Kentucky Amazon Workers Are Starting to Organize a Union


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Source: Jacobin

“If we say Amazon is the biggest opportunity for people here, that is an understatement,” says Matt Littrell, who works at SDF1, an Amazon fulfillment center in Campbellsville, Kentucky, a small town in farm country, about ninety minutes from both Lexington and Louisville. “Some people commute more than an hour to get here. The whole area really is dependent on them.”

Twenty-two-year-old Littrell is a picker at the warehouse, a position that entails gathering items to prepare them for orders. He’s worked at the site for about fifteen months, a not-insignificant tenure given the company’s 150 percent turnover rate. He works night shift, which pays a shift differential of an additional $1.50 per hour on top of the base pay, which as of April 2021 is $15.50.

For the latter half of the twentieth century, Campbellsville was centered around a Fruit of the Loom factory. The economy was timed to the rhythms of the site that at one point employed 4,200 people.

“Everyone knew that payday at the Factory was every other Thursday — when $2.5 million cascaded into town in a single afternoon,” reads an article on the company town, published in 2000. The occasion for the feature was Campbellsville’s transformation, from home of the largest men-and-boys’-underwear factory in North America to the site of a new behemoth, Amazon.

The Fruit of the Loom factory shut down in 1998 as the company expanded operations in Central America. Soon after, Jeff Bezos came to town. Amazon leased a Fruit of the Loom warehouse near the factory, converting it into one of the company’s first fulfillment centers.

One draw for the then-new company was that the town’s residents, reeling from the loss of their largest employer, had a proven ability to work hard. Plus, the location was perfect for the networks Amazon was creating: Campbellsville could assist in getting packages to midsize cities like Indianapolis, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio. Wages in the Amazon warehouse at the turn of the century were much lower than what Fruit of the Loom had paid decades prior, but the town’s high unemployment rate ensured workers would stay.

Today, SDF1 employs around one thousand people. A legacy site, it’s small by Amazon standards. With nearly one in four Campbellsville residents living below the poverty line — a higher proportion than in 2000, just after the factory shut down — the warehouse’s pay is a lifeline. Campbellsville proper is down to around 11,000 residents, and people come from across Taylor County (population 26,000) to work at Amazon.

Littrell is just one of them. In addition to his duties as a picker, he’s part of the warehouse’s safety committee and its “gemba” program, in which fulfillment personnel observe operations with an eye to safety. The term comes from the lean production–based world of Japanese manufacturing.

“I wanted a shot at hearing employees out and listening to their concerns,” explains Littrell when asked why he volunteered for those duties. “I really thought Amazon was interested in changing things, but I soon found out that associates will bring up the same issues time and time again and management will not fix them.”

One such issue is the heat. Littrell describes certain areas of SDF1 as lacking proper fans or air conditioning, with workers left to swelter in the summertime.

“They’ve had plenty of time to fix it — this warehouse has been here for decades,” says Littrell.

He isn’t the first Amazon worker to complain of such issues. In May 2019, Chicago-area workers at Amazon’s delivery stations organized a walkout over inadequate water stations in their facilities, which forced management to install new water coolers. Reflecting on his experience in these safety positions, Littrell concludes that they only “exist to make Amazon look good.”

Which is why he wants a union.

Littrell says the organizing drive within SDF1 has been building for months. Earlier this month, Amazon called the sheriff’s office on him and several others who were flyering outside of the facility. As Littrell told the Washington Post shortly after the incident, “We were completely within our rights to be there.” That fact didn’t stop a process assistant, a low-level management position at Amazon, from asking Littrell, “How’s the revolution going?”

While no one was arrested that day, it seems Amazon management at SDF1 may not have learned from the way siccing the cops on Amazon Labor Union (ALU) president Christian Smalls backfired in Staten Island, helping the ALU win the first union at an Amazon facility in the United States.

Littrell has added the incident to the unfair labor practice (ULP) charge he filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in May, a task in which he was assisted by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. He plans to add more incidents to the charge, as he says members of management have continued to ask him about protected activities, behavior that might also violate the national settlement between Amazon and the NLRB.

“Solidarity Is the Near-Term Goal”

As for what his coworkers want to change at SDF1, Littrell mentions Amazon’s slow responses to issues like the heat, as well as the grueling productivity quotas that lead to frequent write-ups for time off task, policies that workers say are unevenly enforced. Additionally, some employees allege that they never received promised sign-on bonuses — as much as $3,000 — as the company attached conditions regarding eligibility that they had not understood when accepting positions.

“Most of the workers don’t know what the hell a union is, especially if they’re young,” says Littrell, who explains that he usually begins organizing conversations by asking coworkers about their concerns:

I talk to them about what solutions a union can offer — especially about the fact that a contract would mean Amazon can’t roll back improvements — and how if we had a shop steward, they wouldn’t be getting harassed about their rates anymore.

According to Littrell, around twenty SDF1 workers are part of the nascent organizing committee, and they’re in contact with more than one hundred SDF1 employees (they have also started a solidarity fund, which can be found here). Thus far, the group has had trouble bringing the longest-tenured SDF1 workers into the effort. Littrell says those employees are worried about Amazon shuttering the shop; some even remember the early years when Bezos himself came to Campbellsville.

Although the Machinists have been assisting in the effort, Littrell says that he and his fellow organizers recently decided to work with another union, while also drawing inspiration from the ALU and Amazonians United. The latter is a network of shop-floor committees engaged in a type of minority unionism, concentrated at Amazon’s delivery stations.

Amazon has shown no willingness to budge on its opposition to unions, and Kentucky’s 7.2 percent unionization rate is nowhere near that of New York, where the JFK8 campaign succeeded. Plus, while New York is home to some elected officials willing to side with workers over Amazon, Kentucky — and Campbellsville specifically, dependent as it is on Amazon — is unlikely to offer similar backing.

Asked why he’s committed to such a long-shot effort, Littrell mentions his prior employment history. Before Amazon, he worked at TGKY, an auto-parts plant in Lebanon, Kentucky, owned by a multinational with facilities around the world.

“Years of mistreatment by corporations led me to this,” he says. He worked in a department at TGKY that produced rubber, and the heat was an issue there, too. When he and his coworkers were brought back to the plant after being laid off during the early part of the pandemic, the company, like many other employers, instituted a grueling schedule to make up for lost time.

“They wanted to work us twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week,” says Littrell. “I was working a schedule like that from July 2020 to around Christmas.” He says that he tried to talk to coworkers at TGKY about a union, but they were even more afraid of the company shuttering the facility than his Amazon coworkers. Fed up with the job, he quit.

Soon he was at SDF1. He hadn’t planned to try to organize the facility, but news of the BHM1 union drive, and then the one at JFK8, changed his mind. Now his effort joins others not only across the country but in the South specifically. Amazon workers at RDU1, a fulfillment center in Garner, North Carolina, went public with an organizing drive this year too.

The SDF1 union has a ways to go, but Littrell says that while it briefly faltered at one point, it is growing again after he and other organizers began flyering outside of the facility, speaking with workers and encouraging them to fill out a survey about their workplace issues.

“Even if we don’t win a union, people are together; they know what their issues are, and they know they want to do something about this,” says Littrell:

They might not necessarily understand why we need a union, but at the very least we can have a structure here that’s like Amazonians United, and that’s what’s important. A union is a long-term goal, but solidarity is the near-term goal.

 

Alex N. Press is a staff writer at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.

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