Darryl Richardson was delighted when he landed a job as a “picker” at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to work for Amazon, work for the richest man around,” he said. “I thought it would be a nice facility that would treat you right.”
Richardson, a sturdily built 51-year-old with a short, charcoal beard, took a job at the gargantuan warehouse after the auto parts plant where he worked for nine years closed. Now he is strongly supporting the ambitious effort to unionize its 5,800 workers because, he says, the job is so demanding and working for Amazon has fallen far below his expectations.
Last August, five months after the warehouse opened, Richardson began pushing for a union in what is not only the first effort to organize an entire Amazon warehouse in the United States, but also the biggest private-sector union drive in the south in years. “I thought the opportunities for moving up would be better. I thought safety at the plant would be better,” Richardson said. “And when it comes to letting people go for no reason – job security – I thought it would be different.”
He complained about the fast, unrelenting pace of work and about seeing co-workers terminated for falling behind Amazon’s production quotas. As a picker, Richardson takes merchandise out of large metal bins that robots carry to his workstation, and he then hurries to put the items in various totes that a conveyor belt takes to packing. Nearby video monitors tell him what to do minute after minute. His quota is to pick 315 items an hour, five items a minute: toilet paper and toys, baby food and books destined for Amazon customers. “You’re running at a consistent, fast pace,” Richardson said. “You ain’t got time to look around. You get treated like a number. You don’t get treated like a person. They work you like a robot.”
Working from 7.15am to 545pm four days a week, he complains that he often doesn’t get a break until 11.45, four and a half hours after he begins. While Amazon boasts about its pay levels, Richardson isn’t thrilled that the $15.55 he earns an hour is well below the $23.15 he received at the auto parts plant.
Because of such frustrations, Richardson and other union supporters had little problem getting 30% of the warehouse’s workers to sign cards calling for a unionization election – the threshold needed to request an election. Richardson voices confidence that a majority of the Bessemer workers will vote to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) – that would be a landmark victory for labor and a stinging defeat for anti-union Amazon.
If the union triumphs in conservative Alabama, labor experts say, that could pave the way to organizing Amazon fulfillment centers in more pro-union states, like California, Minnesota and New York. What’s more, a union win against Amazon would be a huge symbolic victory for the labor movement, which has seen its bargaining and political clout decline as the percentage of American workers in unions has dropped from 35% in the 1950s to less than 11% today.
Amazon has mounted a fierce campaign against the RWDSU. It texts several anti-union messages each day to workers. It has forced workers to attend “information” meetings where managers belittle unions. It even put anti-union posters in the bathroom stalls. “You go to the bathroom for privacy, but then you have a flyer right in your face,” Richardson said. “That feels like a type of harassment. That’s extreme to me.”
The National Labor Relations Board mailed out ballots on 8 February, and the 5,800 workers are to mail back their ballots by 29 March. The labor board will then count the ballots, and if a majority of workers vote to unionize, Amazon will be required by federal law to recognize and bargain with the RWDSU.
This high-stakes union drive – in an area once known for steel mills and coalmines – has attracted attention across the US and even overseas. The NFL Players Association has endorsed the effort, and so has Bernie Sanders. Fifty House members wrote to Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, demanding that the company stop its “strong-arm tactics” and “allow your employees freely to exercise their right to organize”.
Joseph McCartin, a professor of labor history at Georgetown, said Amazon was a good target for labor. “There’s a growing anti-Amazon appetite in the country,” he said. “There’s a growing sentiment that companies like Amazon have grown too powerful. They’ve reached a point where they have to be checked.” McCartin said winning a unionization campaign in the south can be tough; he pointed to labor’s high-profile losses at Nissan in Mississippi, Boeing in South Carolina and Volkswagen in Tennessee. He said that Amazon – with sales soaring to $125bn in its most recent quarter – was a “better target” for unions because “it has become enormously wealthy on jobs that are poorly paid and exploitative. It’s a bigger and more vulnerable target.”
As for overseas attention, Uni Global Union, a Swiss-based federation of unions from 150 countries, helped persuade more than 70 investment firms and institutional investors with combined assets of over $6tn to demand that Amazon cease “all anti-union communications, including public statements, captive audience meetings, texts, websites, on-site billboards”. “An election of this size in Alabama with such an anti-union company is incredibly important,” said Christy Hoffman, Uni Global’s general secretary. “We want Amazon to realize that all eyes are on them. The captive audience meetings, the relentless text messages, the signs in the bathrooms, that kind of stuff is considered barbaric in Europe. It’s hard to imagine that a large multinational like Amazon would dare do that in Europe.”
In an emailed statement, Rachael Lighty, an Amazon spokesperson, said: “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.” Lighty said the Bessemer facility offers starting pay of $15.30 an hour, more than twice the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage, as well as health coverage, dental and vision benefits, and a 50% 401(k) retirement savings match. “The fact is that Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees,” she said.
To Stuart Appelbaum, the RWDSU’s president, it’s crucial to begin unionizing Amazon in the US because it is such a powerful, trend-setting company. (In Europe, many Amazon warehouses have unions.) With 800,000 workers nationwide, Amazon is the country’s second largest private-sector employer after Walmart, and with orders soaring during the pandemic, Amazon has added 400,000 workers worldwide over the past year.
“I feel we had no choice, that we had to go after Amazon,” Appelbaum said. “Amazon is transforming industry after industry. It’s going to determine the future of work. We cannot afford to have Amazon create a work environment that is dehumanizing and that prevents workers from asserting their right to have a safe workplace.” For Appelbaum, unions badly need to gain a foothold inside Amazon because it is playing a major role shaping the robot-filled workplace of the future. He wants to ensure that workers have a voice in building that workplace and making it more humane.
“The pandemic has made more workers see the importance of having a union,” Appelbaum said. “It’s opened people’s eyes. There have been a lot of problems, and people understand they just can’t accept what their employer is saying about safety in the workplace.” Amazon workers complained that the company was slow to provide PPE and ensure adequate distancing, and that nearly 20,000 Amazon employees have caught Covid, although Amazon says its employees’ infection rate is lower than for the general population. Amazon says it has invested over $11.5bn on Covid-related efforts to keep its workers safe.
Union leaders estimate that 85% of Amazon’s workforce in Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham, is African American, and that, labor experts say, could be a big plus for the union campaign. Black workers are generally more pro-union than white workers. “We see this campaign as much as a civil rights struggle as a labor struggle,” Appelbaum said, adding that the Bessemer fight resembles the struggles for worker dignity that Martin Luther King Jr used to support. The RWDSU is quick to note that it was the first union to negotiate a contract guaranteeing King’s birthday as a paid holiday.
Darryl Richardson also sees the union drive as a fight for dignity. “You don’t have time to leave your workstation to get water,” he said. “You don’t have time to go to the bathroom.” Those few minutes away (which Amazon tracks closely) can cause workers to fall behind on their production quotas, and too many minutes away can lead to termination. “I don’t like to see nobody, Black, white or green, get treated the way Amazon treats people,” he said.
Richardson, who was active in the United Auto Workers union at his old factory, has high hopes that unionizing will improve jobs at Amazon. “The union will make it better when it comes to safety, job security, employees getting treated fair, better wages, making sure everybody gets respect, gets treated like they deserve to be treated, not just a robot, not just a number.”
He notes that Amazon’s $15.30 starting pay is below what some nearby warehouses pay – he mentioned one that pays $18 an hour. “Amazon says they’re giving you great stuff that nobody else gives you, yet Amazon has big turnover,” he said. “You have employees leaving for somewhere else, where they don’t have to work as hard and you get the same pay and they treat you better.
“We’re working for Amazon and one of the richest men in the world,” Richardson continued, referring to Bezos who is worth around $190bn. “I feel like we deserve more than what we’re getting.”
At 4:30 am, Mike Foster and other organizers begin standing on a road just outside the warehouse, distributing flyers and trying to talk to Amazon employees once they leave work. Dressed in a bright orange vest, Foster – a poultry worker whose plant was unionized by the RWDSU – hopes the Amazon workers will stop and talk for a minute and not speed by. Known as Big Mike, Foster exudes confidence, saying, “I’m being David, and I’m fighting Goliath, and we all know how this story ended.”
The pandemic has prevented the RWDSU from using many tried-and-true tactics. No more house calls, where organizers sit down to explain the advantages of unionizing. No more large meetings and rallies that build momentum and solidarity. Instead, there are websites, videos and lots and lots of phone calls that talk up the benefits of unions.
Sadatu Mamah-Trawill, a longtime organizer, often makes 60 calls a day to Bessemer employees, answering their questions about unions and responding to Amazon’s anti-union attacks. “People are told to be afraid of the union coming,” she said. “Every day they go into these meetings where Amazon tells them to vote no and gives them excuses why they should vote no. They’re going to lose wages. They’re going to lose benefits. All those lies.”
Mamah-Trawill explains that it is extremely unlikely that they will lose wages or benefits with a union, adding that if that happens, it will be Amazon’s fault. “My main message is what is going to happen after we win,” she said. “They will elect their co-workers to represent them on a negotiating committee. I let them know that we [outsiders] don’t make the decisions. We let them know that they are the union, that they make the decisions.”
Some Amazon employees see no need for a union. Ora Mcclendon, a “packer”, said working at the warehouse is “great.” “The pay is great. The benefits are awesome,” she said. “You get your benefits from day one, but at many other companies, you have to wait 60, 90 days.” Mcclendon, 62, who had worked at a plastics factory, denied that the pace of work was too rapid or stressful. “I come from another packing plant,” she said. “I’m used to the culture. I don’t think it’s too fast. It’s fair, and it’s workable.”
She praised the fulfillment center’s managers, saying they “stress teamwork”. At the same time, she voiced skepticism about the union: “I don’t know what they’re offering us. I talked to one of their leaders on the telephone, and I asked what they could bring to the table that we don’t already have, and he couldn’t give me anything. I don’t see why they want to be here.”
Amazon has an anti-union website called doitwithoutdues.com that says, “Why pay almost $500 in dues? We’ve got you covered with high wages, health care, vision, and dental benefits.” At the mandatory meetings, Amazon’s managers often tell workers that they might lose more with a union than they would gain (although federal data show that unionized warehouse and transportation jobs pay 34% more on average than non-union ones).
Managers also tell the workers that unions are a business that relies on dues. Jennifer Bates, a pro-union worker who helps train the warehouse’s employees, said, “They tell us different reasons why we shouldn’t get the union. They’re going to get your money. They’re poor people who are trying to get rich. They’re trying to get your money to go on vacation and get nice cars. You’ll be out $500. Why pay them your dollars?”
At one meeting, Bates – knowing that Alabama is a “right-to-work” state – asked a manager, “Is it mandatory we pay dues?” “He answered, ‘It’s not mandatory’,” said Bates. At times, Amazon’s message has been that paying union dues is mandatory even though that statement is false – in right-to-work Alabama, workers at unionized companies can opt out of paying dues.
After that anti-union meeting, Bates said, an Amazon official asked to photograph her badge. She called that intimidation: “I think it’s to show you’ll get in trouble for bringing up these types of questions.”
Lighty, the Amazon spokesperson, said the company hosts information sessions for all employees and gives workers an opportunity to ask questions. “We are following all NLRB rules and guidelines as it relates to union campaigns,” she said. “We believe it is important for all employees to understand all sides of the vote and the election process.”
Like Richardson, Bates, 48, complains about the relentless pace and the paucity of rest breaks. “A robot can work longer than we can,” she said. “We’re human. Our bodies get tired. I think Amazon understands that, but they don’t care.”
Bates said that some co-workers are scared to support a union. “They’re afraid of losing their jobs,” she said. “One guy said he used to make $7 an hour and worked three times as hard and was glad to be making $15 now. He doesn’t ever want to go back to $7.” Union organizers said several managers had warned that the warehouse might close if the RWDSU wins.
Amazon’s anti-union tactics are in many ways typical for corporate America. In a study of unionization drives, Kate Bronfenbrenner, a researcher at Cornell University, found that 89% of employers held mandatory anti-union meetings, 57% threatened to close operations if workers unionized, 47% threatened to cut wages or benefits, and 34% fired union supporters. (Under current law, there is no penalty for illegally firing workers for supporting a union.)
John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State, said that in the Amazon-RWDSU face-off, “there’s absolutely not a level playing field. The union is competing with a company that has unlimited access and all different ways of reaching employees.” But under federal law, corporations can even prohibit union organizers from setting foot on company property. Last February, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (Pro Act), which includes many provisions that make it easier to unionize, including a ban on mandatory anti-union meetings and imposing fines on companies that fire workers for backing unions. Then the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, blocked a vote on it, although Democrats recently introduced the measure in the new Congress.
“I don’t think there’s any amount of money Amazon won’t be prepared to spend to win,” Logan said. “If the RWDSU lost, it would be a tremendous disappointment. If Amazon loses, it’s a disaster, it’s a catastrophe for them.”
Most labor leaders hate it when anti-union companies call unions “businesses”, as Amazon often does. But Bren Riley, a former Goodyear factory worker and now president of the Alabama’s branch of AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the US, had a surprising response, saying that unions are in ways a business. “We’re in the business of taking care of our members,” he said. “Our business is to keep you from going broke or getting broken. Remember, the old saying: ‘United we bargain. Divided we beg.’” Riley added that “our business” is also to keep workers from getting fired improperly. “If you’re fired because your breath stinks, hell, we’ll pay $8,000 to arbitrate your case to save your job. Yes, unions need money.”
Despite Amazon’s anti-union attacks, Riley doesn’t talk of Amazon as an enemy. “We want to partner with Amazon once we get a first contract,” he said, although labor experts say Amazon might drag its feet on reaching a contract. “We want Amazon to succeed. We want Jeff Bezos to make another $10bn,” Riley said. “And we want employees to have a safe job. We want employees to be very productive. It don’t matter if it’s Jeff Bezos or Goodyear, we want them to make a bunch of money so when our three-year agreement is up, we can get a piece of it.”
Stewart Acuff, a native of Tennessee, used to be the AFL-CIO’s organizing director and has led dozens of union campaigns in the south, winning many of them, but losing a lot, too. Acuff says the union drive at Amazon “is a big uphill battle”.
“I’ve been inside gigantic campaigns like this in the south,” he said. “I don’t have to tell you how hard they are in the private sector. A big thing the workers face is probably every institution in their community is lined up against them, except for the more courageous of the Black churches. In a place like Alabama, people have grown up learning to be hostile to unions. It’s not like Pittsburgh.”
But some experts on the south say not so fast. They note that the Bessemer-Birmingham area is different from the rest of Alabama. It was the industrial hub, while the rest of the state focused on cotton and other agriculture. It was rich with iron ore, coal and limestone, raw materials that once made Bessemer and Birmingham booming steelmaking communities. Bessemer also had a Pullman railcar factory as well as strong labor unions. Some Amazon workers said their parents or grandparents were retired union members who urged them to sign union cards and vote union.
“Birmingham and Bessemer produced a lot of labor militancy and solidarity over the years,” Georgetown’s McCartin said. That legacy, he said, could go far to deliver an RWDSU victory, even in conservative Alabama.
The union movement has faced some bitter defeats in the south in recent years. Labor experts said a major reason the UAW lost its organizing drives at Volkswagen in Chattanooga and Nissan in Mississippi was that it was seen as an outside interloper, as a carpetbagger. But with its long history in Alabama, the RWDSU, having unionized poultry plants and fought for civil rights, tells the Bessemer workers, we’re your neighbors, we’re part of Alabama, too. Appelbaum notes that his union has won major battles against other formidable companies in Alabama – unionizing 1,200 workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Russellville in 2012. Some of those poultry workers are working as organizers in the Amazon campaign.
Another big factor that could help the union win is racial solidarity. Bessemer’s population is 72% Black, and that helps explain the RWDSU’s notion that this is both a labor fight and a civil rights fight. “Viewing it through the lens of civil rights is going to make this take on a higher meaning, a more spiritual meaning,” said Keri Leigh Merritt, a historian who has written extensively on slavery and southern labor. “People are going to rise above their worries and unite over this higher calling. This is really something they can get behind.”
The RWDSU reminds workers of its civil rights bona fides. It provided tents to the Selma civil rights marchers in 1965. It highlights Black RWDSU leaders who fought for civil rights. It reminds Amazon workers that the KKK used to threaten and shoot at RWDSU organizers.
“One of the reasons this really might work is it’s a tie-in to civil rights and human rights,” said Michael Innis-Jiménez, a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama. “It’s about much more than bread and butter.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Century Foundation