Last week, Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, notified the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of their desire to hold a union election. The 1,500-person bargaining unit would cover “all hourly full-time and regular part-time fulfillment center employees including leads and learning ambassadors.” Should the workers unionize, it would be the first Amazon warehouse in the United States to go union, a momentous advance with significance for the hundreds of thousands of people toiling in Amazon warehouses across the country.
The Bessemer workers, calling themselves the BAmazon Union, seek representation from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). As the union website states:
Having a union at Amazon would give us the right to collectively bargain over our working conditions including items such as safety standards, training, breaks, pay, benefits, and other important issues that would make our workplace better. Amazon sometimes addresses issues at work but it’s all temporary. A union contract is in writing.
In one video posted on the website, Essiemae Skinner, a picker at Amazon, describes the physical stress of the job as feeling “like you’re an NFL player but without the money.” Chelsea Connor, a RWDSU spokeswoman, declined to comment on the union drive.
The Bessemer warehouse is one of the company’s newer facilities, having only begun operating in March of this year. In stark contrast to how the past year has gone for the rest of us, the coronavirus pandemic has been a boon for Amazon: the company has posted record profits — $6.3 billion in the third quarter of 2020, making Bezos richer than ever — as the pandemic drives online sales (despite this gold rush, it’s hazard-pay bump of $2 dollars an hour ended in May, and the company has not announced any intention to reinstate it despite the current spike in coronavirus cases). To keep up with demand, Amazon has opened dozens of new logistics sites.
Indeed, as the New York Times reports, starting in July, Amazon has hired 350,000 people, or 2,800 a day. It is growth at an all-but-unprecedented scale, with the company’s global workforce “up more than 50 percent from a year ago.” In a particularly haunting paragraph, the Times quotes Ardine Williams, Amazon’s vice president for workforce development, on the company’s work “with preschools to establish the foundation of tech education, so that ‘as our hiring demand unfolds over the next 10 years, that pipeline is there and ready.’” Amid mass layoffs and widespread hunger, Amazon is making a decisive play to dominate the future, inserting itself into the firmament of American life in such a way as to become foundational, impossible to tear out. While this has long been the company’s strategy, the pandemic accelerated its opportunities, all of which adds pressure to workers’ efforts to fight back against a future controlled by the private fiefdom that is Amazon.com.
With pandemic-fueled growth has come an uptick in organizing at Amazon warehouses. The global health crisis and increased demand for Amazon’s services have led to widespread worker complaints about unsafe working conditions, including quotas that preclude safety measures they see as necessary to protect themselves from the virus — so far, Amazon admits to at least 20,000 coronavirus cases among its workforce in the United States. Christian Smalls, who worked at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, was fired in March after helping organize a protest against what he saw as the company’s lax safety measures. (Shortly after his termination, leaked recordings revealed Smalls had been smeared at a meeting of top executives, at which Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was present. Earlier this month, Smalls filed a lawsuit against the company.) Workers at a Shakopee, Minnesota, facility have staged multiple job actions, first to push for safer working conditions, and later to protest retaliation against a worker who was fired shortly after raising concerns about the lack of safety protections at the warehouse (the latter action was successful: the worker was reinstated).
Though this organizing has led some to wonder which facilities might see a union campaign, Amazon spends untold amounts of money preventing exactly such a development. As revealed by Recode, one of the many tasks that fall under the mandate of the e-commere behemoth’s Global Security Operations Center is the use of a geospatial tool that tracks “threats” to the company, with such data points as “Whole Foods Market Activism/Unionization Efforts,” “union grant money flow patterns,” and “Presence of Local Union Chapters and Alt Labor Groups.” Further, as revealed in documents leaked last week to Motherboard, the company has none other than the Pinkertons on its payroll: the spy agency, famous for its role in busting unions in the nineteenth century, now performs similar services for the robber barons’ twenty-first-century equivalent.
All of this makes a union drive emerging at a new warehouse, rather than one of the facilities with a recent history of collective action, particularly interesting. Did Amazon, for all its surveillance and threat assessments, locate this facility in an already unusually organized community, allowing workers to begin organizing on day one? Did union organizers target the Bessemer location before it was up and running? Or, perhaps, are safety measures and management particularly aggravating and dangerous at the Bessemer location, leading to such quick action? So far, I have been unable to speak with workers at the Bessemer warehouse, leaving the backstory a matter of speculation.
Whatever the explanation, it is especially notable that the decision to try organizing is happening in Alabama, a right-to-work state. As Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, told the Washington Post, “We can expect a full-court anti-union press,” with Amazon executives and local officials alike pulling out all the stops to defeat the unionization effort. Indeed, Bloomberg Law reports that Amazon has hired Harry Johnson, a former Republican member of the NLRB — he served on the board from 2013 to 2015 — along with Nicole Buffalano, both of whom work for the union-busting law firm Morgan Lewis, to defend the company against the upcoming union election. With Amazon employees getting increasingly organized from one end of the supply chain to the other, workers around the world will be watching to see what happens next in Bessemer.