- Interview by
- Maximillian Alvarez
One of the most historic union votes of our era is underway right now: fifty-eight hundred workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, are currently voting on whether or not to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). If the vote is successful, workers at the Bessemer facility will become the first unionized Amazon workforce in the United States. After the National Labor Relations Board dismissed Amazon’s motions to delay the union vote, ballots were sent to workers in early February, and the vote counting will begin on March 29.
On February 22, world-renowned actor and activist Danny Glover came to Bessemer to show support for Amazon workers and their struggle to form a union. The Real News Network’s editor-in-chief Maximillian Alvarez sat down with Glover to talk about why this vote is so significant and how Amazon workers in Bessemer, most of whom are black, are part of a long tradition of labor struggle in the South.
What brought you to Alabama to support the workers’ struggle here?
The first thing to say is that I was asked to come down. It’s a very important moment for workers — this challenge right here, with a company that [aside from Walmart] employs more people than any other company in the country, located here in the South, which is always considered a place where unions never fared well. And yet, we know there’s a history, particularly here in Alabama, around the miners and smelter workers in the ’30s and their struggle for unionization — and, really, during the whole period of Jim Crow, particularly with the organizing of black workers. Right here in Alabama, you had the cotton [mill workers’] strike in the ’30s.
So there’s a history of resistance here to the oppressive conditions that people work under. And the South, of course, has its own history, one that carried the weight of the moral issue around slavery.
So to be here at this particular moment is important. And part of my own history is in the South: my mother’s from the South, rural Georgia, and she found her way outside. She was able to go to college. She didn’t have to pick cotton in September, because she was going to school in September. And I come out of a union family, through the US Postal Service — my parents came to the Postal Service in 1948.
So there are a lot of reasons why I would be here. I’m here in the service of justice, workers’ justice. It seems to be one of my life’s purposes, outside of my work onstage and in front of a screen.
How do you see the struggle for workers’ rights and labor justice connecting to the larger struggle for liberation and dignity?
Since the industrial revolution, organized labor has fought for fundamental rights, human rights, all over this country and world. And that fight brings a kind of class consciousness, which is an understanding that one of the elements that is essential to capital and the ways it expands itself is: How do you control labor? How do you undermine labor? How do you de-radicalize labor? And when you’re fighting for the basic means of paying rent or putting food on the table, those are real things.
We’re talking about a country where the majority of the population lives in urban, often crowded areas. It’s like that around the world, too. Whether through forced migrations and enclosure laws, or through voluntary migrations to find work and everything else, this process of industrialization drove people to the city and drove them right into the places where they had to sell their labor in order to survive. It’s the same now. No matter how much technology we have, no matter how much we dismiss the whole idea of unions, the point is that human beings sell their bodies, sell themselves, for a price, in order to survive.
You have to place some sort of context or place some sort of structure around it to make sure that the benefits of what they produce are shared in some way.
From the robber barons of the late-nineteenth century to now, the objective was always the same thing: How do we control labor? How do we now exploit labor? Not just control, exploit it, because their objective is exploitation. How does that added value that they bring go to them and less of it goes to the working force, the people who create the value? Because they, the workers, create the value.
That’s why we’re here right now — it’s that simple. We have the second-largest employer in this country — and the largest employer in this area now — and there are fifty-eight hundred workers here who have an opportunity to say, “We want some sort of safeguards for ourselves. We want to be in a position where we set out a standard to be able to negotiate around our wages, benefits, and working conditions.”
Right now, Amazon controls all of that. They control the working conditions the workers work under, the wages that they’re paid, and whatever benefits that they may accrue without any say from the workers themselves. And the best structure for them to have a say in their lives is unionization. That was the case two hundred years ago, and it remains the same now.
Let’s talk about the significance of this union vote happening here in the deep South, in Bessemer. Because I think that, to some people who aren’t in the South, to some people who are watching what’s happening here from the outside, it seems like this union drive came out of nowhere. Could you talk about how this union vote connects to a longer tradition and history of labor struggle in the South?
Alabama had major deposits of iron ore. During the Civil War, the center for Southern armaments production was in Selma, Alabama. That’s in the latter part of the wonderful book Hammer and Hoe by Robin D. G. Kelley, about Southern labor history, the struggle of formerly enslaved Africans here post–Civil War, post-Reconstruction, and during the period of Jim Crow. The purpose was always to find various ways to diminish their capacity.
So there is a rich history of labor struggle around here. As I told workers here, “You’re part of a continuum; you’re part of an ongoing struggle that began long before you. That struggle has led you to where you are today, in your own efforts to build solidarity and in your own demands to build better working conditions.”
Since 85 percent of the Amazon workers in Bessemer are black, unionization elevates your standard of living and diminishes the wealth gap. We can talk about the wealth gap in different contexts, but the point is that unionization has been a platform to raise people from low wages to the middle class. That is what we’re talking about here. We know the dynamics of poverty within Alabama and how they affect those most underserved, and we know that all the other kinds of disparities that we have in our society are a part of this region, too. Unionization is a way of mobilizing — not just under the rubric of controlling what happens in the workplace, but it’s a way of organizing the community. It elevates the community’s sense of self-purpose in all facets.
Unionization creates citizens, it provides a platform for citizens to take action. Unions function strengthen the community itself.
What have you been hearing from workers and organizers when you talk to them about this union vote and about working conditions at Amazon?
It’s unbelievable, some of the hardships that they have, the difficult ways in which they have to maneuver around. There’s surveillance on these workers in Amazon unlike any other kind of surveillance of workers. They’re probably the most watched workers — every single detail of their work is being watched. And the demands placed on them to get their workload out are basically unattainable. The periods that they have for breaks, for finding a restroom, the accommodations there, restroom availability — all those things are a concern.
And here’s the thing: The workers have no control at all. Here’s a modern country where workers have no control and no say in what happens in the workplace. It’s all left to the discretion of the managers themselves. This system has used technology in ways that we haven’t seen before (in creating Amazon’s wealth and business model, and in creating the working conditions around that model, as well).
This isn’t just another union drive, right? Amazon is an international behemoth. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon’s power has only increased. Could you talk a bit more about where Amazon as a company is going and why it’s so important for workers to have more of a say in that direction?
Amazon is a global company, and it deals with unions in other places, like Europe. So the question is always: Why not here, in its home base? Why are they so resistant to having a union in Amazon’s home base? Why are they using every device available to them to discourage workers from voting to join the union? [This fight is] significant in that it sets the tone, I think, for all workers.
The battles that workers win aren’t permanent. When you have the unions, you’re empowering the worker. That’s the most important thing we have to say: We’re empowering workers. We’re empowering the community itself. Amazon… where are they going to go? They came to Bessemer, a place where, certainly, work has declined. Because of technology and automation, work has become unavailable. Good-paying jobs have become unavailable here for many reasons. Some of the work that would have happened here may have been outsourced to another country. But in advanced countries, like in Europe, where there are strong unions, Amazon deals with those unions.
So often, we don’t feel like it is our right to have a say in our working conditions, even though we spend most of our lives at work. Why do you think that is?
I remember watching something long ago, which said: “The moment that people begin to structure their lives around their own independence and self-sufficiency, then they become dangerous. Because they’re empowering themselves.”
What happens is that [those in] power — those people who dictate our lives, shape our lives, shape what we think all the time — they only provide what they think you need, not what you actually need. Sometimes you gotta catch yourself in those moments where you can think philosophically about what is really happening here. Power essentially tries to give us what they want to give us, not what we need.
How would you convey to people that this is something that they should care about? And how would you encourage people to get involved in that struggle like you have?
Philosophically, there are a lot of reasons why I think we should get involved in making a better world. We can talk about it from the side of redistributing resources. Amazon has fared very well. I think its value has doubled or tripled during the pandemic. We all end up selling our labor some way, and most people are, unfortunately, in a position where they themselves need and would want more control over what happens in their workplace.
I come down here out of passion for the work itself. What I’ve always felt from the beginning is that, for everything I do, if I’m there, it’s because I care. I’m not there for any other reason. If I’m asked to come here, it’s because I care about the issue itself, and the issue is important to me. And I think it takes that from all of us — to say that this is important to us. This struggle has significance for all of us who work, for all of us who feel discriminated against, for all of those who feel powerless at points in time.
After the twentieth-century fights for labor, for rights, for equality — at any point in time, the struggle for access and the struggle for a world that works for all of us is what we need to talk about. And unionization and the struggle here in Bessemer is important because it has the possibility of not only changing the lives of these workers here, but also of providing the courage to foster other battles and other struggles.