Amazon Workers Fight to Unionize in Alabama

This article was originally published in Italian by Giornate di Marzo, the alternative left tendency in the CGIL trade union launched by Italian comrades of the IMT.

 

For the first time in 26 years, Amazon could lose its long-running battle to keep unions out of its warehouses in the US.

Last November, eight months after the opening of the Amazon Fulfillment Center (BHM1) in Bessemer—a small suburb of 27,000 of Birmingham, Alabama in the deep South—workers led by the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to vote to get the union into the warehouse.

Not just Amazon, but all US employers, which historically have seen the South as a sort of colony where workers can be freely exploited thanks to reactionary labor and environmental laws and a racially divided working class, have suffered a real shock.

So far, Amazon has managed to keep unions out of all its distribution centers in the US, which employ nearly 1 million workers according to data from end of 2020. Bessemer is located in a region where 25% of the population is poor, and the Amazon workforce is 85% black and 65% female. This is the setting where Amazon risks losing its first real battle against the working class, with the official entry of a union into its warehouse.

So far, Amazon has managed to keep unions out of all its distribution centers in the US, which employ nearly 1 million workers according to data from end of 2020.

Everything goes when it comes to fighting the union

Amazon immediately tried to prevent the vote, and with the help of law firm Morgan Lewis—the main law firm specializing in anti-union battles—said that the signatures collected with the petition for the union vote were insufficient. The union had presented a petition on November 20, 2020 with the signatures of at least 30 percent of the warehouse workers, as required by law), which is around 1,500 signatures. The company submitted documents claiming that more than 5,700 workers worked in the warehouse and therefore 1,500 signatures were not enough! Despite this, the NLRB accepted the union’s request.

The company tried again to delay the vote by refusing to accept voting by mail as proposed by the workers due to the pandemic. Once again the NLRB rejected the company’s request, stating that the votes would be held by mail between February 8 and March 29, 2021.

The Bessemer warehouse was opened in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. It is a four-story, 270,000-square-meter structure in one of the poorest communities in Alabama. The Bessemer city council had enthusiastically welcomed the opening of the distribution center as a great opportunity for the local community, with the promise of new jobs at a $15/hour rate, higher than the $7.25 federal minimum wage.

For those readers who do not work at Amazon, we should explain that the company expects its workers to think of themselves as “members” of a “club that makes history,” rather than employees. According to the company, their relentless propaganda, an above-average wage, and some benefits for the workers should show an image of a “big family,” in which the union is not needed because every worker can solve their own problems by talking to their manager, with the certainty that Amazon would help them.

Amazon spokesperson Lisa Levandowski told CNBC that the company respects the right of workers to join a union: “Across Amazon, including in our operations facilities, we place enormous value on having daily conversations with each associate.” Obviously, for her, listening to individual workers is better than having workers organized in a union. Why? As the RWDSU union argues, on average, wages in unionized logistics companies such as UPS are 30% higher than at Amazon. Amazon does not want its workers to think of themselves as a collective group, and promotes the role of the individual as the paradise of freedom.

It is beyond question that this multinational corporation is infinitely stronger against individual, unorganized workers, which is why its managers do not want the union. “For me, I’ve been here almost four years and that’s not something that I want,” said Abdirizak Abdi, a process assistant at Amazon’s Shakopee, MN warehouse. “I’m really happy and enjoying the atmosphere and what they do for our customers and our associates, too.” Allison Clawson, who is also a process assistant at the Shakopee facility, agrees with Abdi and said the company encourages workers to voice their concerns with managers, particularly through the “Voice of the Associate” whiteboard in the workplace.

Amazon uses the most advanced technologies to be in control of every second of the life of its “partners” in the company. But the acceleration of inhuman conditions, the health and safety problems worsened by the pandemic, and the environment of social and political struggle that the US has been going through in the last 12 months, has caused a radical change in the consciousness of many of these workers in Alabama.

Exploitation and class consciousness

The website Motherboard carried out a long interview with Amazon workers and the union activists trying to organize. We find the following examples of the conditions of workers in the warehouse:

Golden Stewart Jr., a 22-year-old Amazon packer and aspiring hip hop artist, told me Amazon’s refusal to offer ample break time makes the job “miserable.” “You don’t have time to do anything on your break,” Stewart said. “You just exist.”

“I have been diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety and Amazon doesn’t help,” he said. “It feels like you’re alone all the time. You’re really just a cog in an engine.” The anxiety is compounded by seeing his coworkers lose their jobs. “I constantly feel like I’m going to get let go anytime.”

The anti-union argument that is most popular in the South is that the union is headed by a group of white bigots from the north. Amazon tried to spread this idea, but this quickly fell on deaf ears. The RWDSU union has succeeded through very tough battles to unionize nearly all poultry processing plants in the Southeast, and has 7,500 members in Alabama alone. Organized in this union, Koch Foods workers went on strike and rallied on June 3, 2020, forcing the company to provide protective equipment and safer conditions during the pandemic. Koch Foods workers are relatives, friends, and neighbors of many other workers, including those at Amazon, who in the face of this victory and experiencing the same problems, thought that the time had come for them to organize themselves to defend their own interests.

A battle for dignity

Jennifer Bates, an Amazon-Bessemer warehouse worker, joined the union last summer and together with her brothers and sisters feels “enthusiastic” about the vote to have the union in the company. She has suffered a lot from harsh working conditions and mandatory overtime. On CBS TV she said “We’re being treated like we’re prisoners who’re there to get a job done.” Her colleague Daryl Richardson said his biggest concerns are respect and safety at work: “It is time for us to make a stand. It’s time for some changes.” “What the community doesn’t realize is what goes on behind the curtain,” Bates said. “What are the people going through just to make sure we get our packages?”

Amazon Unionization RWDSU Alabama
Jennifer Bates, an Amazon-Bessemer warehouse worker, suffered a lot from harsh working conditions and mandatory overtime.

The New York Times recounted Jennifer’s lunch break with these words:

The second Jennifer Bates walks away from her post at the Amazon warehouse where she works, the clock starts ticking. She has precisely 30 minutes to get to the cafeteria and back for her lunch break. That means traversing a warehouse the size of 14 football fields, which eats up precious time. She avoids bringing food from home because warming it up in the microwave would cost her even more minutes. Instead she opts for $4 cold sandwiches from the vending machine and hurries back to her post. If she makes it, she’s lucky. If she doesn’t, Amazon could cut her pay, or worse, fire her.

As a response to Amazon’s intransigence, the battle for the right to have a union in the company has spread to the whole community. Several workers from the RWDSU-affiliated poultry farms in the area have used a clause in their employment contracts that allows them to take off for several weeks without losing their jobs in order to hold a picket of dozens of activists at the traffic light on the state road where cars turn to enter Amazon-Bessemer. Through thousands of quick conversations they managed to convince 30 percent of the workforce who signed in favor of the union. Amazon even managed to reduce the time of the red light in order to hinder trade union action. But most importantly, the activists, many of whom are black, come from the same community as the recipients of the leaflet.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU, points out that the Black Lives Matter movement has been crucial. “It’s not just a question of hours or wages, it’s time for these workers to be respected.” Amazon’s anti-union stubbornness is creating the conditions for a political confrontation on a national scale. Even a capitalist politician like President Biden was forced to declare that “Amazon employees must be free to unionize.”

As Bloomberg wrote:

Employees have been ordered to attend meetings where managers sow doubts about the unionization drive, according to two workers who attended. The meetings typically last about half an hour and target about 15 employees at a time, one said, frustrating workers because they fall behind in their duties during the sessions and have to catch up later. “They present anti-union propaganda thinly veiled as factual information,” said the worker, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. Both workers said questions about potentially positive aspects of union membership are brushed off.

They find propaganda in the employees’ restrooms, while everyone receives text messages with slogans against the union. They even created a specific website against the union, doitwithoutdues.com, using the slogan: “Why pay union dues, when the company gives you the same results without the union.” Finally, the local newspapers and TV channels are full of “neutral” programs that explain the company’s arguments.

So far, Amazon has managed to keep unions out of its warehouses. In March 2020, RWDSU staged a strike in a small warehouse in Staten Island, New York, over a lack of protective equipment, but management fired the fight’s chief leader, Chris Smalls, accusing him of participating in a picket while he was supposed to be in quarantine. All the workers who went on strike with him were fired.

The company tried again to delay the vote by refusing to accept voting by mail as proposed by the workers due to the pandemic.

Tim Bray resigned as Amazon’s vice president a few weeks later, stating that he could not stay in his position while employees were forced into silence. In October 2020, the company confirmed that 20,000 of its workers had become infected with the coronavirus.

A vulnerable giant if the “partners” organize and fight

Amazon also wants to win big in Alabama and therefore is using all the forces at its disposal, which are many. But this is causing a reaction of opposition with a similar and probably greater force. The clash is now political. It is not just the possibility of having a union bulletin board and elected delegates, it is much more: finding the strength as a people exploited for centuries to stand up and feel capable of fighting for a dignified life.

Under these conditions, a victory in favor of the union would be a historic event. Amazon would not only face a union for the first time in the US, but also a union base determined and aware of its strength, capable of joining in the struggle for a common goal.

Workers at facilities like Bessemer’s are capable of wielding significant power. Amazon’s vulnerability is its supply chain management, a mechanism as precise as clockwork based on the sophisticated coordination of product inventory on a national and international level, and of the transport logistics chain to the end customer. Everything is controlled by the algorithm in real time. In warehouses, the millions of products do not have a specific location. They are placed where there is room. Then the algorithm makes the workers find them in the shortest time and at the highest possible speed. Amazon combines the most advanced information technology with meticulous control of the working time, in the best Fordist tradition. It knows it is extracting the greatest possible profit out of every second of the lives that its employees give in the warehouses, and it does not want a union getting in the way in order to continue these practices undisturbed.

But if Bessemer’s workers win and manage to build a union in Alabama, this could spread across the country, with the nearly one million Amazon workers joining in the struggle. In the case of Amazon, you can’t have unions that negotiate “gently,” like those that are friends of the Democrats. In fact, Bezos has always despised unions. In order to defend the workers of a company that has seen a 600% growth in the value of its shares between 2016 and 2020, we need a combative union, determined to organize its members extensively, and aware that the strength for negotiations comes only from the active involvement of workers. In the face of coordinated actions at a national and even international level, Amazon’s “just in time” philosophy can collapse.

For 25 years, Amazon has managed to prevent the unionization of its US facilities. In Europe and other countries it has tried to always obstruct trade union activities. The flexibility built into Amazon’s business model, which allows same-day delivery and last-mile efficiency, can also be used to hinder worker organization if it remains isolated in individual facilities.

If the gap between Amazon’s business model and working conditions continues to widen, the wages and working conditions of millions of workers—including the more than 200,000 employees at UPS who are unionized in Teamsters—will be in danger.

The alternative to the Amazon model

This past Christmas we heard about the proposal to organize an Amazon boycott “to defend local small businesses.” Certainly the behavior of those who buy compulsively from Amazon seems stupid and alienating, but as union activists we do not believe that this is the correct way to oppose this multinational.

Amazon has revolutionized commercial activity in the broad sense—through the massive application of new technologies and the scientific exploitation of its employees’ working time. In doing so, it found no rivals, except in China. In July 2019 Amazon decided to sell only non-Chinese products, after trying to compete with the Chinese multinational Alibabà and seeing its market share decline from 15% in 2012 to 1% in 2018. Amazon does the same in India, it doesn’t offer local products. But these are exceptions. In the rest of the world, Amazon has grown between 20% and 40% every year for years, and shareholders are convinced that it will continue to do so. Hence the increase in the share price in recent years.

bezos grin
The alternative to Amazon and all large companies, banks, and insurance companies has to be nationalization under workers’ control in a socialist system based on workers’ democracy. / Image: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr

Upstream and downstream of the production and marketing chain, Amazon erodes its profit margins if it cannot directly replace the companies that until recently were part of its supply chain. The most obvious case is the replacement of logistics companies such as UPS or DHL with their own, or the in-house production of Amazon-brand consumer products popular among its customers. In search of maximum profits, Amazon has revised centuries-old practices in the field of commerce.

We cannot counterpose a return to the small corner shop as an alternative to Amazon. The working conditions and everything else are not necessarily better in these types of small businesses. This would also play into Bezos’s hands, as he presents himself as someone dedicated to satisfying his clients’ every whim. Our alternative must be to strive to improve working conditions at Amazon, while at the same time highlighting that this business model crudely shows what a modern system of planning and distribution of the necessary goods could look like.

As long as Amazon is in the hands of shareholders, we fight hard to defend our working and living conditions. But we also defend an alternative to Amazon and all large companies, banks, and insurance companies: nationalization under workers’ and customers’ control, in a socialist system based on workers’ democracy.

Whether this becomes a real possibility depends on a revolutionary change in the consciousness of the masses. The vast majority of the population are workers who would therefore only benefit from a revolutionary transformation of these characteristics. In the midst of one of the deepest crises in the history of the system, this transformation can become a reality if we succeed in presenting an alternative to the capitalist system as something logical, credible, and feasible—because it relies on the support of the exploited masses. This is the molecular process of revolution that—if we look carefully—is already present in the consciousness of those workers struggling to unionize the Amazon Fulfillment Center warehouse in Bessemer, AL.


Additional facts about Amazon

Amazon was founded in Seattle, WA in 1994, and in 2020 it had a revenue of over $386 billion, a 38% increase since 2019—or $42.64 per share, up from $23.46 in 2019. The reported earnings are $21.3 billion. More than half come from the group’s Cloud division (Amazon Web Services), whose revenue grew by 30% in 2020. With these numbers and the prospects for the next few years, it is no surprise that the value of the shares has increased by 640% in the last 60 months.

Amazon significantly increased long-term debt in 2020 to $31.8 billion, up from $23.4 billion at the close of 2019.

Online commerce, the most profitable Amazon branch, continues to be its main strength—especially in North America, where last year it had a revenue of $236.3 billion, 38.4% more than in 2019.

In the rest of the world where Amazon is present in all major markets, its revenue reached $104.4 billion, a growth of 39.7%.

Profit growth between 2010 and 2020

YearProfits/Losses in Millions of $
20101,152
2011631
2012-39
2013274
2014-241
2015596
20162,371
20173,033
201810,073
201911,588
202021,300

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