Amazon workers at a Bessemer, Ala., warehouse took a big step toward organizing the first union ever in that behemoth company, when the National Labor Relations Board green-lighted their request for a unionization vote. Bessemer is a former steel-producing city adjoining Birmingham.
On Dec. 18 the NLRB affirmed it was “administratively satisfied that there is a sufficient showing of interest to proceed,” in a statement by Terry D. Combs, assistant director for the agency’s Atlanta region.
The BAmazon union, as local organizers dubbed it, goes forward with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The RWDSU has a strong Southern membership, with 6,000 in the Mid-South Council based in Birmingham.
Organizers’ main demands are to increase bargaining power, especially in “safety standards, training, breaks, pay, benefits.” (bamazonunion.org) The workload in Amazon warehouses is physically and mentally grueling, with the pace set to match what a machine could do.
On the BAmazon website, organizers report: “We face outrageous work quotas that have left many with illnesses and lifetime injuries. With a union contract, we can form a worker safety committee and negotiate the highest safety standards and protocols for our workplace.”
For workers to petition the NLRB to set a vote, at least 30% of workers have to sign a nonbinding “union card.” To ask the NLRB for vote authorization, organizers would usually have even more worker support — if possible a strong majority.
The potential of a Bessemer victory is heightened by Amazon’s vulnerability to organized labor action during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike manufacturing production, which can be moved out of state or even overseas, Amazon needs its merchandise warehoused near customers — ideally for “last mile delivery.” Amazon can’t stockpile packages and wait out a strike or protest — that would upend its “instant shipping” promise.
The pandemic pressure on increased online shopping makes warehouse workers more essential than ever — and gives these workers more weight and incentive to organize against their bosses.
Amazon will fight back against the warehouse workers — and fight dirty. The company has fired countless workers during other organizing attempts. (See Workers World, “Interview: Amazon worker battles billionaire Bezos,” April 7)
Documents leaked from Amazon’s Global Security Operations Center show the company has monitored union-organizing activity of workers and hired Pinkerton union-busting operatives to gather intelligence on warehouse workers. (Vice, Nov. 23, tinyurl.com/yxcpmzqh)
Despite reactionary right-to-work-for-less laws and pressure in Alabama, the state has a militant tradition of workers organizing, especially Black workers. From 1928 to 1951 the Communist Party USA organized throughout Alabama — from the Sharecroppers Union to the Metal Workers Industrial League. (See Workers World, “Lessons of ‘The Hammer and the Hoe,’” Dec. 21, 2017)
Earlier in 2020, Birmingham city bus drivers, members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 725, walked out to protest lack of adequate COVID-19 protection measures. Alabama, of course, was the site of the historic 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott, when Black workers and the entire Black community walked to work for 381 days to end segregated bus service in the state and ultimately in the U.S.
Here’s to victory for Alabama workers — winning against billionaire Jeff Bezos and his behemoth Amazon!