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“Amazon Says It’s Not a Bribe, But It’s a Bribe”: Interview with a Bessemer Amazon Worker

An Amazon worker speaks out about working conditions at the Bessemer warehouse and why they voted for the union.

Left Voice

April 2, 2021
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Julio Cortez, AP, Seattle Times

The following is an interview with a rank-and-file Amazon worker in Bessemer, Alabama. This person wished to remain anonymous due to fear of repercussions. The last day of the vote on the Amazon union was Monday and the votes are currently being counted.

My name is [redacted]. I have been at Amazon for almost a year. I’ve been there since [redacted]. I just recently made the day-shift though. So hurray for that. I was hoping I could have gotten on days when I first started, but I started on nights.

What are your shifts like? 

Shifts are equally the same amount of time. They’re all ten hours apiece, so you have a day shift, ten hours, a night shift, ten hours. Now there are different starting times, but they’re all ten hours. They pay 60 cents more for night shifts. When I got ready to transfer over, he [the manager] was like, you’re gonna lose that 60 cents. I was like, ooh, 60 cents. [laughs] You gotta pay me like $1.60, $2 but 60 cents?

We did the math one day. I was like, that’s $48 [a week]. I was like, oh, okay. That’s a tank of gas for night shift. 

That’s crazy because the night shift screws your body and your sleep patterns. It’s bad!

It is. It really is. I used to work the night shift at the post office and that was grueling until I finally made it over to the day shift there as well. Around that time I had started to date my fiancé so that worked out. I got to be home with them and the kids.

What’s it like to work at Amazon? What are the conditions like?

Ooof. [laughs] 

It’s hot. It’s hot all year round. It is SO hot. It started actually getting hotter because we’re about to transition into spring/summer.  We don’t have spring down here, we just go straight into summer. And it’s hot. It’s hot in that warehouse. 

In early or mid-December, they put fans in there and I was like, we don’t need the fans now. It’s cold outside.

Come to a panel with a Bessemer Amazon worker and Robin D.G. Kelly, author of Hammer and Hoe to discuss the results of the unionization vote. Sign up here.  Find the Facebook event here. 

It didn’t help too much because when you work up a sweat and it’s still warm in there. But it did help out a little. But we were telling them back May, June and July. God, July was so hot and we were telling them, “Hey, we need some kind of fan or something. It’s hot as hell in here.

The building is so hot. It’s just concrete and steel. There’s no type of ventilation anywhere other than the dock doors, which constantly have trucks parked up to them. So there’s no air coming in or out.

What job do you do at Amazon? What other tasks are there?

I’m just an associate.

You can pack, which is the absolute worst. I hate packing. And you can rebin, which is where you’re taking the stuff out the conveyor belt and putting it into chutes for the packers to reach in and get it out and pack it into the boxes for it to be shipped off. And then there is inducting, which is where the stuff is coming from another section of the building, and they’re pretty much scanning it in. That’s when it goes down to the rebinners. The rebinners take it off the belt, put it in there and that’s when the packers get it. So that’s how that trickle down process works.

Why is packing the worst?

Packing is the worst because you work up the worst sweats. Up until they put the fans, it gets really hot over there. They put up plastic curtains, these little plastic warehouse curtains. They’re thick and they don’t let any air come through, so unless somebody walks through and spreads ’em open, no air penetrates through. It’s like, oh my God, there’s no air getting to us from anywhere from no direction.

It’s just so hot. 

What do you think of the push for a union at Amazon?

I have my yeas and nays about it. When I was a part of the union at the post office, I liked it, but I also didn’t like it. It helped me out when supervisors were emotionally abusing me and picking on me. But then on the other hand, it didn’t help me because depending upon who the union person was, they wouldn’t do their job like they were supposed to.

There were a few union reps who just were in management’s pocket and they weren’t doing anything to help us out. They were just there. There was this one person and I thought she had handled everything cause the supervisor was picking on them. Then one day she was like, I didn’t file the paperwork that everybody had filled out. I was like, oh, that’s why the supervisor is still walking around here. The union didn’t do what they were supposed to do.

So that just kind of hurt — not literally hurt, but it felt  like, damn, I’m counting on you to help me out and you’re working with them.

So given this, how did you vote on the union at Amazon? 

I voted yes.

Why’d you vote yes even though you had some bad experiences with unions?  

I’m hoping some kind of actual good change will come from it, knowing that there’s possibly something bad that can come from it as well. But I’m hoping that there’ll be more good.  We need change more than anything because they have to stop: the mistreatment of people, the favoritism, and just turning a blind eye to stuff. It’s all too much wrong going on there, but they wanna talk and harp about, “we’re paying this much amount and we’re offering these benefits.” But is it worth people losing their sanity though?

What about our emotional and mental health? And sometimes our physical health. We’re literally being worked to the bone because you said we need to make this rate. We have to work at their speed and it’s unrealistic. They keep bumping up the speed. I was like, Y’all need to get some machines cause I can’t do this.

I’ve been hearing a lot about the things Amazon is doing to get people to vote no to the union. What is that like? 

Oh my goodness.

I see stuff. Right when the union showed up, that’s when the fans showed up. It’s been hot all year, and we’ve been telling you all this, but now that the union’s outside, these fans show up. So I was like, this is rather convenient. Amazon says it’s not going to do anything to bribe you all. Okay. All right. You can tell them that. I know better because these fans weren’t here last week. It’s a bribe.

And have you received messages being put in a room to talk against the union and like that?

Yes, Lord, I’m so glad the anti-union classes are over. We have so many anti-union classes. We know… you told us this last week and the week before that and the week before that. We know what you’re offering us, but that’s not what we’re concerned about.  The monetary stuff can actually be replaced. If you go to another job there, you’re offering this, that, and the third. But the main thing that a lot of us are looking for, other than job security, is just peace of mind. We need to be able to feel like we can come in here and you’re not going to be just yelling at us all day long and cracking the whip. Just peace of mind. That’s all I’ve ever wanted at any job I’ve worked. I know there’s going to be some conflict here and there, but it just should not just be just a social battlefield every day.

At the time, we were having that thing every week or sometimes every other day. There were so many. If I have to go to another meeting, I’ma scream.

And did you have a space and moments to listen to why support the union? Or was it only no, no, no, no?

Yeah. It’s just mostly just no. Now the union is outside and they’ve offered ways that we can get in contact with them and talk to them. Although I have not because I really haven’t had the time to, because of dealing with taking care of my family and so forth. I just really don’t have the time to just sit there on the phone. Those meetings at work, they took up so much time. I think one meeting we were in there for almost 45 minutes. Y’all know, it’s lunchtime right? We were in there for a minute, so.

And what about other folks who you work with? Do you know what they kind of think about the union? What have people been saying?

A lot of people who are just as irritated as me there, they want the union there. And of course the people who are enjoying the perks of not being bothered by the supervisors and stuff, they’re saying no. So of course if you’re saying no, you’re good, you’re being taken care of. But what about us?

Do you have a feeling of what the results might be?

I don’t know, but to be honest, the other side of me feels like they’re going to walk straight through the front door. I really do. I feel that because there have been little, very small improvements. They’ve had some people from out of state coming around, like employer relations, talking to us and things like that. 

But it’s too little too late. Now shouldn’t be the time that you’re trying to correct stuff when you’re trying to keep the union out. Amazon said you’re not going to bribe us, well, it looks like a bribe. You got the fans now and you’re making these changes here and there, you got the people showing up asking, how can we make things better? What, from May until November, you just didn’t give a damn?

And what do other workers think of the union? 

One thing I will say is… I hate to say this, but I kind of feel like they’re being slick.  A lot of the people that work at BHM1 are much younger than me. See, I’m [in late 20’s- redacted]. A lot of them, they’re still in that very impressionable stage. They’re like 18, 19, and so forth. They don’t know anything about a union so they can just feed them anything and they’ll just eat it up. Versus me. I’m like no, no, no, no, no. They sit up there lying to people like that cause they can go either way, the union can be on some bullshit and y’all can be on some bullshit.

Has the union reached out to you? 

Yeah, they have. By law, they were required to turn our information over. They have been contacting us through phone, text messages or calling us. They haven’t been just calling and texting us to death like how Amazon is.

With Amazon, there are tons of meetings—  like come on in here to this meeting so we can tell you the same thing we told you yesterday. Every single day, all the text messages from work, from Amazon every day, “A word from the HM1 leadership.” Let me guess, you say the same thing that you said in the last text message. 

Do you feel like there are workers at Amazon are playing a central role in the campaign? 

Other than the union standing on the curb, I haven’t seen any other extra outside stuff. Just them out there on the curb and then occasionally calling and texting us. That’s been about it. 

But Amazon though, they givin’ us a shirt, a pen, a card, the meetings… everything. 

Do you have family members who have ever been in a union? 

No, no, no. I don’t know any family members that are part of a union. Zero.

Have you felt or heard support from your own community folks in Bessemer, folks in Birmingham, for the union? 

No. Not anybody that I’ve been in direct contact with as of lately. We have a really busy schedule with our kids. But I can understand why many people are for it because some of them probably have children or grandchildren that work there at their building and of course they’re coming home, telling them about how bad it is. And they’re like, yes, you’re not going to treat my baby like this.

I heard that they brought people from out of state saying you all should be happy for those $15. How do you feel about that? Is 15 enough? 

It is not. You have Dollar Tree making $18 an hour off the bat, if I’m not mistaken, and other places that are making higher than us and they’re doing the exact same thing we’re doing. The workers at the Dollar General in Bessemer are making $18 an hour doing almost the exact same thing, it’s a distribution facility just like ours. What’s different?

I was wondering how it feels working there for the richest man in the world and having to fight for pennies?

I’m not going to lie. It does kind of suck. Bezos makes hundreds of thousands or millions every couple of seconds. Somebody is always ordering something from Amazon … I just ordered something myself. 

And I was just thinking about that. Cause I was talking to somebody about that the other day. I was like, Amazon has all this money and we’re in here working with this shit. It’s so old. They say it’s technologically advanced. I mean, in some ways some of that stuff is, but some of it is just basic.

This unionization effort has become a national story. What do you think about that? 

Everybody pretty much knows about it, but for me, I was like, whoa. This is way bigger than I thought it was going to be. This is huge.

And do you feel like somehow you are being part of a change?

I do. I feel like I’m being part of something that needs to happen. Before I started working at Amazon, I was hesitant about working there because I remember looking at the reviews on Indeed and it was like, don’t work here. “DO NOT WORK HERE” in capital letters. DO NOT. Look at me working there, but I have a family to take care of. So sometimes you got to do some stuff that you don’t want to do until you can get into a better spot.

Because of what y’all are doing, there are Amazon workers all over the country that are thinking maybe we can have a union too. What would you say to those other workers at Amazon warehouses that are thinking about it?

I would say go for it. That would be my main thing. If you feel like your voice is not being heard, which is how a lot of us were feeling at that BHN1 nest, then I say, go for it. If there are changes that you feel like need to be made here and if those changes are made, you’ll be more than happy to work here, I say, go for it. Because working there is not all bad. It’s the conditions, the mindset, there are some people there that don’t care. You have some HR people that are just mean and nasty. Sometimes you have some managers that don’t want to be bothered. You have some coworkers, they just do whatever and get away with it. But all in all, if you just take all that away, it’s actually an okay place to work. Just the conditions need to be done away with,  everybody and everything needs to be on the same page because it’s obviously not right from what I’ve seen.

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