By Claire Nelson
On February 8th, 2021 Amazon employees at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama (BHM1) began voting by mail in an election to determine whether they will unionize and join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The 5,800 workers will have until March 29th to submit their ballots to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), who are running the election. On February 5th, Amazon’s appeal to the NLRB to postpone the election until in person voting could be conducted was denied. The eyes of the United States, and the world, should be on this election. Although this election may seem small in the scope of one of the world’s largest and most powerful multinational corporations, if the workers vote to unionize it could potentially mark a turning point for both Amazon and labor organizing in the South.
The Bessemer warehouse opened in early 2020 outside Birmingham, Alabama. In a largely agricultural state, the area is notable for its history of industry – home to steel mills and coal mines. Darryl Richardson, a picker at the warehouse, began organizing a union drive in the warehouse in August. Richardson was active with the United Auto Workers Union at his previous job. Richardson and other employees have hourly quotas they are required to meet and are continuously monitored to make sure they hit these targets. Even bathroom breaks can mean not hitting the quotas and facing performance repercussions. The employees at the warehouse are particularly frustrated at the lack of communication between management and employees. Several overnight rule changes, including over pandemic safety measures and cellphone usage, increased tension. The warehouse lacks experienced managers and uses an app to settle disciplinary matters making appeals difficult, according to Una Massey, a longtime Amazon manager who works at BHM1. These are the main grievances the union organizers are hoping to address. Due to these frustrations with the company and how the warehouse was running, Richardson and other organizers were easily able to achieve the 30% support needed to call for an election. However, the American South has a reputation for being anti-union. Nearly all Southern states have right to work laws, meaning employees at unionized companies cannot be obligated to join or pay union fees. The ease at which the BHM1 organizers were able to raise support for an election is notable, revealing growing frustrations with large multinationals like Amazon, who have accumulated enormous wealth while employing hundreds of thousands low paid workers. These growing frustrations with the status quo may lead to increased support for labor organizing in places where unions have struggled recently. American labor supporters see BHM1 and Amazon warehouse unions as a potential moment to galvanize American unions, where currently only seven percent of private sector workers are union members.
However, it is clear Amazon is not going to accept unionization of its warehouse workers without a fight. According to a leaked 2018 training video, Amazon states: “We are not anti-union, but we are not neutral either.” Amazon’s track record is full of anti-union and anti-organization actions. There has not been a successful effort in any US Amazon warehouse to unionize. The last major attempt to unionize in 2014 in Delaware failed after the majority of workers voted against it.
Throughout 2020 Amazon received attention for its poor treatment and surveillance of its employees. A leaked document from February 2020 outlines a new software that Amazon is developing to track threats to the company — around half of the identified threats are related to unions and union organizing. The memo requests more funding for the program called geoSPatial Operating Console (SPOC) which tracks data sets including: “Whole Foods Market Activism/Unionization Efforts,” “union grant money flow patterns,” and “Presence of Local Union Chapters and Alt Labor Groups.” Even in Europe, where many of its employees are unionized, Amazon has pursued a variety of anti-labor actions. Amazon also pulled two job postings for intelligence analysts to monitor “labor organizing threats against the company” with a list of foreign language skills that would be beneficial to the job after media attention. It was clear that these intelligence analysts were going to be used to monitor labor organization in their plants around the world. 38 members of the European Parliament signed an open letter to Jeff Bezos in October 2020 condemning Amazon’s interference in labor organization.
It is clear that Amazon is not just ‘not neutral,’ but explicitly sees unions as a threat to their relentless growth and business tactics. If the BHM1 warehouse chooses to join RWDSU in a right to work state, it is likely that Amazon warehouses in more union friendly states, like New York, California, and Minnesota will follow suit. Amazon sees any union organizing, especially in their union-free American warehouses, as potential tipping points that would force the company to alter how it interacts with and treats its employees. Amazon maintains that their fifteen dollar starting rate and benefits are not just adequate, but better than average. Amazon knows public perception of its company, and its founder, are important and increasingly tenuous. Amazon wants to catch and prevent unions from forming in the first place, because having to acknowledge and address the unemotional, data point way it treats its employees would require them to reconstruct the relationship between Amazon and employees, likely at cost to their bottom line and the ruthless efficiency they are known for.
Amazon’s well drilled anti-union strategies are now turned on the Alabama warehouse. Employees are receiving anti-union text messages every day. There are anti-union signs in the bathrooms and targeted Facebook ads claiming that employees would be giving up their right to speak for themselves if they join a union. Employees have been required to attend anti-union meetings. Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, pulled two ads that urged employees to vote no in the upcoming election for violating their political ad ban. Amazon’s website, doitwithoutdues.com, tells employees that the union is just a business that will take their dues and not provide them with anything. Despite Amazon’s dues-based rhetoric, Alabama is a right to work state. When Jennifer Bates, a pro-union worker, pointed this out at a required anti-union meeting, an Amazon official asked to photograph her badge — an act of intimidation according to Bates.
The organizers of the Alabama warehouse have been able to achieve remarkable success in a less union friendly region of the United States by linking their labor organizing efforts with civil rights and the history of Black labor organization in the South. RWDSU organizers have been able to overcome the challenge of labor organization in the South by highlighting the linkages between civil rights and labor issues. RWDSU has been pointing to its history of working in the South, supporting the civil rights movement in the 60s, and Black RWDSU civil rights leaders. It is estimated that 85% of the employees of BHM1 and 72% of the Bessemer community are Black. Jamelle Bouie, in a recent piece for the New York Times, highlights that Alabama has a long lineage of Black labor politics and organizing from Reconstruction to the Great Depression. In the late 19th century, Black farmers and sharecroppers formed Black chapters of the Agricultural Wheel, a farming cooperative which advocated for farmers issues as well as other political issues such as debt relief, an end to one crop farming, reducing hours of labor, education, voting, and others. In the early 20th century Black industrial workers were the majority members and mid-level leaders of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. This union engaged in radical politics and gained considerable power. The spirit of Black radical labor organizers in the South continues, and the organizers of BHM1 are carrying on that legacy. For Black Americans, and for many of the BHM1 workers, economics, labor, and race are interconnected. By recognizing this and organizing around these principles, the employees of BHM1 and the RWDSU may be able to score a historic victory against one of the world’s most valuable companies and also draw more attention to the connections between labor and race in the fights for economic and racial justice.
Amazon is a relentless, systematic company and their ruthless business tactics extend internally to their employees. If the Alabama employees are able to win this election in the face of Amazon’s seemingly unstoppable, algorithmically honed anti-union tactics, it would mark a turning point in American labor organization. The success and attention paid to this union drive shows that there is growing discontent and frustration with Amazon, a company headed by the world’s richest man and which touches every aspect of life, but who relies on labor of millions of employees that it sees, and treats, as just robotic, data points. The organizers in Bessemer are able to gain considerable support by taking on such a controversial company and by acknowledging and drawing attention to the connection between economic and racial justice. The BHM1 organizers are proving to the country that simplistic ideas about labor organization in the South, such that it is anti-union, is both not the entire picture and that through organizing new support for unions can grow in the American South. Regardless of the results of the election, this union drive is already significant, but keep your eyes on Alabama in March.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.