Organizers and workers are making the final push in the first Amazon warehouse union election in the US in Bessemer, Alabama which, if successful, would mark one of the biggest labor victories in the US over the past several decades.
The fight over forming a union at the hugely profitable tech and retail giant has triggered immense political interest and pushed labor rights on to America’s front pages, especially during the coronavirus pandemic when warehouse workers for online retail have become an essential workforce.
Workers’ ballots must reach the National Labor Relations Board regional office in Alabama by 29 March to be counted. A majority of the ballots cast determine the outcome of the election, with around 5,800 employees eligible to vote.
Ballots for the election went out to workers on 8 February. Amazon’s attempts to delay the vote and force an in-person election were denied by the National Labor Relations Board.
The union effort has received several high profile endorsements, including a video released by President Joe Biden asserting his support for workers’ right to organize unions, endorsements from several members of Congress, including Senator Bernie Sanders and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, other labor unions such as the NFL Players Association, the MLB Players Association, support from Black Lives Matter and several local organizations.
Darryl Richardson, a picker who helped start the union organizing drive after reaching out to the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union last year, emphasized that the broad support for the unionization effort has helped significantly.
“It made a big difference because we had a lot of employees who didn’t understand or know anything about the union or what the union could bring to the company. With the help of everybody around the world supporting us, it did change folks’ ideas on how to vote,” said Richardson. “You had employees undecided about it, confused about it, who were going to vote ‘no’, but now the tables turned, and a lot came around and said they’re going to vote ‘yes’.”
The unionization effort in Alabama has amplified broader discussions on Amazon’s role in the growing wealth and income inequality in the US and racial justice issues that have been further exposed during the coronavirus pandemic. Union organizers estimate 85% of workers at the Alabama warehouse are Black. Of Amazon’s workers in the US, 27% are Black.
On 17 March, the US Senate budget committee held a hearing on the Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America, where Jennifer Bates, a Bessemer Amazon warehouse worker, noted during her testimony, “we, the workers, made the billions for Amazon. I often say, we are the billionaires – we just don’t get to spend it.”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos declined an invitation to participate in the hearing.
According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, Amazon’s profits increased by $9.4bn from 2019, and Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos saw his net worth increase by nearly $68bn. The report noted Amazon could have quintupled the hazard pay it provided to workers during the pandemic and still exceeded 2019 profits.
Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, was one of several high profile visitors to the union organizing base at Bessemer through the union election. She noted the Amazon union election in Alabama has broader connotations for the entire US labor movement and the dignity of workers.
“They have turned the whole world’s eyes to Bessemer, Alabama, and there’s a lot of pride in that,” said Nelson. “They’re kicking off a new era of organizing. Whether they get the vote in this election to win or not, they’ve already won because they’ve sown into the consciousness of working people everywhere who feel like they don’t have any respect where they live and work and aren’t happy where they are, that they don’t have to take it and they actually have a way to fight back.”
Amazon has strongly opposed unionization for years in the US, successfully squashing previous unionization attempts in the US, though it hasn’t faced an organizing effort at the scale of the Bessemer warehouse.
Richardson and other Amazon workers involved in the union organizing effort have fought for months against an aggressive Amazon anti-union campaign.
Amazon is spending nearly $10,000 each day plus expenses on anti-union consultants for the union election, as workers faced regular captive-audience meetings encouraging workers to vote against the union, have been inundated with anti-union text messages, ads, flyers, posters around the warehouse, and an anti-union website was launched. More recently, during the election, a USPS mailbox was installed at the warehouse and instructions were sent to workers on how to cast ballots in opposition to the union.
A report by the Economic Policy Institute in December 2019 found employers are charged with violating federal law in more than 54% of union elections with large bargaining units and US employers spend roughly $340m annually on consultants who specialize in union avoidance.
Amazon’s anti-union arguments have frequently cited the company’s $15 minimum wage and claimed the company already offers everything a union would provide, while emphasizing union dues. A recent New York Times report noted Amazon’s starting pay at $15 an hour is about $3 less than the median wage in the Birmingham, Alabama metropolitan area, and that workers at nearby warehouses with unionized workforces receive higher pay.
“I truly feel we’re going to win,” added Richardson. “If the union comes in, the power will split up and people will have a voice. You will have someone represent you to make sure you’re not fired just because they’ll make sure you’re treated fairly, working in a safe environment, and that promotions are fair. The union can make a difference.”