Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama are taking on the richest man in the world and the second biggest private employer in the U.S. in an effort to unionize a 5,800 employee distribution center. It is being organized almost entirely by Black workers in a Republican, right-to-work state, and in spite of a major effort by Amazon to crush the campaign.
The unionization drive in Bessemer is tightly linked with the broad, nation-wide Black Lives Matter movement that took the streets to fight anti-Black racism. In fact, the impetus to unionize came from Amazon workers involved in the protests over the summer and that rage, that fire, that boldness to defy the status quo spread to their workplace.
This unionization effort highlights the fact that Black workers remain among the most exploited sectors of the working class, with long hours, intense labor discipline, and few benefits..The struggle of Amazon workers at Bessemer makes crystal clear that exploitation and racial oppression are tightly linked in capitalism — the wealth of the United States was built on Black enslavement and continues to be built on the hyper-exploitation of Black workers. These Amazon employees highlight that Black struggle takes place in the streets, but it’s also in workplaces like Amazon’s distribution centers.
But the effort to unionize is difficult and the workers face many powerful enemies, including the richest man alive, Jeff Bezos. Those of us who chanted “Black Lives Matter” this summer must just as enthusiastically support the workers in Bessemer. Black liberation requires not only a fight against police killings but also a fight against the highly exploitative conditions faced by Black workers on the job.
The Unionization Effort
On February 8, nearly six thousand Amazon employees launched a vote on joining the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which currently represents 12,000 poultry workers in Alabama and 100,000 workers across the United States. The union vote ends on March 29. If the workers are successful, this would be the first Amazon union in the U.S. and could spark more unionization efforts at Amazon warehouses, as well as in other logistics and retail companies. As Amazon is a multinational corporation, with nearly million workers abroad, this drive could also have wide-reaching international implications.
Amazon is well known for its inhumane work conditions, back-breaking labor, and impossibly high productivity expectations. Every move of the company’s workers is monitored and tracked and those who fall below the “productivity threshold” are disciplined or fired.
In the past few months, Amazon workers have put their lives on the line by working in the midst of a deadly global pandemic. Nearly 20,000 of Amazon’s employees in the United States contracted Covid-19 and 10 have died since October. Of course these are only the officially reported numbers. People who spoke out, like Black activist and former Amazon worker Chris Smalls of New York, were fired. Amazon workers received a measly $2 hazard pay increase early in the pandemic, but that was ended in June 2020, months before the U.S. reached its COVID infection peak. Meanwhile, Bezos made $70 billion in profits in 2020 alone as Amazon’s revenue soared. He has made so much, in fact, that he could afford to pay a $105,000 bonus to all of Amazon’s 1.2 million employees and still be as rich as he was before the pandemic.
His enormous wealth, estimated at nearly $200 billion, is built on the hyper-exploitation of workers and facilitated by the fact that they have no union to defend them. Amazon has gone to great lengths to make sure that no warehouse unionizes. It has hired intelligence analysts to track “labor organizing threats,” and spied on employees’ interactions in closed Facebook groups. A previous unionization effort in Delaware was speedily crushed by Amazon.
In Bessemer, Amazon has pulled out all the stops to thwart unionization, including threats of job loss, anti-union propaganda in bathrooms, phone calls to workers, anti-union meetings, and a ridiculous anti-union website featuring a doggie DJ. While Amazon is using the workspace to flood workers with anti-union propaganda, union organizers are forced to meet with workers off the property. Even the ability for union organizers to reach out to workers has been attacked by Amazon — they petitioned the city to change the amount of time at red lights so that workers won’t have access to pro-union messages and organizers who distribute pamphlets at the lights. And recently Amazon offered to “buy out” employees for $2,000 and hire new workers who are less likely to unionize.
Black Lives Matter: Working Class or Corporate?
The unionization effort at Amazon is deeply connected to the recent eruptions of class struggle among essential workers, including produce market workers, health care workers and teachers. While the bosses hid away in their summer homes, workers kept the country running. It was disproportionately Black and Brown who stayed on the job, often getting sick or dying, while the bosses made big profits.
The Amazon unionization effort is also a product of the Black Lives Matter movement, possibly the largest social movement in U.S. history. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Some of [the Bessemer] workers participated in the Black Lives Matter movement over the past year and reached out to this union because they were tired of dealing with the grueling nature of their work. There is a heightened political climate.” Bloomberg reported that the union drive was the result of “the growing acceptance that systemic racism has hurt the economic prospects of people of color.”
This overwhelmingly Black workforce is set to make history. In fact, 85 percent of the workers at the Amazon warehouse are Black. It’s essential that we always draw this connection: the Amazon unionization effort is an effort to make Black Lives matter. It’s a Black labor struggle. And it highlights the ways in which racism and exploitation are inextricably tied to one another.
The capitalists aim to invisibilize the connection between exploitation and racism in order to make a profit. They would like nothing than to make Black Lives Matter a mere corporate marketing scheme. After all, in the summer uprising for Black Lives, Jeff Bezos donated $10 million to “combatting systemic racism” and tweeted support for Black Lives Matter. He and other capitalists would like nothing more than for all this to be a politics of empty symbolism, of tweets supporting Black workers while the system breaks the bodies of those same workers. Further, Amazon plays a central role in supplying surveillance systems to cops who murder Black people — another example of Amazon’s sheer cynicism when it comes to BLM.
The unionization struggle in Bessemer highlights that living in a world in which Black Lives Matter means fighting police violence, as well as fighting against the exploitation of the working class — which includes Black workers, who have played a central role in the history of class struggle. The fight to unionize Amazon is inscribed in a history of Black labor struggle, of the civil rights movement, and of Black radials agitating inside and outside factories. And it is part of the history of Alabama, where Black and white mine and steel workers played an important role in the labor movement and organized major strikes, as well as the civil rights movement. Fighting for Black lives means fighting for better labor conditions for Black workers.
Workers Need Active Solidarity
The struggle for a union at Amazon is one of the most important labor struggles of the past few years in the United States. Unionizing one Amazon warehouse has the potential to unleash a wave of unionization efforts at other Amazon warehouses, as well as at other hyper-exploitative corporations such as Walmart and Whole Foods that have fought tooth and nail against unions.
The union struggle at Amazon is a struggle of David versus Goliath. Amazon has all the resources to manipulate and threaten workers; it has a bottomless well of funds to put towards anti-union efforts. The workers need solidarity.
Despite Joe Biden’s “pro union” and “pro worker” rhetoric, he was silent on the Amazon union until weeks after the voting began. Finally, on Sunday night he said that workers should be allowed to choose whether they want a union and spoke out against worker intimidation.
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However, as president, he didn’t call for any legal consequences for the illegal worker intimidation tactics that Amazon employs. It’s an example of just how empty his rhetoric really is: it’s just aimed at scoring points with the progressive base of the Democratic Party. It stands in stark contrast to the harsh language Biden used to condemn and demand prosecution of BLM protesters, while the cops in cities with Democratic mayors jailed, beat, and gassed protesters. And of course, he hasn’t said anything since his inauguration about the PRO Act, which would end “right-to-work” laws, penalize bosses that retaliate against workers who organize, and more.
Union leaders continue to promise the working class that the Democrats are the solution and funding Democrat candidates. Yet, those same Democrats are upholding these terrible labor laws and oppressive labor conditions. They refuse to pass a $15 dollar/hour federal minimum wage and haven’t moved forward on the PRO Act. The union bureaucracies are joined at the hip to this anti-worker party and have done almost nothing to support the Amazon workers in Bessemer.
Even Stuart Applebaum, president of the RWDSU, has maintained his focus on lobbying capitalist politicians and donating union funds to Democrats — holding, from time to time, small one-day actions. The RWDSU has 100,000 members; Applebaum could put the entire union behind organizing support for Bessemer and demanding that other unions organize national mobilizations and even work stoppages against Amazon intimidation and for a union.
For Amazon workers, unionization is only a first step. They will need to fight for the union to be a fighting tool of the workers, not a top-down front for the Democratic Party. Workers who organize because of Black Lives Matter should go further and use their unions as a tool to fight for Black lives. Amazon workers can and should organize walkouts against police violence, call strikes to defund the police, and use the strategic position of labor not only to shut down the streets but also to shut down a key sector of capital. A union will strengthen Amazon workers to organize these kinds of actions, but only if the workers make sure they democratically control their union.
For Amazon workers to create a fighting union, they will need rank-and-file solidarity. They will need mass solidarity from every single person who chanted “Black Lives Matter” last summer, from every single community organization, socialist group, labor union, and social justice organization. This will require talking about solidarity with coworkers and organizing solidarity actions. For those of us already in unions, we must demand that our unions organize actions and put resources into Amazon solidarity.
There is precedent for that kind of solidarity, even in Alabama. Michael Goldfield explains that the success of the struggle in the 1930s to build the steelworkers union in Alabama was because they built broad bases of solidarity.
They used unemployed organizations, ethnic organizations, and civil rights organizations to build broad support for their campaign …This is one of the lessons that I would draw from the campaign in Bessemer: people have some leverage, but if they’re only one part of a huge company, outside support, publicity, bodies, and everything else is really important to help them win. The more support we can give them, the better.
The only way the Amazon union will win is if we surround it with so much solidarity, so much support, that we will drown out the anti-worker messaging from the Amazon bosses.