Activist state

Amazon and union organizers clash again in Alabama


Suspended Amazon employee Reyn McGuire speaks about her support for a campaign to organize the company’s fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama during an interview in Birmingham, Alabama on Thursday, March 10, 2022. Workers are voting for the second time on a warehouse labor push after the National Labor Relations Board ordered a recast election after determining Amazon unfairly influenced an initial vote in 2021. ( AP Photo/Jay Reeves)


For union organizers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the second time might be a charm — or not.

After a landslide defeat last year, when a majority of workers voted against forming a union, the retail, wholesale and department store union is hoping for a different outcome in a revamped election. The National Labor Relations Board began counting mail-in ballots on Monday that were sent to 6,100 workers in early February. The results could arrive as early as Thursday.

If the vote is in favor of the union, it would be Amazon’s first in the United States

Like last time, the RWDSU is leading the union campaign in Bessemer. Vaccines have made it easier for organizers to hold face-to-face meetings during the pandemic, as opposed to the text messages, emails and phone calls they relied on the first time around.

“It was easier to get the message out this time, and we had more support inside the building,” said Dale Wyatt, an Amazon worker at the Bessemer plant who is helping with the union push. . “For example, more people are wearing T-shirts, pins and clothes, and more people are willing to come talk to us this time.

Amazon also got a chance to regroup after the NLRB determined the company unfairly influenced last year’s election. The country’s second-largest private employer continues to hammer home the message that it invests in both wages and benefits for its workers. Regular full-time Bessemer employees earn at least $15.80 an hour, which is higher than the estimated $14.55 an hour average in the city according to a U.S. Census Bureau analysis. They also get health care as well as a company-matched 401(k).

Amazon also made some changes, but still retained a controversial US Postal Service mailbox that played a key role in the NLRB’s decision to invalidate last year’s vote.

Union activists say the company still relies on consultants and managers to hold mandatory staff meetings to discuss why unions are a bad idea. These meetings ceased just before the ballot papers were sent out, in accordance with labor laws.

An Amazon spokesperson said the meetings give employees a chance to ask questions and learn what a union “could mean to them and their daily lives at Amazon.”

Before Bessemer’s union campaign, Amazon hadn’t faced a major union election in the United States since 2014, when a majority of 30 workers at a Delaware warehouse voted against unionization. In many European countries such as France, Italy, Spain and Germany, where the rate of unionization is higher and where there are fewer obstacles for groups of workers, Amazon workers are long unionized.

Amazon is also facing two union elections in more worker-friendly New York City, though they are being led by a nascent independent labor group.

Amazon’s sprawling distribution center in Bessemer opened in 2020 right next to a freeway exit where 18-wheelers painted with the Amazon logo come and go past small manufacturers, transport companies and the high school from the city.

Bessemer itself is located about 20 miles southwest of Birmingham. The once vibrant manufacturing city of 26,000 fell on hard times after the region’s steel industry began to decline in the late 1900s. Today, the city is more than 70% black, with around a quarter of its inhabitants live in poverty.

Warehouse workers reflect Bessemer’s racial demographics — about 85% of them are black, according to RWDSU. They drive to work from as far south as the Montgomery subway, nearly 100 miles.

RWDSU worked with community organizations that helped frame the labor push in Alabama within the context of the civil rights movement, focusing on the dignity and treatment of Amazon workers and linking their rights to human rights. man.

“Community support has been essential, and it has always been part of civil rights struggles in the South and other struggles in the South,” said Marc Bayard, director of the Black Workers Initiative of the ‘Institute for Policy Studies.

Erica Iheme, assistant director of Jobs to Move America, said her organization refined its messaging from last year, going beyond compensation. He visited barbershops, beauty salons and other places frequented by black residents and distributed 6,000 flyers.

“For this election, what we need to get across to people is that this is more than bread and butter,” Iheme said. “Sometimes your body has physical limitations. Sometimes you are tired. Sometimes you have kids and you need to retire without losing your job. It’s about the humanity of our community.

While unions are historically a hard sell in the South, Wyatt comes from a working class family. He started working at Amazon in August, removing items from incoming trucks and placing them in baskets before they were shipped to customers.

“We need better working conditions, better hours, better pay,” Wyatt said. “We need longer breaks and more attention from management and a better HR system.”

RWDSU’s first labor campaign came during a year of widespread industrial unrest at many companies, which only reinvigorated the group’s cause. Workers at more than 140 Starbucks locations across the country, for example, have called for union elections and several have already won.

The pandemic has shone a light on the plight of hourly workers who felt employers weren’t doing enough to protect them from the virus. But labor shortages have only given workers more power to demand higher wages and better working conditions.

Still, organizers face tough federal labor laws that favor corporations. Alabama itself is a right-to-work state, which means that companies and unions are prohibited from signing contracts that require workers to pay dues to the union that represents them.

Union activists are also battling a high turnover rate at the Bessemer plant. RWDSU estimates that about half of the 6,100 workers eligible to vote are new, making it difficult to organize.

“It’s a tough fight,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU. “No matter what happens, we’re not walking away. The first campaign started a global conversation about how Amazon works. It inspired workers across the country and around the world to stand up to their employers.


D’Innocenzio and Hadero reported from New York and Reeves reported from Bessemer, Alabama.