatives at a hotel to discuss joining the union. That first meeting was held in secret, with union officials even monitoring the parking lot to make sure no workers were followed. 

On Oct. 20, RWDSU poultry workers and some Amazon warehouse workers stood outside the warehouse to encourage other Amazon workers to support the union.

That first day the poultry workers showed up to the warehouse, poultry worker Mona Darby says a white man removed his name tag, walked up to her, and said Amazon didn’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,” Darby says she responded. Since then, the poultry workers have gathered daily at the warehouse beginning at 4:30 a.m.

By December, the workers had gathered more than 2,000 signed union cards from the warehouse’s 5,800 workers, a healthy margin of more than the 30 percent required by the National Labor Relations Board to hold an official union vote. 

This vote will determine if the warehouse workers can unionize with the RWDSU. It is scheduled to happen Feb. 8 through March 29.

On Jan. 24, the campaign was even endorsed by the National Football Players Association in a viral video featuring several NFL players.

Amazon ramps up anti-union resistance

Unsurprisingly, this union drive has encountered fierce resistance from Amazon. In court, Amazon is trying to force the union vote to happen in person, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an April article by the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis, forcing an in-person vote is a tactic companies like to use because they can “educate employees one-on-one until the last moment before they vote.” 

So far, Amazon’s “education” consists primarily of disinformation. On a website Amazon launched to oppose the vote, confusing, qualified language falsely implies that signing a union card forces workers to pay union dues. Left out, however, is that workers only pay dues if the union successfully wins a contract, a contract that almost certainly would contain higher wages and better working conditions.

The Amazon website also included a patronizing stock photo of a Black couple leaping in the air with the caption “Excited African-American couple jumping, having fun.” That photo has since been removed. 

While Alabama may seem like an unlikely place for groundbreaking union organizing, current economic and political conditions have helped contribute to a more pro-union atmosphere.

Union will fight deteriorating conditions

Amazon warehouses in particular have seen working conditions deteriorate because of the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding explosion in online retail. RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum says, “The pandemic changed the way many people feel about their employers” due to the increased pressure on workers.

The movement for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing has also helped create a more pro-union atmosphere. It was shortly after the country-wide rebellions against police brutality that the Bessemer workers first met with RWDSU union representatives. A majority of the union campaign’s leaders are Black, along with much of the warehouse.

Amazon is no stranger to union busting. Many former Amazon employees allege they were illegally fired because of their union activism. It is also well documented that Amazon employs extensive surveillance of employees. In September, the company came under fire for posting job listings for “intelligence analyst(s)” to monitor “labor organizing threats.”

Amazon also uses “heat maps” made by computer models using dozens of metrics to gauge how close facilities are to unionizing. Amazon even hired Pinkerton detectives, best known for killing union organizers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, to spy on its employees. 

Despite having made $14 billion in profit through the first three quarters of 2020 and owner Jeff Bezos having a net worth of $190 billion, Amazon is ramping up its union-busting tactics. The power and organization of the workers, however, can force this exploiting behemoth to the bargaining table and inspire similar organizing drives around the United States.

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