A little before 5 pm today, the last ballots will be cast in the historic unionization vote at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. 5,800 workers will have been eligible to submit their ballots on whether the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) will represent Amazon workers at the Bessemer warehouse. It’s the biggest unionization effort at an Amazon warehouse in U.S. history. All eyes are on the small town of Bessemer, Alabama: bosses and workers alike are watching for a possible resurgence of the labor movement and organized labor.
Bessemer is a small town of 27,000 people — 71% of whom are Black. Over one in four people live below the poverty line. There are run down homes, uninhabited buildings, rusty cars in overgrown lawns, houses that look like they burned down years ago.The effects of systemic racism and neoliberal attacks on the working class are evident throughout the town. Bessemer used to be a steel and manufacturing center, with union jobs at U.S. Steel and train-car maker Pullman-Standard available to the Black community. On the very land that used to be home to the U.S. Steel mill, there is now an Amazon fulfillment center.
Bessemer residents have to pay for Amazon to come exploit workers in their city. The Bessemer Occupational Tax requires that everyone who works in Bessemer, including the workers at Amazon, pay one percent of their income to Amazon. In other words, in addition to Amazon paying paltry taxes, workers are subsidizing one of the world’s richest companies.
Since the poverty rate is so high and the minimum wage is so low, Amazon thought they could hyper-exploit workers in Bessemer with no consequences. After all, it’s Alabama — a red right-to-work state. But Amazon miscalculated. These workers are poised to make history — possibly about to become the first Amazon union in the country. Voting ends today, but we don’t know when exactly the results will come out. The counting and recounting may drag on, and Amazon is expected to contest the results.
If workers win a union, it will be monumental. This unionization effort has already had a massive impact and could open a tsunami of other unionization efforts across the country.
Amazon is Freaking Out
In the last few days of the voting period, Amazon has attempted and epically failed to rebuild its image in the most bizarre ways. Amazon put out some very strange tweets, arguing that pay is great, working conditions are great, and that Amazon workers don’t pee in bottles.
Documentation by anonymous workers clearly shows that not only are Amazon workers forced to urinate in bottles to keep up with the pace of work, but in some cases they have even had to defecate in bags in order to meet the grueling requirements of the job. Any worker or community member you speak to says the conditions are inhumane.
Meanwhile, Amazon continues to engage in blatant union-busting, using tactics that should be illegal — and some which even are illegal. Police officers are patrolling the facility to make sure that supporters don’t step even one foot onto Amazon property. Amazon petitioned the city to change the length of the traffic light at the entrance of the facility so that workers would have less time to interact with pro-union supporters outside the warehouse. Of course, the city, which is led by Democrats, agreed.
As one worker emphatically explained to me, “We had so many [anti] union classes.” They laughed and rolled their eyes. They described being pulled into anti-union meetings over and over throughout the past few months. “It’s like, we know you told us this last week and the week before that, and the week before that…If I have to go to one more [anti-union] meeting, I’ll scream.”
Amazon has bombarded workers with anti-union text messages over the last few months. One Amazon worker shared screenshots of some examples with Left Voice:
Amazon has spent a lot of time and money trying to convince their own workers that they are lucky and that Amazon is a great place to work. But the workers know better.
Frances, a 20 year old Amazon worker recently told Left Voice
They [Amazon] 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..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.
In fact, Amazon is paying a union-busting firm $10,000 a day to try to stop the union effort. It may seem like a lot, but Amazon has the money to spend. Jeff Bezos 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 began. Union-busting is an investment: Amazon is spending a lot now so that it can continue to hyper-exploit its workers and make huge profits.
Amazon has created a culture of repression and fear among workers and around its facilities. Around the country, they fire workers like Chris Smalls for speaking out. In the warehouse, workers aren’t able to talk to each other because of social distancing requirements, as well as because of the rhythm of work and a constant fear of repression.
In the Bessmer warehouse, there are only a handful of workers who have talked to the press and Left Voice was able to speak to some of them while on the ground in Alabama. They all had doubts about whether to speak anonymously or not. One worker we spoke to chose to remain anonymous because they have a family and kids: “I want to speak out, but I have kids. It’s sad. I shouldn’t feel that way.”
Frances also had a moment of doubt about whether or not to put her face and name out in the open. Eventually, she agreed to a video interview saying “I want to show I’m on the right side of history.” Every single worker who has spoken to a reporter has engaged in an act of bravery for their co-workers and their class. It’s a risk, but one they are willing to take to speak truth to power.
It’s not all direct repression; Amazon is trying to make tiny changes to convince workers to vote no on the union. But it’s too little too late for many workers. One Amazon worker explained that the heat in the summer is unbearable and Amazon always refused to install fans. In the middle of the winter, Amazon brought in fans— conveniently after the unionization effort begun. “ You got the people showing [at Amazon] up asking, ‘How can we make things better?’ But from May until November, you didn’t give a damn. They say it ain’t bribery, but this looks like a bribe,” a worker said.
Who Supports the Union?
From my brief experience in Birmingham, it’s clear that support is high for the union. I have yet to meet an Uber driver against the union — and I ask every time I get in a car. When I went canvassing for the union in a predominantly Black community, the support was overwhelming — people asked for signs to put in their windows and everyone signed the petition in support. One worker explained, “They’re for it because some of them probably have children or grandchildren that worked there. They come home, telling family about how bad it is. And they’re like, you’re not going to treat my baby, my grandchild like this.”
Workers and supporters have been organizing for months to have their union. They have to organize in the midst of all the barriers and bureaucratic steps that make it difficult to unionize in the United States. Workers have experienced months of intimidation by Amazon and rely on the external support in the community and people across the country. Around the country, there have been hundreds of small actions in support of the union. Workers have sent videos and statements in solidarity. Some workers have even traveled to Alabama to show their support.
All of this flies in the face of the lack of mobilization from the union bureaucracy in the nation’s largest organizations: RWDSU organizes 100,000 workers around the country. RWDSU could’ve dramatically changed the context for this vote by organizing nation-wide actions and putting all their forces at the service of a victory of Amazon workers. All workers stand to gain from a successful union drive in Alabama, so where were the national actions by the unions in support of these Amazons workers? Nowhere to be found. Even here in Birmingham, the union hasn’t organized any mass protests or actions in solidarity; there are other unionized workers who haven’t been called to action with their brothers and sisters at Amazon. Even the 5,800 workers aren’t encouraged to speak out and most are not mobilized to fight for the union.
On a national scale, the left could do a lot more as well. Socialist Alternative and especially the DSA Birmingham played a key role in organizing solidarity. However, as Tempest explained, the DSA could have also played a much larger role in organizing national actions with its close to 100,000 members. An organized left should have played a role in demanding that the union bureaucracies also mobilize — this is an essential part of the fight for unions that actually represent and fight for the working class.
The Amazon Union and the Democrats
The union has gotten a lot of support from sectors of the Democratic Party. While it brought needed attention to the union campaign, that kind of support is a double-edged sword. As the Democrats have lost their hold on the Rust Belt, Joe Biden sought to re-brand himself as the most union-friendly President in recent history. After all, unions in the United States are successful at bringing workers into the Democratic Party. Their union staffers organize canvassing for the Democrats and create PACs to support the party. It’s no wonder that Biden put out a video condemning repression of workers who are trying to form a union and arguing that all workers should be able to unionize. Of course, this pseudo-support for the union left out, among other things, a real push for even the most basic provisions like the PRO Act, or a promise to prosecute the illegal union busting tactics used by Amazon.
Further, Biden’s statement highlights the maneuver by the Democrats to have more tentacles in the labor movement in order to contain and pacify workers. As Biden works to re-legitimize the regime that Donald Trump, coronavirus, and the economic crisis delegitimized, building up the unions strongly connected to the Democrats may be part of that project.
There is nothing set in stone that says that unions should be subsidiaries to the Democratic Party. Workers can and should fight for independent unions, based on rank-and-file participation. But RWDSU has seemingly run a campaign that focuses on support from the Democratic Party, and less on building a mass, active base amongst the workers. After all, Stacey Abrams is on the campaign posters they put up all around Birmingham and Bessemer.
Bernie Sanders came to town and spoke to a crowd of mostly press, and local activists. Of the 5,800 who work at the fulfilment center, only 10-15 workers were at the event; some of them only heard about the rally after the fact. The focus on Democrats isn’t an accident— it’s because the strategy of union leadership is to beg at the table of the Democratic Party for whatever scraps are provided instead of mobilizing their rank and file.
This focus on Democratic Party politicians gives that workers’ power is at the polls; that the best that workers can do is canvass, vote, and hope the Democrats hand workers something better. That’s been a losing strategy for decades. It has meant declining living conditions for the entire working class, defeat after defeat for workers, and a deteriorated labor movement.
Workers’ strength doesn’t come from Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or any other politician. It comes from workers’ ability to stop production and distribution; it comes from Amazon workers’ ability to stop Bezos from profiting, from stopping the circulation of essential goods. Amazon workers can clog up the works and cost capitalists billions; workers can bring the whole system to its knees. It’s the Democratic Party’s job to make sure that workers don’t realize that power.
A Win Would Be a Huge Victory
The U.S. working class is fighting for the most basic rights after years of defeats. Only 6.3% of private sector workers are unionized. Walmart and Amazon, the two biggest private sector employers have perfected the union-busting campaign. But Black workers in Bessmer, Alabama may be strong enough to defeat it. This will be a massive victory for workers and a huge blow to Amazon who is clearly invested and increasingly desperate to stop the bad press and this union. If workers do form a union, it will be because enough of them chose to ignore the countless anti-union messages, to defy their bosses, and vote yes. It will be because of the courage of these workers to demand better conditions for themselves and take a step in fighting for them.
And this unionization effort is already inspiring unionization efforts elsewhere: Amazon workers in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver, and Southern California have reached out to the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) about unionizing their own warehouses. RWDSU says they have heard from more than 1,000 Amazon workers around the country. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is pushing to unionize workers at Amazon locations in Grimes and Iowa City, Iowa. The drive’s organizers have spoken to between 400 and 500 Amazon workers in the area.
A 28-year-old New Orleans Amazon warehouse worker who drove five hours to Bessemer to support the union organizing fight said, “If the most powerful company in the world can be unionized in an anti-union state like Alabama, it gives hope to people in Louisiana, in Mississippi, in West Virginia who are trying to do the same thing.”
A Union is Necessary, But Not Enough
Some working class people are skeptical of unions. This is understandable, but misguided. In fact, one Amazon worker we spoke to said about a previous job, “When I was a part of a union I liked it, but I didn’t like it…. There were a few union reps who just were in management’s pocket and they weren’t doing anything to help us out.” This worker was skeptical, but voted yes on the Amazon union. They didn’t buy all the anti-union garbage; they know the union has the potential to bring about much-needed change. They said, “I’m hoping some kind of actual good, some kind of change will come from it… I’m hoping that there’ll be change because they have to stop. They do, they really do [have to stop] the mistreatment of people.”
It’s unclear if this Amazon unionization effort will be successful. Some younger Amazon workers are more skeptical of the union and more likely to buy into company misinformation. It’s not clear if the unionization effort has been effective in reaching and convincing these folks.
Business unionism is the status quo — unions organized from the top down, with well-paid bureaucrats who at best have a clientelistic relationship to workers — offering services but little else. At worst, these unions don’t help workers at all. We’ve seen all through the neoliberal era that workers rights have been attacked and undermined. Union density has gone down as these attacks have occurred. And the unions have stood by and promised voting Democrats would make it better, organizing very little rank-and-file participation or struggle.
At the RWDSU in Alabama, the majority of workers have not been empowered as leaders of the organizing campaign. There are clearly some worker leaders who have been on the front lines of unionization effort. Further, this union drive began with the initiative of a few Amazon workers that sought out th RWDSU. The RWDSU clearly organized a national campaign and correctly sought mass support. There is a wide array of volunteers canvassing the community in support. But there are workers we spoke to who voted yes who have not been brought in on the decision-making, the planning, or the strategy of the union. They have gotten text messages and calls, but aside from voting “yes”, have not participated in the internal life and decision-making of the union drive and don’t know exactly how they could.
Unionization campaigns don’t have to be this way. For example, a Left Voice member was involved in a unionization campaign at a Hilton Hotel that organized workers to visit co-workers’ homes, held union meetings and assemblies to discuss next steps, and called department meetings to discuss with the rank and file of each department. They sought support and participated in the International Women’s Strike and immigrants rights actions. This is the foundation for a fighting union that is in the hands of rank-and-file workers.
Unions don’t need to be top down or led by bureaucrats; this is terrain that the working class has to take back. That’s why they are worth supporting. Unions can be organs of struggle for the working class — as Alabama unions were in the past. They can go on strike for workers’ rights, and they can demand better for workers and for the whole community. Further, they can fight for the rights of the Black community, uniting with the powerful anti-racist movement in Alabama. They can and should fight to make unionization easier for all workers, beginning by fighting for the PRO Act and then not stopping until they have struck down every repressive anti-union law on the books.
If the vote is successful, the new Amazon union will need to be organized democratically, from the bottom. For this Amazon union to inaugurate a new generation of class struggle unionism, it will need participation and discussion from every single worker. In order to do that, the union needs to be independent from the Democrats and bureaucrats who have a different project for the union — who want the union to legitimize this rotten system. Instead, this struggle should be the foundation for a new, strong rank and file union movement. Already workers are pointing in that direction. As Frances said to Left Voice,
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.