The result of these intimidation and misinformation efforts has been a cloud of uncertainty. “I feel confused about it,” Amazon worker Sarah Scroggin told me. She voted against the union but now wants to change her vote. “Research” and “co-workers,” changed her mind, she told me, but it might be too late.
Part of that confusion might stem from the nature of the drive. In a typical union campaign, organizers can sometimes spend years mapping a workplace, identifying and educating leaders. Brewer told me that the tight timeline has “made [workers] more susceptible to the lies from the union-busters because they weren’t really rooted, like in a one-year or two-year campaign.”
RWDSU filed its election petition last November with the NLRB, after the call from Richardson in the late summer, followed by initial organizing meetings in September, and a public launch of the campaign in October. Before filing for an election, a union holds worker education sessions to prepare, an attempt to inoculate them against the boss’s tactics and build a sense of power and trust among workers in the campaign. Records of the NLRB reviewed by the Economic Policy Institute show that more than 40 percent of employers were charged with violating federal labor law in all union election campaigns during 2016 and 2017. Given the illegal tactics employers deploy to stymie worker organizing, unions put workers through what are called stress tests to assess their capacity to fight, hold strong against employer attacks, and win.
“Here you didn’t really have that opportunity,” Brewer added. “They were signing cards so fast. And knowing the turnover, we had to file [for a union election] pretty quickly because people were turning over as quickly as they were signing.” Whether or not the drive is conventional, he added, “at the end of the day, if workers want a union, we’re going to get them a union.”
Amazon, like other employers that have flocked to the South, has made the case for its tax breaks and subsidies on grounds that it would create good jobs. More than a quarter of residents in Bessemer live below the poverty line. The company’s spin has always been that it provides workers at Amazon with a total compensation and benefits package that outstrips anything offered by competitors, or even unions. (The company leans hard on this progressive rhetoric. Its consumer chief, Dave Clark, recently tweeted, “I often say we are the Bernie Sanders of employers, but that’s not quite right because we actually deliver a progressive workplace.”)
The median wage in greater Birmingham, which includes Bessemer, is $3 above the $15.50 base pay Amazon touts for warehouse workers at its facility, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That hasn’t stopped Amazon from putting up a sign at the Bessemer warehouse calling on Congress to increase the federal hourly minimum wage to $15 in a gambit to burnish its reputation as a responsible corporate citizen: “Congress: Please match Amazon’s $15/hour minimum wage!” Warehouses and poultry plants nearby also pay $20 for similar, unionized work.
“The union is needed,” a young Amazon worker told me. “The management ain’t got no respect for nobody. They trying to have you any kind of way, man.”
“They are overworking people and not paying them what they need to be paying them,” he added. “Since it’s the pandemic, I think that should at least be $17 to $18. We got to come out during the coronavirus.”
Amazon’s workforce disproportionally comprises people of color nationwide. These essential workers on the front lines of a lethal pandemic have produced Amazon’s $9.7 billion in profit. Amazon has shared virtually none of that wealth with workers: According to the Brookings Institute, “The company’s stock price has risen 82 percent” in the last year, “while founder Jeff Bezos has added $67.9 billion to his wealth—38 times the total hazard pay Amazon has paid its 1 million workers since March.”
Worker demands for dignity and higher pay have captured the public’s attention. Last week, the Senate Budget Committee, chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders, held a hearing on the “Income and Wealth Inequality Crisis in America” to focus attention on the unfolding battle in Alabama. (Bezos was invited but declined to participate.)
In response to a question from Sanders on wage stagnation, in reference to General Motors workers earning $45 adjusted for inflation and Amazon or Walmart workers earning $15 today, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said, “It’s not that the GM worker was so much more brilliant or productive than the Walmart worker. The difference is the GM worker had a union behind him.”
Many of the organizers at Amazon are former auto plant workers. They know the difference in their bones. Richardson, the Amazon worker who first contacted RWDSU, has deep ties to unions that go back to the United Auto Workers in Detroit’s Chrysler plant.
In many ways, however, his involvement in the campaign attests to labor’s weakened power. In 2019, Richardson lost his job at Faurecia, a Mercedes-Benz and Nissan seat manufacturer in nearby Cottondale, and his pay went down from $23.50 hourly as a UAW Local 2083 union member to $15 an hour as a picker at Amazon. Recent attempts to reassert a foothold in the auto plants of the South have failed at Nissan in Mississippi, in 2017, and Volkswagen in Tennessee, in 2019, among other losses.
Just as auto plants have shifted production to avoid unions, Amazon has built into its supply chain redundancies so that it can simply shut down a fulfillment center to foil any organizing attempts. Couldn’t the same thing happen in Bessemer, Alabama? I asked Brewer. “Where do you run to?” he responded. “They fled to the South to take advantage of low-wage workers.”
Some people see a win at Amazon opening a new front in the battleground to organize auto plants, lifting the floor for all workers in the South.
That’s a message organizers hope will carry into the union election. Brewer sounds optimistic about the prospects of a win. “We’re seeing hundreds and hundreds of people that want to call in to other workers and take a leadership role.”
Connelly told me that workers have reached out, hyping the Bessemer workers up about what they’ve managed to achieve in so little time. He said they tell him, “We’ve been going through this for years. Y’all been doing it for less than a year, and y’all already taken action.”
But what happens next remains an open question. The workers will know soon enough what their efforts have built. But the people I talked to had a horizon that extended beyond the vote closing on Monday. This felt like a start, not an end. “We plan to work on continuing to organize the South,” Brewer told me. “It’s not just a hashtag for us. All things are definitely on the table.”