Dispatch from Alabama: The Biggest Amazon Union Drive Yet

Mail-in ballots are due March 29 in the union election among 5,800 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Cartoon: Dan Mendez Moore

BESSEMER, Alabama—On a chilly March day, the early-morning rush at a gas station recalls the bustling scenes of workers anywhere as Amazon employees shuffle into a convenience store for coffee and cigarettes. But look closer—a yellow hanger on a Jeep’s rearview mirror is embossed “vote no.” A man’s lanyard jingles with keys and a blue “vote no’’ card.

Amazon workers from the warehouse BHM1, wearing lanyards and red sweaters emblazoned with the company’s logo, mix with warehouse managers in light-orange shirts and with the cleaning crew in blue vests, hired by a third-party contractor.

The lanyards, the sweaters, the hangers on the cars reveal which side each worker is taking in the union election, in which 5,800 workers are voting on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).

The election by mail will continue until March 29, with results likely available in mid-April.

Weeks away from the deadline, workers appear divided. There’s a clear faction of former union members or workers with union family ties who firmly favor unionization. The younger workers I met seemed indifferent to the election, as they have prospects elsewhere: the Army or other higher-paying jobs. They see the warehouse work very much on Amazon’s terms—as temporary, with no security.

Standing at the pump one morning at 5 a.m., a man who asks to remain anonymous tells me he isn’t sure yet how he'll vote. “I haven’t weighed all my options,” he says. “It’s like a family feud.”

He’s been talking to co-workers who are voting yes because their family members belonged to a union. He says he’ll decide “what’s best for me” over the weekend of March 12.

‘A WHEELBARROW’

RWDSU organizers are running phonebanks and encouraging those who are solidly voting yes to bring their undecided co-workers to the union hall in Birmingham. The union is throwing all its resources into getting out the vote.

Allies such as Black Lives Matter Birmingham, Our Revolution, the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, the Alabama Working Families Party, the Greater Birmingham ministries, and the environmental organization SWEET Alabama are leading community canvassing and planting pro-union yard signs in front of supporters’ homes.

BLM Birmingham led a caravan on March 13 to show solidarity with the workers. The workforce at the Amazon warehouse is estimated to be 85 percent Black.

Amazon has been touting its $15-an-hour starting wage and its health benefits in its campaign against the union. But at the kickoff rally for the caravan, Jennifer Bates, an Amazon worker and former union member, said, “You just offered us a wheelbarrow and called it a car. Everything looks good on paper, but once you go on the inside, you see the reality.”

A NATIONAL SPOTLIGHT

Bessemer, population 27,000, is a suburb 20 minutes outside Birmingham. The national and international attention it is getting reflects the high stakes of the election—if workers win, it will be the first time anyone has unionized an Amazon facility in the U.S.

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The most recent failed attempt, in 2014, was a much smaller bargaining unit of Amazon technicians in Middleton, Delaware; the vote tally was 21 no, 6 yes.

Like it always does, Amazon is trying to clobber the union campaign. The company is deploying the kinds of tactics described in Martin Jay Levitt’s book Confessions of a Union Buster: “A campaign against a union is an assault on individuals and a war on the truth. The only way to bust a union is to lie, distort, manipulate, threaten, and always attack.”

Amazon has told workers that if they signed union cards, they would automatically have to pay dues, even though Alabama is a right-to-work state where workers can free-ride while still receiving union representation. The company set up a website, doitwithoutdues.com, to spread lies like these.

The company has subjected workers to mandatory meetings, intrusive text messages, and even anti-union signs in the bathroom stalls. In a sinister innovation, it changed the traffic lights in Bessemer to prevent union organizers from talking to workers as they leave the warehouse.

Amazon also put up a mailbox at the facility to monitor the vote-by-mail election, which is supposed to be anonymous.

BUSTERS GET $10K A DAY

Amazon didn’t invent these tactics, but it has perfected them. After RWDSU filed its election petition last November with the National Labor Relations Board, Amazon hired union-avoidance consultants who earn $10,000 a day to rout the union effort.

These union-busters trotted out enough false information to confuse workers—some of whom later came around to supporting the union. Organizers have encouraged workers to contact the NLRB to redo their ballots. But two weeks out, it may already be too late.

“I voted no, but now I’m undecided,” a worker named Sarah Scroggin told me. “I kind of regret it, but it’s all right because there are other people to cover me.”

PRO ACT SORELY NEEDED

President Joe Biden weighed in on February 28, saying in a video: “There should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda. No supervisor should confront employees about their union preferences.”

Biden is also supporting the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which passed the House in March, though its fate in the Senate depends on whether Democrats get rid of the filibuster.

If enacted, it would ban many of the union-busting tactics Amazon has employed, including captive-audience meetings. And it would promote favorable conditions for organizing—for instance, if workers got a majority signed on union authorization cards but then lost the election, the union could be certified anyway if the employer’s unfair labor practices might have swung the outcome.

Win or lose, the organizing drive in Alabama has provided inspiration to workers across the country. May a thousand more warehouses rise up.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #505, April 2021. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Luis Feliz Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes. luis@labornotes.org