The biggest and most viable effort to reunite Amazon in many years began last summer, not in a fortress like New York or Michigan, but at the Fairfield Inn near Birmingham, Alabama.
It was late summer and a group of employees from a nearby Amazon warehouse contacted an organizer at the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores. They said they were fed up with the way the online retailer tracked their performance and wanted to discuss the merger.
As workers arrived at the hotel, union employees monitored the parking lot to make sure they were not being monitored.
The election itself is an achievement for unions that have failed to infiltrate Amazon for years. But convincing workers to actually vote for a union is a bigger challenge. The company has begun to oppose organizing efforts, arguing that the union will settle workers with contributions, with no guarantee of higher wages or better benefits.
This will be the company’s first union election in the United States, as a small group of technical workers in a warehouse in Delaware voted against the union in 2014.
Much has changed since the vote seven years ago, which has allowed organized labor to invade Amazon employees in a place like Alabama. Most of this change occurred in the last year during the pandemic, as workers from meat processing plants to grocery stores spoke, often through their unions, about the lack of protective equipment or inadequate pay.
The retail union cited its success by representing workers during the pandemic as a point of sale in Bessemer.
“The pandemic has changed the way many people treat their employers,” said Stuart Apelbaum, president of the trade union. “Many workers see the benefits of having a collective voice.”
The organizers of the Union are also building their campaign on the themes of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of Amazon’s warehouse workers are black, a fact the union has used to focus on issues of racial equality and empowerment. And the leading efforts to organize are about two dozen union workers from nearby warehouses and poultry farms, most of whom are also black.
Since October 20, poultry workers have been standing at the gates of the Amazon every day, starting at 4:30 a.m., urging workers stopped at traffic lights to join a union.
“I tell them they’re part of a global movement,” said Michael Foster, a black organizer in Bessemer who works at a poultry farm. “I want them to know that we are important and we matter.”
This year, unions have formed in other amazing places. This month, more than 400 engineers and other Google workers formed a union, a rare move in the largely anti-union technology industry. The Google union is designed primarily to boost employee activism, while the union, offered by Amazon in Bessemer, will eventually be able to negotiate a contract and seek to influence wages and working conditions.
Amazon, which took on employment during the pandemic, now has more than 1.2 million employees worldwide, more than 50 percent from a year earlier. But the company also began to face pressure from its corporate employees on climate change and other issues, as well as many warehouse workers across the country who felt bold to speak. The focus is likely to increase with Amazon alone to overtake Walmart as the country’s largest private employer in a few years.
The success of Bessemer’s warehouse, which opened in March, could inspire workers in the thriving e-commerce industry more broadly, said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “If you can do it in Alabama, we can certainly do it here in Southern California,” he said. “That would have a huge ripple effect.”
In a statement, Heather Knox, a spokesman for Amazon, said the company did not believe the union “represents the majority of our employees’ views.” She added: “Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available wherever we hire, and we encourage everyone to compare our overall compensation package, health benefits and work environment with any other company with similar work places.”
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The company has created a website that suggests that membership fees – which could be about $ 9.25 a week for a full-time employee – will leave workers with less money to pay for school supplies.
“Why don’t you save money and get the books, gifts and things you want?” The website says.
The early version of the website included photos of happy young workers, including a picture of a black man jumping in the air that appeared to be from a free photo website. On the site, the man and woman are depicted in an image with the caption “excited African-American couple jumping, having fun.”
Asked about the site, Amazon called it “educational” and said it “helps employees understand the facts about joining a union.” (As of last Tuesday night, the company removed the stock photos, including the jumper’s photo.)
Race is often at the heart of trade union campaigns in the south. A century ago, the multiracial unions of steel and coal miners around Birmingham were a “cockpit of labor militancy,” Mr Liechtenstein said.
In the 1960s, trade unions – including the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores – provided Black Workers with a place to assert their civil rights and achieve greater equality in the workplace.
Organizing was dangerous work. An organizer of the Blacks from the Alabama Trade Union, Henry Jenkins, recalled being shot and receiving death threats at his home. At one point, a bomb was found in his car in front of a church in Selma. Mr. Jenkins died in 2011 after an illness.
The trade union has great influence in the northeast, where it represents workers at Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. But its strength is also growing in the south, especially in poultry farming, an industry with traditionally dangerous jobs and a workforce that has many black employees.
This spring, the union is actively spreading deadly outbreaks of viruses in poultry. Middle South Council Chairman Randy Hadley called on the industry to “gross inaction” in providing basic protection for workers.
Reinforced by its growing profile during the pandemic, the union trained a group of workers to start organizing additional poultry farms across the south. When Amazon workers invaded, the union, which had failed to gain strength at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island two years earlier, decided to relocate poultry workers to the Bessemer warehouse. Unlike previous campaigns, the union has decided to remain largely quiet during organized driving in Alabama.
“Some people don’t expect us to succeed,” said Josh Brewer, who is leading the effort. “I believe we can do it.”
On the evening of October 20, two dozen birds and warehouse workers appeared at the gates of the Amazon.
Mona Darby, who has spent the last 33 years processing chickens, immediately began approaching Amazon workers in her cars as they headed home. Mrs. Darby grew up in Alabama, one of 18 children. She started working as a housekeeper for local doctors and lawyers when she was 15 years old. But she wanted a more stable job, health care and pensions, so she found a job in a chicken factory.
Today, starting wages at poultry farms in Alabama are roughly the same as those at Amazon. (The average hourly wage in Bessemer’s warehouse is $ 15.30.) But Ms. Darby said her union has provided protection and security for jobs that are lacking in other jobs.
“You can pay me $ 25 an hour, but if you don’t treat me well, how much is that money?” She said.
On that first night at Bessemer’s warehouse, Ms. Darby said a white man approached her and said that Amazon did not want a union and did not want her “Black Ass in our property.”
“You’ll see my black ass here all day, every day,” Ms. Darby said she answered.
Ms. Darby said she saw the man remove his name badge before approaching her. She told the officer present what the man had said, but the officer did not take notes.
Bessemer police said there was no record of the incident. Amazon declined to comment.
On December 18, lawyers from Amazon and unions gathered at Zoom to discuss how many workers will be part of the potential union.
The hearing dragged on for days as Amazon’s attorney asked detailed questions about the warehouse, while a federal official eventually cut the testimony short.
One of the issues that Amazon insists on is that the election be held in person at the warehouse. The company is even offering to rent hotel rooms for federal observers to help isolate them from the virus in an area with an infection rate of 17 percent. The National Labor Council ruled a personal vote on January 15th, saying a company that pays for hotel rooms for civil servants was not a good idea. On Friday, Amazon called for a suspension of the election by mail, arguing that infection rates were declining and insisting that voting should take place in the warehouse.
Until all the votes are cast, Mr Foster and the other poultry and warehouse workers plan to remain outside the gates of the Amazon. He said some Amazon workers were afraid of being seen talking to organizers in the background.
On several occasions, Mr. Foster said a prayer to the workers before the light turned green.
“We want to show them that we are not leaving them until that happens,” he said.