In the wake of 2020’s protests following the brutal police murder of George Floyd, Amazon was quick to join the chorus of corporate behemoths proclaiming their solidarity with black Americans. As labor activists and others didn’t fail to point out, the gesture carried an obvious and pungent whiff of hypocrisy. The company, for one thing, has a documented history of selling its facial recognition technology to police departments — something it’s openly alluded to in its marketing materials. Both before and since its various 2020 statements, it has also worked hard to suppress unionization efforts within its workforce: a workforce that is more than 26 percent black.
Perhaps nothing has made the chasm between Amazon’s professed racial-justice commitment and its actual behavior more obvious than recent developments in Bessemer, Alabama — where workers will vote once again this month on whether to form a union. Located in the state’s Jefferson County, Bessemer is home to about twenty-seven thousand people, nearly three-quarters of whom are black and more than a quarter of whom live below the poverty line.
During its campaign to dissuade the same workers from unionizing last year, the company mandated anti-union meetings for warehouse employees, pressured the United States Postal Service to install a special box so workers would feel surveilled, and even changed the timing of local traffic lights to disadvantage labor organizers (these tactics proved so Orwellian that the vote was ultimately thrown out by a judge and a second election was scheduled). In an especially cynical move, Amazon has even used the Black Lives Matter logo on its anti-union literature in the past.
Regardless of what the company does this time to try and suppress worker organizing, a new survey commissioned by the Institute for Policy Studies finds overwhelming support among the people of Jefferson County for unionization. Of those polled, a full 62 percent favor the union drive — including 49 percent of white residents and a 78 percent supermajority of black residents. As Matthew Cunningham-Cook and Marc D. Bayard point out in a recent essay for the American Prospect, the heavily black worker–led effort to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) represents a critical step in the broader struggle for racial justice in the South and beyond:
The campaign by the Black workers in Bessemer will have ripple effects across the South and the country — yet it presents a quandary for a labor movement that still lacks a cohesive and comprehensive strategy to organize Black workers, particularly in the South. The Amazon battle takes place in a context of more than 150 years of post–Civil War aggressive labor control that combines white supremacy with anti-Black violence, limiting the growth and the potential of unions across the region. As union density decreases further, there is a major untapped well of Southern workers. If organized, they would simultaneously bring the movement new members and prevent further dilution of labor standards in the North.
If Bessemer’s heavily black Amazon workforce ultimately forms a union, it will thus represent a significant victory for both racial equality and working-class power — and a monumental rebuttal to those who cynically pretend you can have one without the other.