After shrinking for decades, America’s private sector labor unions could get a shot in the arm later this month as 5,800 workers for one of America’s biggest employers, Amazon.com Inc, vote by mail on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
The outcome could have far-reaching implications, not just for workers at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Bessemer, Alabama, but also for the company as a whole and the growing U.S. e-commerce sector that so far has fended off most labor organizing.
While Amazon touts higher wages and more generous benefit packages than those offered by many other service industry employers, worker Dale Richardson told VOA he voted to unionize.
“They treat us like we’re just a number — like we’re nobodies,” he said. “I’ve been there for almost a year now, doing the best work I can do, and nobody — no manager — asks me about my goals. They don’t care about us.”
Richardson points to Amazon ending worker hazard pay in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. He says he has seen coworkers reprimanded for talking during their shift and fired for taking too long for bathroom breaks.
“They give us two 30-minute breaks over a 10 or 11-hour shift, but it can sometimes take 10 minutes of that break to walk across the facility,” he said, noting the massive fulfillment center is the size of 16 football fields. “It’s not uncommon to walk all the way to the bathroom on your floor to find that it’s not working, or that it’s closed for cleaning. Now you have to walk to another floor’s bathroom, most of your break is used up and you might get fired if you don’t get back in time. It’s a lot of stress.”
Last-minute shift changes are also not uncommon, according to Richardson, who hopes joining RWDSU would improve conditions for workers.
“If they can help us get a little more job security, so they can’t fire us whenever they want,” he said, “and help organize us and represent us to advocate for equal opportunities for promotions and pay increases — that’s why I’m voting to unionize.”
Amazon didn't address those specific concerns, but spokesperson Owen Torres emphasized communication between managers and their employees.
"Direct dialogue is essential to our work environment in which we encourage associates to bring their comments, questions, and concerns directly to their management team with the goal of quickly improving the work environment and challenging leadership assumptions," he said.
A unique moment
Ballots were sent to employees on Feb. 8 and must be completed and received by the National Labor Relations Board by March 29. What is unfolding is one of the most closely watched unionization efforts in decades as RWDSU and Amazon jockey to persuade undecided workers how to vote.
Amazon insists it does right by its workers in Alabama – and everywhere else.
“We opened this site in March and since that time have created more than 6,000 full-time jobs in Bessemer, with starting pay of $15.30 per hour, including full health care, vision and dental insurance, 50% 401(k) match [for retirement savings] from the first day on the job,” the company said in a statement provided to VOA. Amazon said it provides “safe, innovative, inclusive environments, with training, continuing education, and long-term career growth.”
Such statements don’t impress RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum. Nor does Amazon’s backing for a national $15 hourly minimum wage, up from $7.25 currently.
“Society is celebrating essential workers like the ones who work at Amazon,” Appelbaum told VOA. “But then we’re also going to cut their hazard pay? That doesn’t make sense, and I think Americans understand we need to celebrate them by rewarding and supporting them.”
Appelbaum added, “We’re in a unique moment in history, and I think that’s why people across the country and around the world are watching how we do.”
Without specifically mentioning Amazon, President Joe Biden recently urged “workers in Alabama” to exercise their right to organize and “make your voice heard.”
"Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, but especially Black and brown workers," Biden said in a video posted to Twitter.
Casting labor unions as a promoter of racial justice resonates with Jennifer Bates, one of many people of color working at the Bessemer fulfillment center.
“You have a workplace where 85% of the employees are Black, and you literally see policemen in the parking lot with their lights on when you arrive,” she said. “What kind of message does that send? It feels like a prison. We’re working for the richest man in the world [Amazon founder Jeff Bezos]. You can’t give us hazard pay? You can’t provide more opportunities for raises so we can afford to live in safer housing?”
'A seat at the table'
Opinion among Amazon workers is far from uniform.
“I’m not against unions,” explained J.C. Thompson, who has worked at the Amazon facility in Bessemer since April last year, less than a week after it opened. “I’ve been in unions, and I think they can do good things. I just don’t think we need it here.”
He said he understands everyone’s experience is different, but he said he feels he is treated fairly at Amazon and is impressed with the package of benefits the company provides him. He also values the direct communication he says workers have with Amazon managers.
“My dad used to tell me, ‘You’ve either got a seat at the table, or you’re being eaten for dinner,’” Thompson said, “And I feel like I’ve got a seat at the table here. Not that I’m some superstar worker or anything, but when I message a manager, I always get a response back. Every time.”
Thompson said he’s worried that if a union comes in, he’ll lose his ability to advocate for himself and to reach out to management without having to go through the union first.
“Everything they say they want from a union, we’ve already got by working directly with Amazon,” he said.
Another Amazon worker, Carla Johnson, agreed. She was diagnosed with cancer shortly after beginning her job at the Bessemer facility and said Amazon has provided her with essential support throughout the process.
“They’ve been so wonderful, I just don’t see what some of those voting for unionization are seeing,” she said. “I guess if you’re going to the bathroom or talking so much you don’t get your work done, then you’ll get fired, but that’s the case at any workplace.”
“I work hard here, and I think I’ll be rewarded for that,” she added. “I don’t want a union to get in the way if they’re prioritizing people with seniority.”
2014 vote failed
This is not the first push for collective bargaining at Amazon. In 2014, machinists at a warehouse in Delaware voted more than 3-to-1 against unionization.
The current effort now has bipartisan backing in Washington, a rarity for union efforts. Writing in USA Today on Friday, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said, “Amazon has waged a war against working class values” and that “workers are right to suspect that its management doesn’t have their best interests in mind.”
“Unions haven’t seen this kind of support in many decades,” said Natasha Zaretsky, professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
She said America’s unions were at their strongest in the 1940s and ’50s, when 33% of workers were unionized, many in the steel and automobile factories of the time. Today, that number has dropped to 12% as jobs have shifted from manufacturing to the service industry.
It’s no accident that Bessemer is ground zero for what could be a watershed moment for unionizing in America, according to Zaretsky.
“Nobody should be surprised about what’s happening in this part of Alabama,” she said. “African American workers have a rich history of unionizing here that goes all the way back to Reconstruction [after the U.S. Civil War] in the 19th century. And after everything that’s happened over the last year, we might be seeing a new chapter in a long history of unionizing here.”
The final stretch
As the days count down to March 29, Applebaum says Amazon is resorting to strong-arm tactics to influence workers.
“They put anti-union materials in the bathrooms, and they hold mandatory meetings where they tell workers why unions are bad for them and how it could cause Amazon facilities to close,” he said. “We set up outside the facility to talk to employees when they leave work, but then Amazon asked the county to change the cadence of the traffic lights so they wouldn’t be stopped there anymore. This isn’t normal.”
For its part, Amazon says workers must know what is at stake.
"If the union vote passes, it will impact everyone at the site and it's important all associates understand what that means for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon,” the company recently said in a statement. "We don't believe the RWDSU represents the majority of our employees' views. Our employees choose to work at Amazon because we offer some of the best jobs available everywhere we hire."
J.C. Thompson said there are lots of employees who haven’t decided how they will vote, and many that are still trying to understand how unionization will affect them. When they ask him, he said he tells them why he’s against it, but also acknowledged there are plenty of people voting yes.
“It’s gonna be close,” he said, “and I know a lot of people are watching to see how it turns out.”