Left Voice has been on the ground in Bessemer, Alabama for more than a week, covering the Amazon workers’ fight to unionize. Over the weekend, our team had the privilege of talking with Frances Wallace, an Amazon worker and BLM activist. Below is the transcription of our interview, which can also be viewed here. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
I am Francis Wallace. I initially started working at Amazon because I had moved down from Gadsden to Hoover, and I needed something to be able to pay rent. I worked at Walmart for about a year, and I’m also a certified EMT. I did wheelchair van operating for awhile, that was definitely my favorite. I basically just try to fight for anything that I can, moral-wise. I am mostly affiliated with Black Lives Matter, but I am still all for trans rights. I am pro-choice. I want to be there for everybody that I can; any marginalized group that doesn’t have a voice, I want to be a voice for them.
What is Amazon like?
From the first day that I worked there, I was ready to quit by the end of the day; it was very high pressure. We didn’t get much training. They have their own little training protocols, but it was basically, we were there for about half an hour and he let us practice the stowing and then just assigned us all to our own individual stations, and we were on our own.
From what I heard, the work is really tiring and really backbreaking. Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like inside the warehouse? What you have to do, and what it does to your body to have to work like that?
It is extremely tiring, I will agree with that. Of course, there’s bending and standing up all the time. There’s a ladder inside my area, cause I do stowing. I’m climbing up and down the ladder, bending up and down, picking up the boxes. When you do that for 10 hours straight and you only have three, maybe 15 minute breaks, it gets really tiring. We have 30 minutes for lunch, but other than that, it’s just the two 15 minute breaks within a 10 hour time period. Me being a diabetic, I don’t even have time to really check my sugar and make sure that I can get something to snack on in that amount of time. As with any warehouse, they have to meet a quota. You will have the certain quota that you have, and if you don’t meet your quota, I believe it was three times, then they will terminate your employment. It’s a near-impossible quota. I remember how much I was struggling from the first day to try to reach that quota. You’re just trying, you’re going as fast as you possibly can, but you still can’t. They will time the amount of time in between each item, and if you take too much time, they’ll notice that immediately.
This week, there are all these tweets that came out from the vice president of Amazon. What do you have to say to folks who believe that the conditions at Amazon are good?
I’ll just say that there’s a lot of things that go on behind closed doors. When you don’t work there, you’ll believe a lot of things that you see in other places. When you’re working with workers who will use their paid time off, just to be able to get five more minutes on their break, then you’ll start to realize that a lot of the things that they’re saying, they’re saying to try to cover up why we need a union. You’ll start to realize that a lot of the people that are working there higher up, they just want their money. They’ll say anything that they can to keep their money and keep the workers from joining the union.
Let’s talk about that. What’s it been like for the unionization effort, what’s been experienced inside the warehouse?
Inside the warehouse, most of the workers don’t talk about it, but I feel that’s mainly because most of the workers don’t have time to talk about anything. We’re all separated in our stations, and if we don’t reach our quota, we could jeopardize our jobs. We don’t tend to talk to each other unless we’re on breaks, and we don’t have a lot of time to do that. In the warehouse, they have pieces of paper that are set up on the tables, listing all the reasons that they believe that you shouldn’t join a union and telling you to vote no. They will text you several times a day telling you to vote no. Telling you about maybe just one person like, “Oh, well, John has been working at Amazon for so-and-so amount of time, and he loves it!” And they will send you those stories and tell you that because of those stories, you should vote no on the union. No matter how compromised you are, they want you to sacrifice it for maybe those two or three workers that they interviewed that actually like it there.
I’ve noticed whenever I’ve told somebody that I’ve been working for Amazon, I automatically get asked about the union. Automatically. It’s gaining a lot of press, but at the warehouse, it’s different. They don’t really talk about it much. You have maybe two or three people that’ll stand outside on the corner. That’s the closest they’ll allow them to get, and they’ll stand over there with their table and their little signs and try to tell you to join the union, but they don’t let them close enough to the building to really interact with the workers. The workers have a fair chance to just get swayed by what you get messaged to you on Amazon A to Z, and what you see on your table while eating lunch.
What’s the Amazon A to Z?
It’s their app that you can clock in through, see your schedule, and what-not.
They have anti-union messages on that?
Yes, it’ll pop up “it’s almost time to vote” or “time is running out, vote no.” “So-and-so works for Amazon, and they love it!”
I feel as though people definitely need more breaks in the amount of time that they’re working, because most people are working from 10 to 12 hours in Amazon. When you’re working that hard for that long and you don’t get very long breaks, it is very taxing on the body. They will throw different things in your face, like how you’re making $15 an hour. But $15 an hour won’t help the fact of how hard you’re being worked. That health insurance that they say you have, I don’t know how much they’re going to cover when you’re suffering constant back pain, and your legs are hurting, and you’re being so tired. You’re so tired. You’re exhausted from all that work every single day. They think that you’re going to kind of get used to it, and it’s just the beginning of the job.
Doing that every day for years, that shouldn’t be a way to live, especially not for $15 an hour. That’s barely really a livable wage. There are so many workers at Amazon, not all of them live in Bessemer. They live in Hoover. They live in Birmingham. They live in Homewood. The cost of living is higher there than it is in Bessemer. These are people who are still trying to make ends meet, people with families. That could be the only income. Could you imagine taking care of maybe two or three kids when you’re barely home because you’re being overworked by Amazon? And you’re only making $15 an hour. You have to supply for your whole family, rent and utilities. That’s stressful.
If you could say something to Jeff Bezos, what would you say?
Stepping down doesn’t hide you from the things that you’ve done. It doesn’t hide you from the fact that you’ve been overworking your employees and that they probably make about a cent for every several dollars that you make. I just can’t believe that somebody could be that attached to the money that they would sacrifice thousands of workers just to make a buck. These are people’s families, and if you claim to care about the families as much as you do, then you shouldn’t be putting these people’s stories in and using them as pawns. If you care so much about those people, then you should give them what they want. You should meet their demands. A lot of people, including the corporations, have hopped on Black Lives Matter for clout, but when the majority of your employees are Black and you work them like dogs, putting Black Lives Matter on your website doesn’t help them. You’re still keeping them as a marginalized group. You’re not helping them. That’s just publicity.
Let’s talk a little bit about your involvement in Black Lives Matter as well. Can you just talk a little bit about how you got involved in the movement over the summer and also for, for EJ, which was 2018, right? What that has been like and how you got involved?
I was 11 years old when Trayvon Martin was murdered. I’ve grown up almost desensitized to it. I’ve seen all this happen so often, and I wanted to get involved, but I wasn’t old enough. At the time my parents wouldn’t let an 11 year old go out and protest. For example, when Tamir Rice died, and Sandra Bland, when they were all murdered, I was still very young, 14 or 15. I couldn’t do anything yet. It finally happened when I had moved out, I had gotten a car, and then George Floyd was murdered. It picked up so much steam. I realized that I finally had the resources to go out to protest and to actually do something about it. The second I realized I could go out and try to make a change and do something about it, I jumped to it.
I told my mother that I was going to have a late birthday celebration because George Floyd was murdered the day before my 20th birthday actually. So I just told my mom, I used that as an excuse. I said, “Oh, I’m just going down to Birmingham for a late birthday celebration.” And I went to a protest at Kellyanne Green park. That was May 30th. And that was the day that the first big Hoover protest happened and my friend stole the mic. He was like, if you guys want to see a real protest, let’s go to Hoover. And so I got in my car and went to Hoover. And that day we saw so much brutality. I thought my friend was killed, the way she was slammed by the police. And it was just crazy to see that officers are so willing to hurt people over simply saying that they want to matter. Over simply saying that they wish not to be murdered.
That’s the minimum, all we’re saying is “don’t kill us.” And they’re willing to hurt us over saying that we don’t want to be killed. And so after going to that first protest, I was filled with so much anger that I was ready to just keep going. And I’ve been going since May. I’ve gone to Louisville three times, I’ve done protests in Huntsville, Albertville, Gadston, Hoover, Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma. I just try to go wherever I can to stand in solidarity with people. And because while it trended for a while, we have to realize that these things are still happening. And so we have to fight for it as much as we can. And that’s why, you know, EJ Bradford was murdered in 2018 and we’re still out here fighting for him because he still doesn’t have justice. It trends, and then it goes undercover. And these people are never getting justice for being murdered. Their families aren’t getting answers. Some of them, if any of them, are getting paid off a little bit, just to keep quiet, but money won’t bring them back. So we have to be out here fighting to make sure that this doesn’t happen.
There was a lot of force used, to say the absolute least. There’s a lot of force used. And you can tell that they’re only there to protect the people on their force, and the people who have murdered and are still working on their force. It’s just crazy that they’re willing to treat us like that just to prove a point. Just to say that they don’t care about what we’re talking about.
The workers at Amazon are overwhelmingly Black, right?
Can you talk a little bit about the connection between the idea that Black lives should matter and this fight for a union at Amazon?
It’s almost just institutional. It’s just any way that they find to keep us down, they’re going to. Like, of course, if we’re in the streets, they can just arrest us, but they’re not going to just try to legally arrest anybody for being out working. So what they do is they make sure that you have lower wages than they do in other places. They’ll make sure that you don’t get as many breaks. They’ll make sure that you can’t abandon your station without getting penalized. And they’ll just use anything that they can to keep people of lower class and marginalized groups down legally, because they don’t want to face their own penalties. So they’ll make it legal in different ways. They’ll put it in your jobs. And that’s what it feels like. It just feels like they’ll work you to death if they can, because it’s them finding another way to take you out.
If they can’t take you out in the streets, then they’re going to take you out in ways that you need it. They’ll take away your jobs for anything that you do that’s a wrong step to them. They’ll take you right out of it. And you’ll have no way to even try to take care of your family. They don’t actually care about anything but getting their product out. They don’t care about anything but making their money. They don’t care whether or not you make them money or not. Because Amazon hires so many people on each week that they just think, “Oh, well, if you leave, we can just find somebody to replace you.” And so they find no value in their actual workers. And so it just feels the same as most of the Black Lives Matter protests and whatnot, because we’re still just out there fighting for basic human rights.
In Black Lives Matter, we’re fighting to make sure that we don’t get murdered. And with the union, we’re just fighting to make sure that we can get a livable wage and we can have proper care. And we’re not being worked like dogs all the time. And so it’s just fighting for basic human rights. It’s all the same. It doesn’t always feel like you’re making history when you’re actively making it. But it’s something that you’ll look back at and realize how much of a change it made. And I don’t feel as though I fully hit the point for something to be monumental yet. I want it to be. I want to know that I’ve done something that will actually help people in the future. Like, not something that’s for me, but for all marginalized groups. I want them to be able to look back at things like the union and the Black Lives Matter movement and realize that it’s actually made an impact on them.
I want it to be something that positively impacts their lives and makes it easier for them to live day to day. I just want to be able to see a society where people don’t feel like they have to work to the bone, just to be able to provide. We are all human beings, and we should all have a right to survive. We shouldn’t have to think that if we don’t make a certain amount of money, that we won’t be able to eat. That we’ll lose the roof over our head. Every human being should have the right to food, to water, to shelter, and to be comfortable in life. Because nobody asked to be born here. So everybody should be supplied the same rights, because there’s no reason that somebody who got here on this earth, the same way that you got here on this earth, should be subject to less opportunities than the other.
And so in terms, for example, here with the union, people can call other people and they can phonebank and whatnot for that. Even if they don’t work at Amazon and they can’t vote themselves, they can canvass. They do canvassing all the time. They’ll walk through the neighborhoods and educate people on the union. There’s so many things that you can do, even if you’re not directly hired by them, that you can do to help. And I also just want to put on the note that any worker at Amazon that feels in any way just exhausted at the end of the day, they feel like they can’t go on. Just remember that that’s what they’re trying to put the union in for. And so, you know, any worker that may be watching this, I just want them to vote yes on the union.
If you are seeing this and you’re realizing that you’re going through the same things, then fight for your fair rights as well. You don’t have to just watch us do it. You can do it as well. I want it to be able to pick up that steam because I don’t want just the best of my workers to get their rights. I want all workers to get their rights. And so if you’re seeing this and you work at a different Amazon warehouse, and you’re wanting to do the same thing, then do it, and we’ll support it. We’ll do anything that we can to support it.