The Mercury News
Union push gets backing
Amazon workers’ labor drive reaches far beyond Alabama
“Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union.” — President Joe Biden
Players from the National Football League were among the first to voice their support. Then came Stacey Abrams, the Democratic star who helped turn Georgia blue in the 2020 election.
Actor Danny Glover traveled to Bessemer, Alabama, for a news conference last week, where he invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s pro-union leanings in urging workers at Amazon’s warehouse there to organize. Tina Fey has weighed in, and so has Sen. Bernie Sanders.
And on Sunday, President Joe Biden issued a resounding declaration of solidarity with the workers now voting on whether to form a union at Amazon’s Bessemer warehouse, without mentioning the company by name. Posted to his official Twitter account, his video was one of the most forceful statements in support of unionizing by a U.S. president in recent memory.
“Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union,” Biden said.
A unionizing campaign that had deliberately stayed under the radar for months has in recent days blossomed into a star-studded showdown to influence the workers at Amazon, one of the world’s dominant companies whose power has increased exponentially during the pandemic. On one side is the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and its many pro-labor allies in the worlds of politics, sports and Hollywood. On the other is an e-commerce behemoth that has warded off previous unionizing efforts at its U.S. facilities over its more than 25-year history.
The attention is turning this union vote into a referendum not just on working conditions at the Bessemer warehouse, which employs 5,800, but on the plight of low-wage employees and workers of color in particular. Many of the employees in the Alabama warehouse are Black, a fact that the union organizers have highlighted in their campaign seeking to link the vote to the struggle for civil rights in the South.
The retail workers union has a long history of organizing Black workers in the poultry and food production industries, helping them gain basic benefits like paid time off and safety protections and a means to economic security. The union is portraying its efforts in Bessemer as part of that legacy.
“This is an organizing campaign in the right-to-work South during the pandemic at one of the largest compa
nies in the world,” said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School. “The significance of a union victory there really couldn’t be overstated.”
The warehouse workers began voting by mail Feb. 8 and the ballots are due at the end of this month. A union can form if a majority of the votes cast favor such a move.
Amazon’s countercampaign, both inside the warehouse and on a national stage, has zeroed in on pure economics: that its starting wage is $15 an hour, plus benefits. That is far more than its competitors in Alabama, where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
“It’s important that employees understand the facts of joining a union,” Heather Knox, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We will provide education about that and the election process so they can make an informed decision. If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site and it’s important associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.” The company, which went on a huge hiring spree last year as homebound customers sent its sales to a record $386 billion, recorded more than $22 billion in profit.
In Alabama, some workers are growing weary of the process. One employee recently posted on Facebook: “This union stuff getting on my nerves. Let it be March 30th already!!!”
The situation is getting testy, with union leaders accusing Amazon of a series of “union-busting” tactics.
The company has posted signs across the warehouse, next to hand sanitizing stations and even in bathroom stalls. It sends regular texts and emails, pointing out the problems with unions. It posts photos of workers in Bessemer on the internal company app saying how much they love Amazon.
At certain training sessions, company representatives have pointed out the cost of union dues. When some workers have asked pointed questions in the meetings, the Amazon representatives followed up with them at their work stations reemphasizing the downsides of unions, employees and organizers say. The meetings stopped once the voting started.