n the last Saturday before the union election at the Amazon fulfilment centre, the campaign was already winding down. The tent outside the cavernous warehouse, where a mailbox had been provided for workers coming and going, was empty. Two representatives of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union stood at an intersection, holding signs not far from the police car circling the parking lot. Company signs celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. were planted next to cars, with the words “the dream is alive” slightly larger than Amazon’s logo.
“They have a loudspeaker playing rap and R&B music throughout the day,” said Perry Connolly, 58, a worker who voted for the union, speaking of management. “They’ve got a sign up right now, I guess, for Black History Month. And I hate Black History Month. How are you going to sum up our culture in a month?”
Ballots are being counted in the election, which ended Monday, and results may not be known for days. It’s unclear whether a majority of the 5,805 workers who got ballots will become the first workers at an American Amazon warehouse to unionize – or if the highest-profile labour battle in years, joined by President Joe Biden and embraced by Democrats, will deliver Southern organizers their highest-profile defeat. The company has urged workers to think about their job security and their paychecks; supporters of the drive have asked them to think not just about better working conditions, but about launching a national movement.
“You may not know it, but what you’re doing is historical,” Senator Bernie Sanders said at a small rally outside the RWDSU’s nearby Birmingham union hall on Friday. “All over this country, people are sick and tired of being exploited, sick and tired of not having the dignity that they deserve.”
Democrats, from Biden to the local party in Alabama, threw their weight behind a campaign with incredibly steep challenges. The Bessemer facility, in a small and mostly Black city 20 miles from Birmingham, has been open for less than a year; Darryl Richardson, a “picker” at the warehouse who spends 10-11 hours per day picking up packages from robots, contacted the RWDSU about conditions there a few months later. In labour terms, the Bessemer facility was a kind of “hot shop,” where some workers began agitating before there was a plan to deal with the inevitable resistance.
(Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The New York-based RWDSU had a fairly small presence in Alabama, and less than 10 full-time employees – supplemented by rank-and-file organizers and by other unions led by the AFL-CIO, but still small. Neither the union nor Amazon has revealed their spending on the campaign, but in conversations with workers leaving the plant, many said that they had voted after a company presentation, before getting canvassed by union organizers.
“If they come in and things get better, that’s a great thing,” said Ashley Beringer, 32, who had left a food- service job for a $15.25 (£11.08) per hour job at Amazon. An “I VOTED” button, provided after she voted against the union, dangled from her lanyard. “If they don’t, time to move on.”
Both Beringer and Connelly are Black, like most of the workers in the warehouse. That was a crucial fact for union organizers. The just-concluded campaign pitched the union drive as an extension of the civil rights movement, a fight for dignity just as vital as the battle to dismantle Jim Crow. The Birmingham chapter of Black Lives Matter threw itself into canvassing; campaigners who arrived to help, such as U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell and anti-poverty campaigner Rev. William Barber, made the linkage explicit.
“Black people have to talk about Black labour and economic injustice,” said Eric Call, the co-founder of the Birmingham BLM chapter. “When you talk about the wealth gap that exists between working-class and rich people, Black people have always been at the bottom. Our involvement is sending a clear message that we’re going to be demanding respect.”
The record for that tactic, in recent Southern union drives, is not good. Four years ago, the United Auto Workers tried to organize a Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, with far more prep time than the RWDSU got in Bessemer, and with a similar pitch about the dignity of Black workers. The highest-profile peg of the campaign was “the March on Mississippi,” styled after voting rights marches of the 1960s, with the slogan “workers rights = civil rights.” Like the Bessemer organizers, they drew in Sanders, grabbing national attention. They lost decisively, with just 37% of workers at the plant signing a union card.
But a Nissan plant is not an Amazon fulfilment centre. The Bessemer drive came during a wave of bipartisan criticism of Amazon – Democrats focusing on the gruelling working conditions, Republicans more typically focusing on the company’s “weakness.” Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world, had grown wealthier during the pandemic, a point critics on the right and left made to demand changes to his business.
“When the conflict is between working Americans and a company whose leadership has decided to wage a culture war against working-class values, the choice is easy – I support the workers,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida wrote this month, becoming the highest-profile Republican to actually support the union drive. Local Republican leaders had weighed in against the UAW when it tried to organize in Mississippi, and before that, battled the UAW’s effort to organize a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennesse.
There was no such intervention in Bessemer. Meanwhile, organizers and the supporters who came in to help were bringing fresh media attention to the conditions at Amazon warehouses, describing them in piercing terms. “Killer” Mike Render, a rapper and activist who travelled to Birmingham with Senator Sanders, used his conversations with workers and his speech at a public rally to compare what he’d heard to what his grandmother had told him about sharecropping, the post-slavery industry that kept impoverished Black workers on land they did not own.
“I heard about the exact conditions that she described to me when working on a field in Tuskegee, Alabama,” said Render, who accused Bezos of belong to a “planter class” of exploitative bosses. “Unrelenting heat. The inability to go use the bathroom and come back and have a full day’s work. All these things that a woman who worked in a sharecropping field told me are being said by workers here today.”
The odds of organizing the Bessemer plant were long; like many campaigners nervous about the outcome, organizers this weekend argued that defeat here wouldn’t slow them down. In interviews, local RWDSU President Randy Hadley and Alabama Democratic Party Chair Christopher England said that the campaign had brought rare media attention to the workers, and to conditions in the state. Biden’s decision to record a supportive video had helped start more conversations with workers; the union was already emphasizing the number of workers at other Amazon warehouses who had contacted them about organizing. Whatever happened in Alabama, they had a heterodox political coalition to work with and media interest in hearing from workers.
“That’s what it’s going to take to get the labour movement back on track, is to get the communities back involved,” Hadley said.
Biden didn’t involve himself in the Bessemer fight beyond his first video; a visit by the first lady to Birmingham on Friday, which might have driven more attention, was scrapped due to bad weather. (Jill Biden was not expected to visit the warehouse itself.) But after the votes are counted, labour is expecting more from the president, with the first evidence of how much the White House can help a union drive if it puts a little skin in the game.
“You know, before the Biden video, I was questioning it a bit,” Connolly said. “You know: Are we being greedy? Are we being too sentimental or what? Then when he stepped in and gave his speech and it was like, OK, so this isn’t just us. We do have a legitimate gripe and we need things to be better.”
Article courtesy of the Washington Post