The second Jennifer Bates walks away from her post at the Amazon warehouse where she works, the clock starts ticking.
She has exactly 30 minutes to get to the cafeteria and come back for her lunch break. This means going through a warehouse the size of 14 football fields, which takes up precious time. She avoids bringing food from home because reheating it in the microwave would cost her even more minutes. Instead, she opts for cold $4 sandwiches from the vending machine and hurries back to her post.
If she succeeds, she is in luck. If she doesn’t, Amazon could cut her pay or, worse yet, fire her.
It’s this kind of pressure that has led some Amazon workers to stage the company’s biggest push to organize since its inception in 1995. And it’s happening in the most unlikely places: Bessemer, Alabama, a state with laws that do not favor unions. .
The stakes are high. If organizers are successful in Bessemer, where nearly 6,000 people work, it could trigger a chain reaction in Amazon’s operations nationwide, with thousands more workers rising up and demanding better working conditions. But they face a fierce battle against the nation’s second-largest employer with a history of overwhelming union efforts at its Whole Foods warehouses and grocery stores.
Amazon’s attempts to delay the vote in Bessemer failed. The same goes for the company’s efforts to demand in-person voting, which organizers say would be dangerous during the pandemic. Postal voting started this week and will continue until the end of March. A majority of valid votes received must vote yes to unionize.
Amazon, whose profits and revenues skyrocketed during the pandemic, waged a fierce campaign to convince workers that a union only sucks money from their paychecks with few benefits. Spokeswoman Rachael Lighty says the company is already giving them what unions want: benefits, career growth and a salary that starts at $15 an hour. She adds that the organizers do not represent the majority of opinions of Amazon employees.
Bates earns $15.30 an hour unpacking boxes of deodorant, clothing, and countless other items that ultimately ship to Amazon buyers. The labor, which the 48-year-old began in May, keeps her upright for most of her 10-hour shifts. Besides lunch, Bates says trips to the bathroom are also closely watched, as is drinking a glass of water or going for a new pair of work gloves. Amazon denies this, saying it offers two 30-minute breaks during each shift and extra time to use the bathroom or fetch water.
Marre, Bates and a group of workers contacted the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union last summer. She hopes the union, which also represents workers at Alabama’s poultry factories, will impose more breaks, stop Amazon from firing workers for trivial reasons and push for higher pay.
They will be a voice when we don’t have one, Bates says.
But according to Sylvia Allegretto, economist and co-chair of the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics at the University of California at Berkeley, “history tells us not to be optimistic.”
The last time Amazon workers voted on whether they wanted to unionize was in 2014, and it was a much smaller group: 30 employees at an Amazon warehouse in Delaware who ultimately refused. . Amazon currently employs nearly 1.3 million people worldwide.
Also working against the union effort is that this is happening in Republican-controlled Alabama, which is generally not union-friendly. Alabama is one of 27 “right to work states” where workers do not have to pay dues to the unions that represent them. In fact, the state is home to the only Mercedes-Benz factory in the world that is not unionized.
According to Michael Innis-Jim nez, associate professor at the University of Alabama, the union push at the Bessemer warehouse has even gone so far is likely due to who the organizers are. Companies generally look down on union organizers by seeing them as self-employed who don’t know what workers want. But the retail union has an office in nearby Birmingham, and many of the organizers are black, such as workers at the Bessemer warehouse.
I think it really helps a lot, Innis-Jim nez said. “They are not considered foreigners.”
Over 70% of Bessemer’s population is black. The retail union estimates that up to 85% of workers are black, far more than the 22% for all warehouse workers nationwide, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the census.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union, says the union’s success in Bessemer is partly due to the pandemic, with workers feeling betrayed by employers who haven’t not done enough to protect them from the virus. And the Black Lives Matter movement, which inspired people to demand to be treated with respect and dignity. Appelbaum says the union heard from Amazon warehouse workers across the country.
They also want to have a voice in their workplace, he says.
Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union representatives spend most of the time outside the entrance to the Bessemer warehouse holding signs and wearing neon vests, well that much of the organizing effort is conducted online or over the phone due to the pandemic. At the end of a recent workday, some Amazon workers leaving the factory rolled down their car windows and chatted with organizers; others rushed forward without recognizing him.
Some workers in the poultry factories helped. Among them is Michael Foster, a union representative who works at a poultry factory in northern Alabama but has been in town for more than a month to help with the organization.
He says an Amazon employee tried to chase them away, saying they’d better make sure they weren’t on Amazon property.
I let them know it wasn’t my first rodeo, says Foster, who helped organize two more poultry plants.
Inside the warehouse, Bates says Amazon runs daily classes on why workers should vote against the union. Lighty, the Amazon spokesperson, says the sessions are a way for employees to get information and ask questions.
If the union vote passes it will impact everyone on the site and it’s important that all associates understand what this means to them and their day-to-day working life at Amazon, says Lighty.
Dawn Hoag says she will vote against unionization. The 43-year-old has been working at the warehouse since April and says Amazon is making it clear that his jobs are physically demanding. Plus, she says she can speak for herself and doesn’t need to pay a union to do it for her.
That’s exactly what I believe, says Hoag. “I don’t see the need for it at all.”
Unions have been formed recently in unusual places. Last month, around 225 Google engineers formed a union, a rarity in the high-paying tech industry. Google has laid off outspoken workers, although the company says it was for other reasons.
At Amazon, things didn’t end well for outspoken workers either.
Last year, Amazon fired Christian Smalls, a warehouse worker, who led a strike at a New York warehouse, hoping to get the company to better protect workers from the coronavirus. Office workers who joined in and spoke out about working conditions in warehouses during the pandemic were also sacked, though Amazon says it was for other reasons. An Amazon executive resigned in protest last spring, saying he couldn’t sit idly by as whistleblowers were silenced.
Bates is aware of the risks.
I know it could happen, she says of the dismissal. “But it’s worth it.”