A historic labor battle is being waged in the U.S.
Union organizers for BAmazon (referring to the Bessemer, Ala.-based Amazon fulfillment center, or BHM1) are nearing the last stretch in their attempts to unionize. Mail-in votes must be received by the March 29 deadline to be counted. The National Labor Relations Board’s counting procedure is expected to take days, with challenges from both sides likely. The count will determine whether Amazon’s first union in the U.S. will become a reality.
Globally, organizations, lawmakers and workers have offered solidarity to Bessemer.
“This campaign is already a victory even before we know the results of the balloting,” said Stuart Appelbaum president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which organized the BAmazon campaign under its mid-south council. “We know it’s clear now that the overwhelming sentiment for the warehouse is in support of the union, however, balloting began early on. Amazon was trying to rush people to vote very early in this seven-week process, so they would not have the opportunity to engage with the union and to hear the union’s message.”
Amazon has attempted a number of antiunion tactics, found in violation by the NLRB — like the company’s request for in-person voting (a practice the board dropped in March for safety amid the pandemic) and to install a ballot dropbox.
Attempts to intimidate, retaliate against or probe workers on their allegiance to union efforts is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Meanwhile, Amazon has supported antiunion signage throughout the facility, requiring employees to attend captive-audience meetings “meant to intimidate workers,” in the words of Appelbaum.
Workers have also cited being “docked” for missed minutes in time-off tasks, saying there is not enough time for bathroom and water breaks.
Michael Foster, a union organizer at the forefront of the BAmazon union efforts, said workers confide to him in fear of losing their jobs over accumulated infringements for time-off tasks.
In past press statements, Amazon has underlined its respect for “employees’ right to join, form or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection, without fear of retaliation, intimidation or harassment.”
With more than a million Amazon workers, the company often lets its progressive $15 wages and health care speak for itself when comment is withheld, but workers are speaking out.
Jennifer Bates, another employee at the Bessemer facility, said the strenuous, fast-paced work is taking a toll on her body, her legs especially, with hours spent standing. Despite millions invested in enhanced safety measures, Amazon’s injury rates have still gone up each year over the past four years, according to internal data. In 2019, Amazon recorded 14,000 serious injuries, or roughly 10 injuries per 100 employees.
“All we’re trying to do is make Amazon a better place to work, and yet they’re acting like they’re under attack,” said Bates, testifying before the Senate Budget Committee in March.
Amazon warehouses are already unionized in places like Europe. BAmazon unionization efforts began last summer following the despair of the pandemic and ongoing racial injustices. For the roughly 6,000 Amazon workers at Bessemer — a town where 71 percent of the population is Black and over a quarter of residents live below the poverty line, per U.S. Census data — the moment captures wider momentum and inequalities, further highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We’ve renewed the alliance between the Civil Rights community and the labor movement, and we’ve seen so much enthusiasm among young people,” Appelbaum said. “For many young people, unions have become important, something to be valued again.”
Solidarity is wide-reaching for BAmazon with President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, rapper Killer Mike and actor Danny Glover, among those offering support, but what is to come if the attention wanes?
Appelbaum believes Amazon is feeling it can “hide behind the fig leaf” so to speak. He points to the cut of $2 hazard pay in June, reiterating that “the hazards were just as great, if not greater.”
He believes something greater is brewing amid the continued spotlight on Bessemer’s historic-in-scale unionization efforts.
“This is resonating with people. I think it’s because of the moment we’re in,” said Appelbaum, pointing to the influence of big tech, Amazon and widening inequalities. “The importance of this election transcends this one warehouse. It even transcends Amazon — it’s really about the future of work and what working conditions are going to be like for women and men in our new economy….People tell us over and over again; they feel like robots being managed by robots.”
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