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  • Writer's pictureAlex Nelson

Alabama workers may break Amazon's anti-union streak in U.S.

In a what could be a history making turn, workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama fulfillment warehouse might be the first to successfully form a union at one of the company’s U.S. facilities.

After years of effectively fighting off unionization efforts by its U.S. employees, Amazon seemed to have developed a penchant for union-busting. Seven years ago, a group of about 30 equipment technicians and mechanics at the company voted on whether to unionize in partnership with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The workers were seeking assistance with negotiating vacation, updating promotion policies and seniority rules, and examining the creation of a safety committee, said IAMAW spokesman John Carr at the time. Carr also provided insight into the retail giant's attempts to discourage workers from unionizing.

“Against Amazon’s intense pressure on the inside with the avoidance law firm that they had, it was too much for these workers to overcome … they didn’t feel comfortable doing so. [Amazon’s] tactics … paid off,” explained Carr in an interview with Vox.

The battle in Bessemer is taking similar shape with regard to Amazon’s union blockade in America. Employees have reported that the company has sent incessant anti-union text messages and Facebook ads in an effort to dissuade would-be union members. Amazon has also created an anti-union website, entitled Do It Without Dues, that highlights the burden of paying union dues and the negative impact that unions can have on workers as individuals. The Washington Post recently reported that bathrooms at the Bessemer facility have been papered with anti-union flyers.

Over the last few months, tensions between the company and its Alabama workers have simmered. Things began to boil weeks ago after a January 15 ruling by the National Labor Review Board granting the Bessemer workers' request to hold a union election via mail-in ballot. Amazon appealed the decision to allow the election and also requested that the NLRB delay the vote until after the completion of the appeals process. Additionally, Amazon petitioned to have employees vote in-person, despite coronavirus-related health risks. The company cited statistics indicating higher participation levels for in-person voting on union issues versus mail-in ballot casting.

Last Friday, the NLRB rejected Amazon's appeal, clearing the way for a union vote at the facility. Amazon spokesperson Katie Knox criticized the decision in a statement to TechCrunch.

“Even the National Labor Relations Board recognizes that the employee participation rate for its own elections conducted with mail ballots is 20-30% lower than the participation rate for in-person voting,” responded Knox. “Amazon proposed a safe on-site election process validated by COVID-19 experts that would have empowered our associates to vote on their way to, during and from their already-scheduled shifts. We will continue to insist on measures for a fair election that allow for a majority of our employee voices to be heard.”

The Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, an AFL-CIO affiliate, represents the Bessemer organizers and has been pushing back against what Amazon employees describe as an overly demanding work environment.

Stuart Applebaum, President of the RWDSU told NPR in January that, “that the pandemic opened a lot of peoples eyes [so] that they understand now, better than they ever did before, that they need a collective voice to stand up for themselves and protect themselves.”

Applebaum also highlighted RWDSU's history of support for justice and equality, saying, "We have a proud tradition of being involved in the civil rights movement and we see the effort at Amazon, at this warehouse, as a continuation of that."

Bessemer, a predominately Black community east of Birmingham, has a rich history of civil rights activism and pro-union activity.

If the Bessemer workers elect to unionize, there could be a domino effect of other workers in similar industries becoming emboldened to form their own unions. A victory by the employees at Amazon's BHM1 facility could set a precedent that could impact the future of unions in America and, more specifically, for the retail giant’s nationwide facilities. Earlier this year, more than 800 workers at Google's parent company, Alphabet, formed the Alphabet Workers Union. Similarly, employees at crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter, successfully unionized last year. The workforce at Glitch, a platform for tech developers, also unionized in 2020.

The significance of a successful campaign to unionize was not lost on RWDSU’s Mid-South Council president Randy Hadley. Last Saturday, at a gusty, rain-drenched rally in a Bessemer parking lot, dozens of pro-union supporters gathered in solidarity with the warehouse workers. Hadley explained to the crowd that a “yes” vote could have positive reverberations for wage workers across the country.

Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), a staunch supporter of the unionization efforts at the Bessemer warehouse, sent 40 pizzas to rally-goers and tweeted his support for the organizers.

“It cannot be overstated how powerful it will be if Amazon workers in Alabama vote to form a union. They are taking on powerful anti-union forces in a strong anti-union state, but their victory will benefit every worker in America. I’m proud to stand with them,” said Sanders in the Saturday tweet.

Mail-in ballots addressed to the homes of workers were sent today. Warehouse employees will have until March 29 to submit votes. The NLRB will begin tallying votes on March 30 with final results expected to be announced in April.

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