In pouring rain and 40° weather, over a hundred community members, local union rank-and-file, journalists and activists from across the southeast gathered in a muddy lot between a gas station and a Waffle House to attend Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s Feb 6 rally in solidarity with the Amazon workers at the BHM1 fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, fighting to form the first U.S. Amazon union.
The rally was organized by RWDSU to mark the beginning of the voting period on Feb 8, when Bessemer’s Amazon workers will start to cast their votes via mail-in ballots.
Some people traveled to Bessemer from as far as New Orleans and Boston to attend the rally. Attendees were offered free pizza paid for by Senator Bernie Sanders in an act of solidarity. Organizers provided free signs and placards. Hundreds of lawn signs were placed along the road, which attendees were encouraged to place in their front yards.
Despite the unfavorable weather conditions, the spirits of the attendees remained high. Chants like “Union, Yes!” and “Black Lives Matter!” were heard throughout the event. Central to the organizers’ message was that economic justice is racial justice.
Bessemer is a majority Black and working-class city adjacent to Birmingham. Like Birmingham, the city has a long history of heavy industry and environmental racism. Today, thousands of Bessemer residents are employed at the Amazon facility, where a union struggle of major significance to the labor movement regionally and nationally is taking place.
Michael Foster, a Black poultry plant worker and RWDSU organizer better known as “Big Mike,” told the crowd, “We’re down here to fight for the people, to get them dignity, respect, and a living wage–not a minimum wage.”
Amazon has gone great lengths to spread misinformation and anti-union propaganda. Workers have been called off the floor to attend anti-union meetings, and similar messaging has been found on flyers taped to bathroom stalls. Some workers have said they are receiving up to five text messages a day from the company urging them to vote no.
The company even contacted the City to tamper with the traffic light leading out of the fulfillment center, and the City cooperated. Where before organizers could talk to coworkers and community members at the traffic stop about the union efforts, now the traffic light turns green seconds after detecting a car at the intersection. This insidious act by Amazon has even caused an accident that, “by the grace of God,” just missed Big Mike.
West Alabama Labor Council President James Crowder told the story of the struggle at BHM1,
“We started with a dozen workers in Bessemer, and we grew to thousands. And it happened fast, and it happened because people like you supported them. People in Bessemer came together… 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, grand parents 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.”
Erica Harris of the Alabama Coalition for Community Benefits said she is fighting for “the community [to] have the power to leverage, to be able to be in agreement in a conversation about what types of jobs we’re bringing to Birmingham.”
She went on to say,
“We want good jobs, yes, but we really want to make sure that our community is a part of that conversation, meaning that we have a pathway to unionization. We have to shift the narrative of the Southern worker. We cannot accept the status quo anymore. We need to encourage our community to go out and support Amazon workers because this union will be the start of shifting the narrative for Alabama workers. Let’s stand together in solidarity.”
To a cheering crowd, the organizers shouted, “It’s time for a movement! It’s time to make a change!”
Majadi Baruti, Community Engagement Director of the Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust, and a well respected activist and organizer in Birmingham stated to Liberation News, “The struggle of the worker continues in such a powerful way with the organizing of the folks working at Amazon in Bessemer. This is a new day for the worker in Alabama.”