Joe Biden has offered tentative support to Amazon warehouse workers in the middle of a closely fought vote to unionize. If successful, the union would be the first for US warehouse workers of the online shopping behemoth.
While Biden did not reference Amazon by name, in a video message released late Sunday he sent his support to “workers in Alabama”, where 5,800 employees at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer have until 29 March to vote on whether to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU).
“Unions put power in the hands of workers. They level the playing field. They give you a stronger voice, for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment,” Biden said. He added there “should be no intimidation, no coercion, no threats, no anti-union propaganda” from employers.
Employees at warehouses across the country have reported working long hours and being expected to meet intense quotas. In recent years, the company has responded to criticism of its labor practices by offering a minimum wage of $15 and benefits like healthcare and retirement plans to employees. But workers still report a stressful and sometimes dangerous workplace.
The union vote, which kicked off on 8 February and is taking place by mail, is the first major union vote for Amazon warehouse workers in the US, and comes after the company has waged a vigorous campaign to discourage workers from organizing. Workers have reported receiving anti-union texts, being forced to attend “information” meetings where managers disparage unions and anti-union posters in employee restrooms.
Amazon has told workers that unionizing means “giving up the right to speak for yourself” and that unions would be taking their money “for nothing”.
That union supporters managed to successfully get about a third of the Bessemer warehouse workers to sign cards calling for the election to take place – and that the vote is taking place by mail even though Amazon pushed to have it held in-person – has teed up the vote as one of the most important labor fights in recent US history.
Warehouse workers across the country have tried to unionize for years, but this vote is the closest any warehouse has come to unionizing. Labor experts say that if the Bessemer warehouse workers successfully unionize, it could encourage unions at other fulfilment centers, of which Amazon has 110 in the US, especially in more pro-union states like California and New York.
In a statement, Stuart Appelbaum, the president of RWDSU, thanked Biden “for sending a clear message of support” to the workers.
“As President Biden points out, the best way for working people to protect themselves and their families is by organizing into unions. And that is why so many working women and men are fighting for a union at the Amazon facility in Bessemer,” reads the statement.
Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.