What a difference a pandemic makes.
As UltraViolet goes to press, 5000 workers around Bessemer, Alabama, are voting (or not voting) on whether to establish the first union at an amazon facility in the u.s. (amazon workers in Europe are represented, casting doubt on the company’s claim that unions prevent that warm fuzzy company-employee relationship). The fulfilment warehouse is being organized by the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which was founded in the 1930s and has a long history as a progressive and civil-rights oriented union. In 2008, the RWDSU won the Islamic holiday, Eid-Al-Fitr as a paid holiday at a Tyson Foods plant in Tennessee, where hundreds of the workers are Somali refugees; right-wing organizations falsely reported that Labor Day had been sacrificed as a paid holiday in return.
The Bessemer warehouse opened in March 2020, just five months before the organizing drive began. The 855,000 square foot fulfillment center was the product of a failed bid to lure amazon’s second headquarters to Birmingham in 2017. For those who have forgotten, the company announced plans to build its HQ2 in Long Island City, but a community campaign joined by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez killed it; it’s now set to “transform the skyline” of Arlington, Virginia. Though Birmingham’s “Bring A to B” campaign failed to win the heart of the company’s soon-to-be-erstwhile CEO jeff bezos, it did catch the attention of those looking for a new site where all those brown boxes can be filled by humans and robots working side by side. In late 2019, an article on the website AL.com invited potential jobseekers to “watch a video on how to work with Amazon robots.” The company promised that employees would be paid $15 an hour, receive good benefits including 401(k) with 50% matching and “Amazon’s Career Choice program, which pre-pays 95% of tuition for courses in high-demand fields.”
In case you were wondering, 855,000 square feet is about 15 football fields or just under a mile. Depending where in those 15 football fields you work, getting to the bathroom or the cafeteria within the allotted 30 minute or 10-minute break time can be impossible. Workers found themselves bringing bottles to pee in so they didn’t have to run. They say their movements are heavily monitored and they can get written up or fired for being late back from a break or not packing enough products in an hour. In 2018, the company patented “designs for a wristband that can precisely track where warehouse employees are placing their hands and use vibrations to nudge them in a different direction,” according to an article in The Guardian. Even without the wristband, reports The Verge (Vox’s tech hub), amazon fires about 10% of its warehouse workers annually for failing to “make rate,” i.e., touch enough products in an hour, or for too much “TOT – time off task.”
The opening of the Bessemer warehouse also coincided with the pandemic, a huge surge in demand for amazon’s products and in the risk associated with doing the work. Workers reported increased pressure, no reliable access to protective equipment or ability to maintain social distance. By October 2020, 20,000 amazon workers had tested positive for COVID (about 1.44% of its 1.37 million frontline workers, including at Whole Foods (booo, hiss), which it bought four years ago). An amazon warehouse in Brampton, Ontario was ordered to close for two weeks just yesterday, due to a COVID spike in an area where cases are otherwise decreasing.
The Bessemer organizers filed authorization cards signed by over 2000 workers at the end of November, meeting the thirty percent threshold needed for an election. The NLRB scheduled the election to be conducted by mail; the company tried to insist that it be done in person, claiming it was to “protect the workers from intimidation” (shades of djt) but the National Labor Relations Board denied their motion and the court upheld that ruling. The company did subject the workers to nonstop harassment, including mandatory meetings of the type favored by nearly all employers facing unionization campaigns, where they lied to the workers about pretty much everything, including falsely claiming they would be required to pay union dues. When Jennifer Bates, a trainer in the warehouse and one of the key union organizers, asked at one of the meetings whether union dues are mandatory, the supervisor conducting the meeting admitted that they aren’t, but then she reported that he tried to photograph her ID badge, which she took as a threat. For good reason –Cornell’s Kate Bronfenbrenner found that union supporters were fired in 34% of the organizing drives she studied (57% of employers threatened to close operations if workers unionized). In April, amazon fired Christian Smalls, a Black warehouse worker on Staten Island who led a lunch-time walkout to protest the company’s failure to take appropriate safety precautions.
Mainstream media has been highly skeptical of the Bessemer workers’ chances of winning, citing the company’s high pressure tactics and the South’s very low union density. Astute observers, however, point out that the South is a big area and not every southern town is the same. Bessemer and Birmingham were historically centers of steel, coal and oil production – the land where the amazon warehouse sits was previously owned by U.S. Steel – and has a tradition of radical Black labor organizing, documented in Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, among other histories. Among the main organizers talking to workers as they get off shift at the warehouse are Black workers from a nearby poultry plant, which was organized by RWDSU in 2012. Some of the others, including Jennifer Bates, were members of other unions before coming to work at amazon. An estimated 85% of the warehouse workers are Black, as are 72% of the residents of Bessemer. The amazon consultants, reportedly being paid $3,200 a day for their union-busting advice, probably aren’t. (And I know for a fact that the law firm representing amazon isn’t.) Black Lives Matter sent a caravan to Bessemer as part of the February 20 national day of solidarity, when there were dozens of actions all over the country in support.
The NFL player’s association has endorsed the union, as have 30 writers and actors at amazon studios, including Tina Fey and Seth Meyers. The president of the united states sent a video message saying, “Unions give you a stronger voice for your health, your safety, higher wages, protections from racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Unions lift up workers, both union and non-union, and especially Black and brown workers.” Even florida senator marco rubio, architect of the coup in Venezuela and generally supporter of every awful thing, came out in favor of the union.
Win or lose, the Bessemer workers have helped to turn a page in u.s. labor history. In a nearly 180-degree pivot from 2014, when Time magazine reported on the sad conclusion of a failed attempt at organizing by 30 maintenance workers at an amazon facility in Delaware under the banner headline “How Amazon Crushed the Union Movement,” media like PBS NewsHour are now musing over the fact that only 10.7 percent of all Americans belong to unions, but nearly half say they want one. Harold Meyerson, writing in the American Prospect, calls Biden’s speech the most pro-union by any u.s. president ever, pointing out that “the height of FDR’s pro-labor activity was his decision to say and do nothing during the defining labor battles of the ’30s…Roosevelt’s silence signaled a new direction in public policy, but he didn’t want his fingerprints on or even near that new direction.”
As a candidate, Obama promised to push for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made organizing easier. But once he was elected, with strong union support, he didn’t lift a finger to pass EFCA, prompting a 2009 headline in Forbes magazine, “Obama’s Welcome Silence On The Employee Free Choice Act.” There was every reason to think that Biden would be no better. But things are different now, and the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which passed the House 225-206, with five republikkkans joining all the demokrats in favor, appears to be among Joe from Scranton’s priorities. The PRO Act would make a lot of the tactics amazon has used to try to kill the workers’ organizing drive illegal, including mandatory meetings, retaliatory firings and using immigration status to intimidate workers into opposing the union. It would impose actual penalties for labor law violations, prevent employers from permanently replacing striking workers, and allow “secondary strikes,” whereby members of one union can honor the picket lines of another. The national retail federation calls it “the worst bill in Congress,” and the u.s. chamber of commerce says it’s violating workers’ rights. There’s a good enough reason to support it, if you needed one. The PRO Act would also provide an arbitration process if unions can’t win a contract, which is important, since 52% of workers who won a union election don’t have a contract after a year.
The PRO Act may even be a catalyst for ending the senate filibuster, which stands in the way of Everything Good and makes an overempowered minority even more powerful. Right-wing democrat joe manchin, who vowed never to allow the filibuster to be revoked, has softened his tone recently. manchin represents West Virginia, which sees itself as highly pro-union (witness the historic 2018 teachers’ union victory) though it’s #24 on the list of states by percentage of union participation with the fourth largest decrease between 2008 and 2018 (in case you were wondering, the top five states are Hawaii, New York, Washington, Alaska and Rhode Island).
Some other good news on the labor front: Workers at Google, YouTube and other members of the “Alphabet” family of businesses recently formed the Alphabet Workers Union, the first of its kind in the tech industry. Launched publicly in January with 230 members, the union’s website (alphabetworkersunion.org) now says it has over 800 members. The pictures of sixty or so members featured along with short statements on the site suggest it’s unsurprisingly mainly white and young, and its values statement reads in part:
“Our union strives to protect Alphabet workers, our global society, and our world. We recognize our power as Alphabet workers—full-time employees, temporary employees, vendors, and contractors—comes from our solidarity with one another and our ability to collectively act to ensure that our workplace is equitable and Alphabet acts ethically.
We will use our reclaimed power to control what we work on and how it is used. We will ensure our working conditions are inclusive and fair. There is no place for harassment, bigotry, discrimination, or retaliation. We prioritize the needs and concerns of the marginalized and vulnerable. Workers are essential to the business. The diversity of our voices makes us stronger.”
A “minority union” affiliated with the Communication Workers of America, the union cannot and does not want to enter into contracts, but will use other tactics, including some not allowed to traditional unions such as corporate campaigns, boycotts and walkouts, to pressure the company to meet specific demands on behalf of its members, other workers and the public. The fact that contractors and temps are included is an excellent step, since one way that employers kill organizing drives is through the use of more precarious groups of workers. At Bessemer, contract workers hired through a staffing agency, including formerly incarcerated workers, have been told to wear “Vote No” buttons and hats. Some have said they don’t feel they can say no, given how badly they need the jobs and how difficult it would be the get another one.
The Alphabet workers union claims a number of victories already won by its members and other worker organizers over the last four years. These include promoting salary transparency by publicly sharing their compensation, giving each other more leverage to negotiate and revealing gender and racial bias in pay; pressuring Alphabet not to renew defense department contracts or participate in military projects; and a commitment to a better process for responding to accusations of sexual harassment (several workers experienced retaliation during that process).
In 2019, hundreds of Alphabet workers demanded that the company stop providing infrastructure to US government agencies responsible for separating children from parents and harming asylum seekers. Alphabet responded by firing some of the organizers.
The Alphabet workers and the Bessemer workers represent two ends of the work force spectrum and two very different approaches to organizing. The Black workers in Bessemer are in the tradition of the sanitation workers in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life was ended, demanding dignity and respect through a traditional labor union and contracts. The Alphabet workers are using the language of privilege, social justice and “prioritizing the most marginalized,” and working with flexible segments of traditional labor to explore new strategies for pressuring companies. But both are doing something that is long overdue: asserting the right of all workers to a good life.
For too long, the labor movement has been using language that buries worker-management relations to get support from the public. When nurses strike, it’s about “patient care.” When teachers strike, it’s for “quality education for our children.” Health care and education are rights, which are denied most u.s. americans, and it’s absolutely true that better conditions for the people who provide them is essential to winning those rights. But workers should not have to prove that their working conditions are mainly problems for others, in order to bargain collectively to improve them. For sure, the pandemic has shown middle class people how much we rely on warehouse and grocery store workers. The fact that “Google” is a verb speaks for itself. But the workers are not saying, support us so you can keep getting the stuff you want. They are saying, no one should have to poop in a bag to keep their job, and it turns out most people get that. Which is good news for those of us who have what the late great David Graeber named “Bullshit Jobs” (40% of us, by one count).