Amazon union struggle takes hold in southern state with radical labor history

Voting is now underway in Alabama. What started as a clandestine meeting between a handful of BHM1 Amazon Fulfillment Center workers and Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union organizers is now a full-fledged union drive. Roughly 5,800 workers are voting by mail to form what could be the first labor union at any Amazon facility in the United States. Voting ends March 29.

The historic campaign, if successful, could spark a wave of unionization around the country. Amazon, owned by the second richest man in the world Jeff Bezos, now employs 1.5 million workers worldwide. The only unionized facilities exist in Germany. After an unsuccessful attempt in New Jersey seven years ago, workers and organizers have fought long and hard to see what is now taking place in Bessemer, Ala.

This left the capitalist media scratching their heads. On Jan. 25, the New York Times published an article entitled, “Amazon Union Drive Takes Hold in Unlikely Place.” Similar narratives about the improbability of such an important struggle taking place in Alabama were pushed by The Guardian and CBS News, the latter of which wrote, “It’s happening in the unlikeliest of places: Bessemer, Alabama.” This ignorance has been spread by numerous local papers, radio stations, and TV news since voting began in February.

On the ground in Bessemer, anyone can see that this dismissal of Alabama’s long labor history is categorically false. RWDSU held a rally on Feb 6 to kick off the voting period. In attendance were local union rank-and-file, community members and various progressive organizations from around the Southeast and as far as Boston. West Alabama Labor Council President James Crowder told the crowd,

“I can’t tell you how many times we heard, ‘My mother told me if I don’t sign this card, she’s going to kick my ass.’ We heard that from uncles, grandparents, and cousins. That’s the spirit of Bessemer. This is a union town. It’s always been a union town and it’s going to continue to be a union town.”

Alabama’s radical labor history

Perhaps some of the workers’ grandparents in Bessemer recall a time when radical, anti-racist unionism was the beating heart of resistance in the Jim Crow South. Robin D. G. Kelly’s book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression serves as an unparalleled guide to this history.

The Greater Birmingham-Bessemer area was long home to steel, iron ore and coal mining. In the early years of the Great Depression, the Communist Party USA sent a small number of organizers to Alabama from northern cities to expand the party’s reach. At the time, large sectors of the Black population in Alabama worked as sharecroppers, tilling land they did not own and using a portion of the harvest to pay rent to the large landowners. These landlords consisted of the old slavocracy as well as northern industrialists, who snatched up as much land as they could in the aftermath of the Civil War.

In Birmingham-Bessemer, however, the mines and furnaces were multi-racial. While white workers filled the easier, better paid positions, Black workers found themselves at the bottom of the ladder loading railcars, losing limbs and often their lives due to extremely dangerous conditions. Despite the danger, many rural Black Alabamans were drawn to the promise of work in the city. The industrialists had no trouble pitting their workers against each other in the heart of Dixie.

With the Communists now active in Alabama, multi-racial unionism was able to take hold despite the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan and the white supremacist ruling class. At its height in 1934, the Birmingham branch had roughly 1,000 members and almost twice as many in its mass organizations, of whom over 80 percent were Black. The most notable of its mass organizations was the International Labor Defense, famous for its defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine Black teenagers who were railroaded and sentenced to death on false charges in 1931. A years-long struggle saved their lives.

The CP’s largest mass organization was the Sharecroppers’ Union. This activity would earn the Communists support from Black communities across the state, as it was the only organization willing to take on the Klan, the Jim Crow establishment, the iron and steel industrialists and the Black petty-bourgeoisie all at once. Birmingham native Angela Davis would reflect in her autobiography that her parents were sympathetic to the Communist Party for these very reasons.

The Communist Party in Birmingham-Bessemer would play a leading role in the Textile Strike Wave of 1934. The turbulent year also saw strikes in Bessemer, most notably the Mine Mill strike. From Hammer and Hoe:

“During the strike, Communists devoted most of their energy to publicizing antiunion violence in the ore mines, fighting evictions, and securing relief for the strikers. Communists created miniature unemployed committees within Mine Mill that were instrumental in preventing several evictions, fighting for the strikers’ right to receive public relief, and maintaining picket lines.”

From the Sloss-Sheffield mines and furnaces in Birmingham, to the rural sharecroppers around the state, to the unemployed councils and women’s assemblies, Black Communists were at the forefront of the labor movement in Alabama throughout the 1930s. Against seemingly impossible odds, facing deadly violence from the KKK, police, and the white mob — who Kelley notes were mostly the same people, just at different times of day — Black working class Alabamians found ways to resist through one of the most effective mass organizations imaginable: the labor union.

Amazon union drive gains momentum

As RWDSU organizers stand outside the BHM1 facility in Bessemer at all hours of the day, the community is stepping up to show support. Signs reading, “Our Community Supports Amazon Workers — Vote Union Yes!” are popping up around Bessemer and Birmingham. There are some streets where each and every house displays this sign in the front yard. At a facility of mostly Black workers, nestled in a community that is over 70 percent Black, the union drive goes hand-in-hand with the Black Lives Matter Movement that saw uprisings across the country last summer. There is no doubt in the workers’ or the organizers’ minds that this union is a matter of civil rights.

With the country facing a deadly pandemic, mass unemployment, mass incarceration, voting disenfranchisement, and gross wealth inequality — all of which disproportionately affect Black communities — it should be no surprise that a place like Bessemer, Ala., is exactly where Amazon’s first union in the United States is likely to form.

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