Amazon Workers’ Union Drive Reaches Far Beyond Alabama

Players of the National Football League were among the first to speak out in their support. Then came Stacey Abrams, the Democratic star who helped turn Georgia blue in the 2020 election.

Actor Danny Glover for a news conference last week in Bessemer, Ala. Went, where he rev. Dr. Pro-union inclination to urge workers to organize in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Amazon warehouse. Tina Faye weighs in and so does Senator Bernie Sanders.

And on Sunday, President Biden, without naming the company, issued a spectacular declaration of solidarity with workers voting on whether to form a union at Amazon’s Besmer warehouse. Posted on his official Twitter account, his video was one of the strongest statements made in recent memory by the American president in support of the union.

“Every worker should have a free and fair choice to join the union,” he said. Said Biden.

A consolidation campaign that deliberately stayed under the radar for months has in recent days blossomed into a star-studded showdown to impress Amazon workers, one of the world’s dominant companies whose power has grown rapidly during the epidemic. On the one hand there are retail, wholesale and department store unions and many pro-labor allies in the world of politics, sports and Hollywood. E-commerce, on the other hand, is a behemoth that has thwarted previous unification efforts at its U.S. facilities in its 25-year history.

The focus is shifting the union’s vote not only to working conditions at the Bessemer warehouse, but also to the plight of low-wage workers, and especially of color workers. Many Alabama warehouse employees are black, a fact that union organizers have sought to link the vote to the struggle for civil rights in the South in their campaign.

The Retail Workers Union has a long history of organizing black workers in the poultry and food production industries, helping them to enjoy basic benefits such as paid time off and the means of safety and economic security. The union is portraying its efforts in Bessemer as part of that legacy.

“This is a planned campaign in the South during an epidemic in one of the world’s largest companies,” said Benjamin Sax, a professor of labor and industry at Harvard Law School. “The significance of the Union victory there cannot be overstated.”

Warehouse workers began voting by post in February. 8 and ballots are due at the end of this month. If a majority votes in favor of such a move, a union can be formed.

Amazon’s counter-campaign, inside the warehouse and on the national stage, has become zero on pure economics: that its starting salary is $ 15 per hour, plus benefits. That’s a lot more than its competitors in Alabama, where the minimum wage is $ 7.25 per hour.

“It’s important for employees to understand the facts of joining the union,” Amazon spokeswoman Heather Knox said in a statement. “We will educate them about it and the electoral process so that they can make informed decisions. If the union vote is passed, it will affect everyone on the site, and it is important that affiliates understand what this means for them and their daily lives working on Amazon. ” Because homebound customers sent its sales to a record $ 386 billion, it made a profit of more than $ 22 billion.

In Alabama, some workers are fed up with the process. An employee recently posted on Facebook: “This union stuff is getting on my nerves. Let it already be March 30th !!! “

The situation is being put to the test by union leaders accusing Amazon of a series of “union-busting” strategies.

The company has also posted signs all over the warehouse, next to the hand sanitizing station and in the bathroom stall. He sends regular texts and emails, pointing out problems with unions. He posts photos of workers in Besmer on the insider company app and says how much he loves Amazon.

In some training sessions, company representatives have demonstrated the value of union debt. Employees and organizers say that when some workers asked topical questions at the meeting, Amazon representatives followed up with them at their workstations and re-emphasized the downsides of the unions. Meetings closed once voting began, but signs are still running, said Jennifer Bates, a pro-union activist at the warehouse.

In this charge environment, even ordinary things have become suspicious. The union has raised questions about changing the timing of traffic lights near warehouses where labor organizers try to talk to workers as they are stopped in their vehicles as they leave the facility.

Amazon asked county officials to change the timing of the release in mid-December, although there is no evidence in county records that the change was made to frustrate the union. “The traffic shift for Amazon is backing up around the change,” the county said in public records as a reason for the light change.

Amazon regularly navigates traffic concerns around its facilities, and wasting unpaid time in crowded parking lots is a frequent catch of Amazon workers in Facebook groups.

But the president of the Retail Workers’ Union, Stuart Appelbaum, questioned the timing of the request in Bessemer, as if it had come at the height of planning. “When the lights were red, we could answer questions and have short conversations with the workers,” he said.

Last week, the union questioned the company’s offer to pay Alabama warehouse workers at least $ 1,000 if they leave by the end of March.

Mr. Applebaum said.

But the “offer,” known to employees, was what Amazon made for workers in all its warehouses across the country. It is an annual program that allows the company to reduce its numbers after the peak holiday shopping season without layoffs. It has been in effect since at least 2014, when Jeff Bezos wrote about it in a shareholder’s letter.

“Once a year, we offer to pay our colleagues to quit their jobs,” said Mr. Bezos said at the time.

Mr. Applebum did not sink. He said he believes Amazon chose to offer all of its warehouses when it did so to help eliminate potential “yes” votes in Bessemer.

Mr. Biden stopped urging Amazon workers to form a union, but his statement immediately sparked an already significant campaign.

“Let me be really clear,” Mr. Said Biden. “It is not up to me to decide whether to join the union or not. But let me be clear: it is not up to the employer to decide. The choice to join the union is up to the workers. A complete break. “

He added, “Workers in Alabama and across America are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace. This is a very important – an important choice.” And that is one, he said, it should be done without intimidation or threats.

Despite the union’s suspicions, it has not filed a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Applebaum said. In general, unions can object to a company’s strategy before the election and the Labor Board may enter into it.

If a complaint is to be filed, the Labor Board may determine that the election is invalid because of Amazon’s actions. But after months of working to build support inside and outside the Amazon warehouse, the union wants the last thing it wants is for the Labor board to intervene and re-run the election.

Mr. Sax of Harvard Law School said Mr. Biden’s advice on corporate interference in the election, current labor law allows Amazon to hold certain mandatory meetings with workers and enable the company to post anti-union messages around the workplace to discuss why they should not unionize.

By aggressively retreating against the union, Amazon risks angering Democrats in Washington, many of whom are already calling for a further distrust of the big tech companies. Amazon has launched a public campaign in support of the law to raise the federal minimum wage to $ 15 an hour, buying leading ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications.

In his video on Sunday, President Biden specifically mentioned how unions could help “black and brown workers” and vulnerable workers struggling during the economic crisis brought on by the epidemic.

Ms. Bates, 48, one of Union Drive’s leaders, began working at the Bessemer warehouse in May.

She said she felt insulted by some of Amazon’s anti-union efforts, particularly by statements to company employees that they would have to pay about $ 500 in union debt each year. Because Alabama is a right to work state, there is no requirement for workers to pay their debts in a unified workplace.

“It makes me a little angry because I think they know the truth and they won’t tell the truth and are taking advantage because they know the employees come from a community that is seen as black and low income.” Ms. Bates, who is black. “It simply came to our notice then. Give them the facts and let them decide. “

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