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Black Workers in Alabama Aim to Slay the Trillion-Dollar Behemoth That Is Amazon

Unionizing the Amazon warehouse workforce, which is 85 percent Black, is above all a civil rights issue, say organizers.

Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union organizers stand outside the entrance to Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, on March 10, 2020. 

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, led by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU) are trying to slay a trillion-dollar behemoth — comparing their struggle for dignity and a union to the mythical fight of David against Goliath.

From its founding as an online book vendor in 1995 by Jeff Bezos, Amazon has undergone an unbridled expansion into other industries like logistics and the internet with a focus on web services. The company — a modern-day version of the Roman god Saturn, who ate his own babies in an attempt to prevent them from challenging his power — has repeatedly gobbled up lesser corporate gods in its monopoly-seeking rampage, growing to become one of the most valuable corporations on Earth by market value.

With a market cap of over $1.5 trillion, a dizzying number that reflects the company’s commitment to maximizing shareholder profits at the expense of workers who toil in dismal working conditions, Amazon’s corporate power appears to reign unchecked globally. But Black workers who make up the majority of the workforce in Bessemer, an industrial suburb outside of Birmingham, have organized to challenge that perception of invincibility.

Early in February the National Labor Relations Board mailed ballots to nearly 6,000 Amazon workers who will have until March 29 to decide whether to join RWDSU. Amazon, the second-biggest employer with 1 million workers in the U.S. after Walmart’s 2 million, has met the organizing drive with stiff resistance, deploying a panoply of union-busting tactics including voter suppression attempts to stop the vote by mail election, plastering anti-union propaganda in bathroom stalls, using third-party contractors as anti-union props on the shop floor, and much more, according to Amazon workers.

Union election sign outside the entrance to Amazon's warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama on March 10, 2020.
A union election sign outside the entrance to Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, on March 10, 2020.

Amazon is no stranger to subjecting workers to heightened surveillance, including hiring anti-union consultants to do the dirty work, and promoting degrading working conditions. Workers have reported being treated as “disposable,” being denied bathroom breaks to the point that they have to urinate in plastic bottles on the shop floor, and being maimed because of ruthless productivity quotas. According to workers, the company parked ambulances outside one warehouse to cart off workers who passed out from dehydration while laboring in high temperatures over a hundred degrees.

The fact that workers at an Amazon warehouse in the South are wrangling with the e-commerce giant in the most historic union election of the last decade hasn’t gone unnoticed, from the White House to the halls of Congress to the lower frequencies catalyzing organizing across the country and the globe.

On February 28, in a norm-shattering bravura move, President Joe Biden posted on Twitter a video siding with workers against union-busting employers.

“Unions put power in the hands of workers,” he said.

Yes, unions put power in workers’ hands, but employers try to slap it away at every chance they can get.

Workers Alone Should Decide

In Labor Notes, Gabrielle Semel, a retired labor lawyer for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), compares the absurdity of employers having a say in a union election by way of analogies to sports and politics: “In sports, a team does not get a voice in deciding their opponent’s roster or strategy. The Democrats don’t get to decide the candidates of the Republicans, or vice versa.”

(Disclosure: Truthout is unionized with the United Media Guild, which is part of CWA.)

Power never flows from union membership numbers on a page alone. It comes from the struggles workers wage for control of the workplace and society.

Semel concludes, “Unions are organizations of workers; they alone should decide. If the bosses have something to say, they can say it at the bargaining table.”

Leaving no doubt about the ongoing organizing in Alabama and nationwide, Biden added, “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences.”

That uncharacteristically bold statement was perhaps Biden’s attempt at recompense for having abandoned Wisconsin public sector workers in 2011 as Gov. Scott Walker launched a billionaire-funded crusade to squash government employee unions.

Together with support from the National Football League, actor and activist Danny Glover, and a congressional delegation, including Democratic U.S. Representatives Andy Levin, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Terri Sewell and Nikema Williams, Biden’s video has boosted workers’ confidence, RWDSU organizers say.

Amazon worker Jennifer Bates wearing a purple poncho speaks in the rain at a rally in Bessemer, Alabama on February 6, 2021.
Amazon worker Jennifer Bates, wearing a purple poncho, speaks in the rain at a rally in Bessemer, Alabama, on February 6, 2021.

Their confidence and energy is visible as cars drive up to the warehouse entrance and roll down windows and greet organizers, honk horns and give a thumbs up.

“The biggest secret in the world companies don’t want people to know is that if they unite, they can control their fate,” RWDSU organizer Michael Foster (also known as “Big Mike”) told me back in February while discussing the stakes of the union election.

José Aguilar, RDWSU’s health and safety trainer in poultry plants, told me that former union members have pitched in to counter Amazon’s lies about unions, characterizing them not as democratically controlled workers’ organizations but as outside money-hungry enterprises.

Both Aguilar and Foster cut their teeth working and organizing in poultry plants. Like Amazon warehouses, poultry plants are sites of aching backs, knees and hips with the repetitive motions of sorting and picking often resulting in injuries, and deadly tragedies.

Across the southern United States, RWDSU represents 15,000 poultry workers. In 2012, the RWDSU won a union election in Russellville, Alabama, to represent 1,200 workers at Pilgrim’s Pride, the U.S. poultry division of Brazilian beef and poultry giant JBS, the largest chicken producer in the U.S.

At the time, Randy Hadley, president of the RWDSU Mid-South Council, said the union put two years into the campaign, building relationships with workers, mapping the workplace and identifying problems.
By contrast, the unionization campaign at Amazon has a tightly compressed timeline as the warehouse in Bessemer has only been open a year. In response, Hadley told me the tight organizing timeline is exactly what is needed.

“You hit them fast and hard, blow after blow,” he said. “That’s how you beat Goliath. It’s gonna be tight, but we gonna win.”

Down to the Wire

At the local convenience store at the gas station during the shift change at 5 am, I heard a range of views from workers on the unionization campaign.

 Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) lead organizer Joshua Brewer speaks in the rain at a rally in Bessemer, Alabama on February 6, 2021.
RWDSU Lead Organizer Joshua Brewer speaks in the rain at a rally in Bessemer, Alabama, on February 6, 2021.

Workers from the third-party cleaning contractor Kellermeyer Building Services (KBS) milled about the convenience store wearing blue vests. They are not included in the election as they don’t work for Amazon. Other workers walked into the convenience store, including an Amazon supervisor in a light orange shirt and a man who parked a Jeep with a “vote no” hanger on the knob of the rearview mirror.

As they entered and left the convenience store, some workers brushed me off when I asked about the election. Many seemed to have grown fatigued by the election. Some initially gave me short shrift thinking that I was either with the union or with Amazon.

“I don’t even remember,” one worker told me about how she voted, later saying, “I voted Amazon.” She said co-workers at the warehouse are leaning “50/50.”

Other workers were circumspect about reveling their votes.

“I don’t want to disclose that information,” a 24-year-old told me when asked how he voted.

“It’s a new experience that I’m trying to take in,” he added, declining to give his name because of not wanting to draw the attention of Amazon. “I don’t see the union as a positive or a negative because more stuff can come out of it or it could go the other way.”

A worker named Madison Doddson said she voted no because, “We have a great leadership team, and I just feel unionization will take that away from me.”

Other workers had less strong opinions.

Talking while walking to his car, one worker told me he didn’t care about the vote because he’s quitting to go to the Army.

“I voted no but now I’m undecided,” a worker named Sarah Scroggin told me. She wants Amazon to eliminate “Time Off Task” surveillance regime (commonly referred to as TOT), and to offer more job security. Amazon’s TOT regime tracks workers’ every move — how many items they pick, pack and stow. That includes moments they are not performing any of these repetitive motions on the assembly line.

What changed her mind? “Research” and “co-workers,” Scroggin says. “I kind of regret it, but it’s alright because there are other people to cover me.”

One of the people she was referring to is a young worker who, like Scroggin, complains about TOT.

“I voted yes [to unionization] for the poor conditions,” he said, asking to remain anonymous because he didn’t want to attract Amazon’s attention and citing the insufficient breaks and rates, along with TOT. “They firing people because of the rates.”

Another worker who said he voted yes to unionization told me he works at both Burger King and Amazon to make ends meet. When I met him at 5 am, he had just finished his shift at Amazon and was starting another shift at the fast-food chain. He says unionization would be “a change for the good.”

“I’m pro-union. I’ve been a union member for a long time,” another worker told me, again asking to remain anonymous so as not to draw attention. He’s worked as a unionized truck driver and a U.S. Postal Service employee. He said Amazon “did a pretty good scare” on the younger workers who are less familiar with unions, adding, “It’s gonna be close.”

To put the election outcome in context, there are nearly 6,000 workers in the bargaining union at Amazon. RWDSU got 3,000 of these workers to sign union cards. Even if some of them have quit since then, that’s still an impressive number.

“Certainly, there are anti-union workers in the shop. I would venture to say more than 1,000. But there are 6,000 people there. But we’re fine with those numbers. We’ll take a 5 to 1,” says Joshua Brewer, the campaign’s lead organizer.

Amazon didn’t respond to a request for comment before publication.

Yard signs with voting yes messages plucked into a field before the start of a union rally in Bessemer, Alabama on February 6, 2021.
Yard signs with vote-yes messages planted into a field before the start of a union rally in Bessemer, Alabama, on February 6, 2021.

A Thousand Stones

Usually, when a union has a longer timeline, it can map out the kinship networks within a workplace to better assess the possibilities of winning. But with Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, that has proven to be a challenge as most workers are relatively new and haven’t established these collective bonds. The only exception to these informal networks is workers who have family members who belonged to unions. As has been widely reported, these workers represent a strong voting bloc at the warehouse, including former RWDSU warehouse workers, according to union organizers.

But if the timeline poses challenges for building worker solidarity, it also deters Amazon from disrupting these networks through union-busting and firings.

Although the timeline is different for the Amazon campaign, the winning tactics that RWDSU deployed in organizing poultry plants are also at play in Bessemer. Like in Russellville, the union has brought the fight to the “boss’s front lawn” as Hadley RWDSU’s Mid-South President put it in 2012.

Speaking with me this week outside the Amazon warehouse at dawn, he told me that in addition to the show of commitment from poultry workers standing at entrances to the fulfillment center at every shift change, the union has gained valuable intel from supportive workers who tell organizers about poor conditions, worker complaints and the union-busting practices going on inside, giving the union an opportunity to counter the misinformation and galvanize worker support on common grievances.

There is also experience and organizational might. The union has seasoned organizers who’ve taken on other corporate behemoths and won. Aguilar and Foster have over 30 years of combined experience as poultry workers and organizers. These experiences have taught them an invaluable lesson: When workers hold strong, they win.

In Bessemer, there is a potent existential throughline uniting various organizing battles, from the poultry workers’ drive to warehouse workers at Amazon — the sense of upending horrific working conditions and drawing strength from a righteous cause. That’s most clearly captured in Foster who combines the prophetic tradition of the Black church with a ministry in solidarity, a brotherhood and sisterhood of care and love, a commitment to lifting each other up.

“If everybody here is willing to help somebody, everybody will be OK at the end of the day,” he said at a union rally back in February in a booming voice perfect for the pulpit.

“This isn’t a job you do for money. You have to have it in your heart to care,” he told me, explaining the role of an organizer and the union more generally to that of a doctor who derives meaning from work, far beyond collecting insurance payments.

Asked how you beat Goliath, Brewer from RWDSU, paying due deference to Foster’s message, says: “You got to throw a thousand stones. One stone ain’t gonna cut it in this fight.” He adds, “I think it’s working.”

At 4 am, rain or shine, Foster, Aguilar and other poultry workers stand on a patch of grass and sidewalk leading into two Amazon warehouse entrances and talk to workers who stop at the traffic light about the unionizing campaign. Cars trundle to a crawl, headlights bright as suns in the dark gray penumbra between twilight and morning, the red glow of taillights beaming searchingly like lighthouses on wheels on a deserted country road.

To make sure Jeff Bezos gets the message, Black Lives Matter Birmingham bought a billboard in the state’s capital, with words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 speech to the AFL-CIO. More will be going up soon in Bessemer.

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” the sign reads with the opening and closing words in bold white text against a black background.

Equally important are these two sentences from the same speech: “The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.”

As the journalist Steven Greenhouse has reported, the RWDSU’s historical ties to civil rights organizing run deep. The union provided tents to civil rights marchers in 1965 and its organizers were targets of white supremacist violence. On Twitter, Damon Silvers, policy director and special counsel at the AFL-CIO, reminded people of how the labor struggle is entwined with civil rights:

The epic struggle of workers — whether dressed up in the mythical guise of David against Goliath or any other timeworn disguise — won’t ever cease to exist wherever exploitation prevails. In these circumstances, workers will rise up to meet the Bezoses of the world who seek to diminish them to the disposable appendages of a machine. Sometimes, they’ll lose; other times win.

But win or lose, the fight continues.

“I’m being David, and I’m fighting Goliath, and we all know how this story ended,” said Foster.

On March 13, the Black Lives Matter movement led by the Birmingham chapter will kick off a caravan in a show of solidarity with Amazon workers alongside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Civil Rights Foot Soldiers, the Poor People’s Campaign, Concerned Clergy, plus community groups and unions from the surrounding area, and RSWDSU organizers.

“Amazon workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and especially the 85% of Black Lives that go to that fulfillment center daily to work, but whose work is grossly undervalued,” said Eric Hall, co-founder of BLM Birmingham in a press advisory. “It’s our fight as a community of Black workers, it’s about us, and let us be clear, Black Lives Matter in Alabama.”

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