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Amazon workers in final push to win union

Michelle Robidoux

March 26, 2021
In the last days of the historic organizing drive by Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, solidarity rolled in from across the U.S. The 5800 workers must submit ballots to the National Labor Relations Board by March 29th. Amazon, the US’s second biggest private sector employer, has deployed every tactic imaginable to intimidate workers and undermine the organizing drive. But a unique confluence of events has built momentum for the union despite these tactics.
Amazon’s fulfilment centre in Bessemer, a town of 26,000 near Birmingham, opened just as the Covid-19 pandemic began in the Spring of 2020. The union drive began within months of the plant opening. While Amazon raked in astronomical profits as retail stores shut down and online shopping exploded, the pandemic slammed Amazon workers hard. Between March and September 2020, Amazon reported that 20,000 of its workers in the US had tested positive for Covid-19.
According to the Brookings Institution, “Black workers comprise 27% of Amazon’s workforce, compared to just 13% of workers overall in the U.S. In Amazon‘s Bessemer warehouse, union organizers estimate that 85% of workers are Black.” The overrepresentation of Black workers in frontline jobs like Amazon warehouses, the unsafe conditions in these workplaces and the differential health impacts of Covid-19 on Black people all shaped the climate in which the union drive emerged. The explosion of anger at the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 also shaped the terrain.
Another factor in the mix is the long history of labour organizing in Bessemer, from steel mills to poultry plants.
But the fundamental factor in the union drive is the horrendous working conditions Amazon workers endure. Workers are docked for bathroom or water breaks, docked an hour’s pay for being a few minutes late, and subjected to the inhuman rhythm of work set by Amazon to maximize its profits. On top of that, Amazon has cut Covid hazard pay. Those conditions are now front-page news thanks to the organizing drive.
The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) has faced endless obstacles from Amazon in its efforts to reach workers. The company went so far as to get the city to change the timing on traffic lights at the plant to prevent organizers from chatting up workers stopped at a red on the way out of the plant. But these tactics only show how terrified CEO Jeff Bezos and Amazon shareholders are of the power of these workers, on whose shoulders the entire Amazon empire rests.
On March 20, at a community rally in support of the workers, Nina Turner – an activist and candidate for Congress in Ohio said, “You are modern day giant slayers. And the giant that you are slaying is inequity. The giant that you are slaying is injustice. The giant that you are slaying is pure unadulterated greed that treats people like widgets instead of human beings. You’ve got the same courage Mother Jones had when she said “I will pray for the dead but I’m gonna fight like hell for the living…” All of the progress that we have made by marrying the labor movement and the civil rights movement, we’re gonna do that thing again.”
A livestreamed rally on March 22 heard an electrifying speech by Reverend William Barber, drawing on the history of the civil rights struggle in the South and linking together the fight against racism and the disenfranchisement of Black voters with the fight for the right to unionize: “We know this, that strengthening labour movement in the South is critical to any effort to transform this country… Unions are essential for poor and low-wealth working people to feel and demonstrate power… 19 workers have died. The workers need a union and a contract. The movement doesn’t end with March 29th. The movement gets another spark. The truth of the matter is you win this battle here, it opens up the whole South. You are gonna win. And you win here, its gonna be just as big as when they won going across that bridge [in Selma, Alabama] ‘cause its gonna open up the whole conversation again and a whole action around connecting the battle against racism and the battle against denying people labor rights.”
Amazon worker Emmit Ashford said, “This is happening at Amazon, but it’s not just Amazon, it’s all the other giants out there too who are not treating their workers the way they should be… We are in this together, not just in Alabama but across the country – and we have to continue fighting no matter what happens with this vote. The bell has been rung, and it won’t stop here. It will continue from sea to shining sea. We will not be let down. There’s a lot more of us than they expect, and we will not be silent anymore.”
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