Last spring and summer, we heard impassioned calls for racial justice reverberate through the mainstream media. Self-styled anti-racism experts surged to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. CEOs declared they would “stand with” “the Black community” and pledged eye-popping sums for so-called racial justice programs.
Never one to miss the zeitgeist, Amazon CEO, and multi-multi-billionaire Jeff Bezos leapt on board, tweeting support for his black employees and donating $10 million to “combat[ting] systemic racism.” Amazon inserted a “Black Voices” tab into its streaming service and put money behind projects like the recently released One Night in Miami. Bezos publicly scolded racist Amazon customers, winning widespread praise.
But what story might Bezos’s warehouse workers tell, were they to be released from their nondisclosure agreements?
The Union Campaign in Bessemer
On February 8, ballots will be mailed out to some six thousand Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama who will begin voting on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). If enough vote in favor, the Bessemer Robotics Sortable Fulfillment Center will make history as the first unionized Amazon facility in the United States.
Despite its best efforts, Amazon has had to contend with a partially organized labor force in Europe, where unions have won some pro-worker concessions. But in the United States, Amazon has successfully thwarted unionization using a range of tactics, including hiring intelligence analysts to track “labor organizing threats,” spying on employees’ interactions in closed Facebook groups, and training managers to observe and report “early signs” of organizing such as increased camaraderie between workers and the use of terms like “living wage.”
The last time Amazon faced a union election at a US facility was in 2014, when tech workers in Middletown, Delaware voted against joining the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers following a barrage of pressure tactics from Amazon. The retail giant has mounted a similarly aggressive campaign to extinguish the current union challenge.
Bessemer warehouse workers told the American Prospect that they faced threats of job loss for their involvement with RWDSU, and Bloomberg reported this week that employees are being ordered to attend meetings where management pushes anti-union propaganda. The company has hired the same high-powered anti-union law firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, that helped it undercut the organizing effort in Delaware.
Last November, RWDSU petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election at the Bessemer facility, asking the federal body to include fifteen hundred workers in the bargaining unit. Amazon successfully negotiated to expand the unit to encompass seasonal employees, and those hired to perform safety training and medical care, making it one of the largest-scale efforts to organize private sector employees in recent US history.
Although the bigger unit makes the union’s task more challenging, RWDSU went along with the move, suggesting organizers believe they have enough momentum to run a successful community-wide campaign. There’s some reason for optimism: RWDSU has a long history in the South and currently represents some seventy-five hundred poultry workers in Alabama, meaning that local members have been able to help with the union’s BAmazon campaign.
Amazon has fought hard for the union vote to be held in person, which would make it impossible for sick workers to participate. In a January 15 decision, an NLRB official called Amazon’s claims that in-person voting would be safe “not persuasive.” Amazon has appealed that decision; the board’s response is expected shortly.
In addition to concerns about COVID safety, workers have expressed frustration about impossibly high productivity expectations. Once a picking or stowing job is assigned, workers are given a number of seconds to complete it. Computers record whether they finish in time, and Amazon uses that data to discipline or fire people.
While bathroom breaks are not explicitly prohibited, the expectation that workers prepare four hundred items for delivery in a single hour creates a situation where employees feel they are risking their jobs when they use the bathroom or tend to other human needs. It’s no wonder that reports have proliferated of Amazon workers peeing in bottles to avoid the cost of a break.
An Issue of Racial Justice
Bessemer, a southwestern suburb of Birmingham, is a poor, majority-black town. Over a quarter of its residents fall below the federal poverty line. The state’s minimum wage is just $7.25.
At the Amazon plant, the work speedups make it difficult to breathe, much less take stock of one’s situation. The pandemic has interfered with workers’ ability to connect socially. Their employer is a viciously anti-union company that operates more like an empire than a firm — “a modern-day East India Company,” as Natasha Lennard called it.
Progressive International calculated that Jeff Bezos could personally 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. Instead, he is building a massive clock in a hollowed-out mountainside.
Yet despite the odds, workers have been managed to get “sufficient showing” to qualify for an election. One of the likely reasons is that RWDSU has imbued its campaign with the spirit of racial justice.
Its organizing drive, which is headed by mostly black union members from poultry plants in the region, is based on reaching out to the Bessemer warehouse workers, many of whom are also black, with a clear message: you deserve to be treated fairly. “I am telling them they are part of a movement that is worldwide,” Michael Foster, an organizer and poultry worker, told the New York Times. “I want them to know that we are important and we do matter.” The BAmazon website urges workers to “with[stand] management’s tricks,” and move forward together to force the company to give workers a “seat at the table” and accord them the respect and dignity they deserve.
Amazon’s anti-union website, meanwhile, features a cartoon puppy dancing in front of a turntable and images of workers with various complexions grinning behind their masks. The site encourages workers to “stay friendly” by rejecting a “restrictive” dues-paying relationship with the union.
The private intimidation tactics have been less comical. One RWDSU organizer told the Times that an unidentified man at the Bessemer facility used a racist slur when attempting to make her leave her post outside the warehouse — a threat freighted with bloody precedents in a region where anti-unionism and white supremacist violence have long gone hand in hand.
Union organizers are working to build strength in the face of this intimidation the same way civil rights organizers sought to topple Jim Crow in the face of white terrorism. Their tool is solidarity. Speaking of workers who are fearful of management’s reaction to the campaign, Foster told the Times, “We want to show them we are not leaving them until this is done.”
Civil Rights Unionism at Amazon
Following the murder of George Floyd and the explosion of Black Lives Matter protests last summer, there was much talk about the need to dismantle systems of white supremacy. But corporate America’s squishy pledges to fight a hazily undefined “racism” are hollow and profit-driven. The anti-racism programs that come from employers often just consolidate bosses’ power over workers. Bestselling anti-racism authors purport to have answers, but their earning power depends upon the persistence of the problem.
So what does fighting racism actually look like? How do we take aim at the villains who offer false words of anti-racist solidarity while profiting from the dehumanization of a disproportionately black and brown workforce? How do we change the structures that oppress people?
Worker organizing at the Bessemer fulfillment center is one example of what true racial justice organizing can look like. People from different backgrounds are teaming up to contest Amazon’s exploitation of workers in a majority-black city. They are challenging a tech giant so muscular it makes their local politicians swoon. They are demanding conditions befitting their humanity. And in so doing, they are striving to take power back from a company that aids law enforcement in inflicting violence on communities of color, allows slavery in its supply chains, and perpetuates deadly environmental racism.
If Amazon actually thought black lives mattered, the company would have already voluntarily recognized the union. But workers in Bessemer just might get their union in spite of the company’s threats — and perhaps even spread their model of “civil rights unionism” to the rest of the country.