By Geoff Mirelowitz
Mar. 26, 2021— Workers in Bessemer, Alabama, are engaged in one of the most important union-organizing drives in recent years. Their goal is to win representation by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) at the giant Amazon warehouse there. Voting by mail by the 5,805 workers began in February. It closes March 29. The outcome can have far-reaching implications for the working class and the labor movement in the United States.
Amazon is the second largest U.S. employer. Only Wal-Mart employs more people. Not a single U.S. Amazon facility has union representation. Amazon’s owners and managers have spared no effort to keep it that way. The company has virtually unlimited resources to do so.
“Last year, Amazon earned an additional $9.7 billion in profit—a staggering 84% increase compared to 2019,” said an article published March 21 on the Brookings Institute web page. “The company’s stock price has risen 82%, while founder Jeff Bezos has added $67.9 billion to his wealth—38 times the total hazard pay Amazon has paid its 1 million workers since March.”
In 2019, Amazon beat back an effort by the GMB Union to organize one of the company’s warehouses in England. “We know Amazon will leave no stone unturned to beat you,” Mick Rix, a national officer of the GMB Union, told the Washington Post recently. “It was a harsh lesson to learn.”
That record did not deter more than 3,000 workers at the Bessemer warehouse from signing cards authorizing the RWDSU to represent them, according to the union.
The word has spread to Amazon workers elsewhere. “More than 1,000 Amazon workers from around the country have reached out to the RWDSU seeking information about unionizing their workplaces,” union spokeswoman Chelsea Connor told the Post.
Other unions are making similar efforts. Local organizers for the Teamsters in Iowa told the Des Moines Register they have contacted 400-500 Amazon workers in that state.
A Seattle-area Amazon warehouse worker who has also contacted the RWDSU but did not want to give his name for fear of retaliation by the employer, explained, “It would help very much if Alabama votes yes. The chances that we’ll do something increases.”
The stakes are clear. Long-term changes in the U.S. economy have substantially increased the number of workers employed at Amazon warehouses and other distribution centers. The weight and place of these workers in the country’s economic life has likewise grown. This has been underlined by the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact over the past year, but the change preceded the pandemic and will likely outlast it. The challenge to organize Amazon workers across the U.S. into a united union work force is among the most pressing tasks facing organized labor.
RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum said as much in a recent statement to The Guardian.
“I feel we had no choice, that we had to go after Amazon,” Appelbaum said. “Amazon is transforming industry after industry. It’s going to determine the future of work. We cannot afford to have Amazon create a work environment that is dehumanizing and that prevents workers from asserting their right to have a safe workplace.”
Appelbaum told reporter Steven Greenhouse that unions badly need to gain a foothold inside Amazon because it is playing a major role shaping the robot-filled workplace of the future. He said he wants to ensure that workers have a voice in building that workplace and making it more humane.
A weakened labor movement
This reality explains in part the widespread media coverage the fight in Bessemer has received. The long-term consequences of decades of an unrelenting employer offensive—aimed at breaking or weakening the trade unions, and aided by the course of the top labor officials, tying the unions to the political parties and interests of big business—have been substantial.
They are sharply depicted by the two charts below showing data of the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on work stoppages over the last 70 years. Many observers are aware that a victory at a large Amazon facility—in the deep South, in a “right to work” state, where workers are not obligated to join a union even if a majority approves union representation—could signal a change, a turning point, in the overall relations between capital and labor.
A Jan. 22, 2021, BLS news release underlined the long-term decline of the labor movement with official data on U.S. union membership.
“In 2020, the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions—the union membership rate—was 10.8 percent, up by 0.5 percentage point from 2019,” the BLS said. “In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent and there were 17.7 million union workers.”
Origin of Bessemer struggle
The origin of the fight in Bessemer is also instructive. Articles in The Guardian, The New Yorker and other news outlets have introduced many to Darryl Richardson, the 51-year-old Black worker at the Bessemer warehouse who first reached out to the RWDSU. Richardson had previously worked for nine years at an auto parts plant that closed. Originally, he was glad to find another job at Amazon.
Experience working there changed his mind. “I thought the opportunities for moving up would be better. I thought safety at the plant would be better,” Richardson said.
“And when it comes to letting people go for no reason—job security—I thought it would be different. You’re running at a consistent, fast pace,” he continued. “You ain’t got time to look around. You get treated like a number. You don’t get treated like a person. They work you like a robot.”
In an interview with The New Yorker Richardson added, “I used to work at a company called Faurecia. We made the seats for Mercedes. And we was union. And some of my people, from Detroit, they was U.A.W. [United Auto Workers], and they worked for Chrysler, G.M. So, I’ve always been union. Raised union. My dad, he worked at TAMKO, from Tuscaloosa, a roofing company. They was union.”
Amazon’s campaign to defeat the RWDSU drive is so extensive that many workers receive four or five emails a day from Amazon, pressing for a vote against the union. This is only one example of a much larger company campaign. Its approach is summed up in the name of the web site Amazon has created, “doitwithoutdues.com.”
The gist of the employer’s argument is wages and benefits will not improve with union representation and may in fact get worse. Jennifer Bates, a 48-year-old warehouse worker and union supporter, explained: “Amazon says, ‘The union can’t promise you anything.’ But Amazon hasn’t promised us, either, because everything they say they’re giving us—they can take it back, because it’s not in a contract.”
Catharine Highsmith, a 24-year-old Army veteran, spoke to The New Yorker about the flyers Amazon leaves in the break room. “And it’s all these people saying, ‘I don’t need a union. I can speak for myself. I like the way things are.’ When I noticed this at first, those people seemed to only be managers or process assistants or learning ambassadors in leadership roles. They’ve been promoted. If you ask somebody who’s been working in stow [a department in the warehouse] for the past six months, they probably wouldn’t have the same answers.”
More than wages and benefits
As most workers know from our own experience, while wages and benefits are important, they are not the only reason working people need a union. As the employers have pressed their offensive for decades, workers often point out that issues of dignity and self-respect become paramount as well.
Richardson put it this way, “I’m 51 years old. And I give them all I can get. I get tired. After three o’clock, I’m drained. I try not to go to the bathroom. I try not to leave off my station, because I don’t want to get no T.O.T. time.”
He elaborated: “Any time you leave off your machine—go and get some water, use the bathroom—every minute you are not on your station scanning, that’s T.O.T.: time off task. If you get up to two hours, it’ll lead to termination. I feel like, if you’ve got to go to the bathroom, it’s not fair to get docked for it. Sometimes the bathrooms and the water on each floor are not working. And you’ve got to go to the next floor.”
Jennifer Bates echoed the same idea. “Going to break, they do security checks. If the buzzer goes off on you, then you have to scan your badge. You’re not going to lunch now, even if you’re hungry, because I have to go in this little room, undress, take off our jackets, remove all our pockets, pants, take our shoes off, to make sure we didn’t steal anything. That counts against my break.”
Many workers also know that without a union there is little chance of safeguarding their health and safety from Amazon’s brutal production pace and employees’ lack of control of working conditions. In December 2019, The Atlantic published a story in collaboration with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. The headline minced no words: “Ruthless Quotas at Amazon Are Maiming Employees.” The subhead added, “This holiday season Amazon will move millions of packages at dizzying speed. Internal injury reports suggest all that convenience is coming at the expense of worker safety.”
Those same packages continue to move when they leave the warehouses. At that point they are often handed over to workers who Amazon claims do not work for it. Therefore, the profit-hungry giant claims to have no responsibility for the wages, benefits, or working conditions of those employees.
The hoax of ‘independent contractors’
A recent report in the Seattle Times gave the lie to that contention. “Amazon, contractors settle wage-theft lawsuit by Seattle-area drivers for $8.2 million,” its headline read.
“Amazon and Seattle-area delivery contractors have agreed to an $8.2 million class-action settlement with drivers who alleged wage theft when they were delivering the commerce giant’s packages,” the Seattle Times reported.
“The settlement stems from a 2017 suit brought by two drivers, Gus Ortiz and Mark Fredley. The drivers weren’t directly employed by Amazon — they worked for an intermediary company, Jungle Trux, one of hundreds of third-party logistics outfits that Amazon has contracted with in the past decade to speed deliveries to customers’ doorsteps.
“In their lawsuit, Ortiz and Fredley said Amazon was just as culpable as Jungle Trux in forcing them to work without lunch or rest breaks to deliver between 150 and 200 packages a day to Amazon customers. The drivers said they were never paid for the missed breaks. An attorney for Jungle Trux declined to comment.
“The drivers wore Amazon uniforms, followed Amazon’s rule book for package delivery, and were supervised by Amazon employees, according to the lawsuit.
“‘The lack of rest and meal breaks was part of the culture for Amazon delivery drivers,’ said Seattle driver Henry Abreu in the lawsuit. ‘It was just the way it was. Amazon assigned us a certain number of packages that we were required to deliver in the time allotted by Amazon and according to Amazon’s instructions.’”
The article continued: “Amazon critics have said contracting for delivery services rather than hiring drivers directly makes it easier for the company to evade responsibility for labor law violations and liabilities like traffic accidents. Amazon itself provided seed funding to Jungle Trux, Progistics, Delivery Force and five other delivery contractors named in the suit as part of an Amazon program to spur the formation of delivery outfits with a sole focus on delivering packages from the company’s warehouses to customers’ doorsteps.
“Similar class-action suits against Amazon and its delivery contractors are ongoing in Texas, Ohio, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Florida, Illinois and Maryland, according to Vice, which first reported news of the settlement with Seattle-area drivers.
“Meanwhile, California this month fined Amazon and another of its delivery contractors nearly $6.5 million for wage-theft violations affecting 718 workers. The state’s labor commissioner found drivers were forced to work through meal and rest breaks to complete their routes and often worked longer than their scheduled shift without additional pay, resulting in ‘frequent minimum wage, overtime, meal break, rest period and split-shift violations.’
“And last month, Amazon agreed to pay $61.7 million in tips withheld from its Flex gig drivers, who deliver for the company’s Prime Now, Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods services in their personal vehicles, after an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.”
All of this underscores why organized labor must mobilize its resources to back Amazon workers anywhere who are fighting for union recognition and justice. What is at stake is not only the hundreds of thousands of workers employed by this giant corporation. Countless others also work for Amazon through scams and dodges like those outlined in the lawsuit reported above.
Of course, such methods do not originate with Amazon. The railroads, airlines, and many other employers have pioneered them. Work once done under union agreements, has been offloaded to sub-contractors who impose sub-standard wages and working conditions. In too many cases top union officials stood by claiming little or nothing could be done to challenge these practices. The bill is coming due.
History of labor and civil rights struggle
Alabama may be a “right to work” state but Bessemer is part of the greater Birmingham area, one that has a rich history of labor and civil rights struggles extending back over decades. Union organizers estimate that as much as 85% of the warehouse workforce in Bessemer is Black. According to Randy Hadley, RWDSU’s mid-South council president, “We represent about 20,000 people in the mid-South council. Poultry plants, nursing homes, dog-food plants, meatpacking houses.” It’s likely some of those union members have ties to workers in the Bessemer warehouse.
On March 13 Black Lives Matter Birmingham led a caravan in support of the union organizing drive. A press release on the RWDSU web site prior to the action explained it would include “representation from: NAACP, SCLC, Civil Rights Foot Soldiers, Poor People’s Campaign, Concerned Clergy, and other Black-led organizations that share a common truth of uplifting Black Lives. Community groups and unions from the surrounding area will also join RWDSU organizers for the caravan.”
The release included this statement by the RWDSU president: “This is as much a fight about civil rights as it is about the fight to organize a union,” Applebaum said. “The goals of the Black Lives Matter movement represent what it is the workers are trying to achieve at the Bessemer facility. We are thrilled to have the support of the Black Lives Matter movement during this critical and historic union campaign.”
Also of note is a news release on the union web site titled, “SOLIDARITY FROM AROUND THE WORLD IS ROLLING IN FOR BAMAZON UNION WORKERS!” Embedded on the page (https://www.rwdsu.info/bamazon_global_solidarity) are video-taped statements of solidarity from Colombia, Ethiopia and the Nigerian Labor Congress (speaking under the auspices of the International Trade Union Confederation).
One of the challenges Richardson and others noted is their efforts to win younger workers to the union. One result of the long-term decline in union membership is that many younger workers have little to no familiarity with the organized labor movement. At the same time, many have been exposed to strong anti-union messages from employers and the mainstream media. This is not only true in workplaces with no history of union organization. On the nation’s railroads, for example, thousands of young workers learn about unions for the first time now when they hire out.
“On break, I go out to my truck,” said Richardson. “When I talk to employees, to the young generation—because they’re the ones we need to talk to, because they’re confused—they don’t know nothing about the union. I tell them, ‘The union don’t come here to take away our pay. If that’s the case, what we calling them for?’ And I said, ‘Before you all make a decision, you all just think about this: If the union was so bad, why are they doing everything they can to keep it out of here?’ And I leave that with them. ‘Why they telling you all to vote no?’”
A union victory in Bessemer could be the spark that leads to a new wave of union organizing at Amazon and elsewhere. Conversely a defeat will have negative consequences. But whatever the outcome of this important battle, the objective need for organized labor to continue the fight to organize Amazon is a challenge that remains to be met.
Geoff Mirelowitz, a retired railroad switchman, was a long-time member of the United Transportation Union (now SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers).
Categories: News Analysis