Amazon wages war against unions
Alex Press | Amandla 76 | June/July 2021
When workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, decided to unionise, the trillion-dollar company, marshalled by the world’s richest man, waged a war against them.
The warehouse – Amazon calls these facilities “fulfillment centers” – only opened in March 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic began rapidly spreading across the US. Bessemer is in the Deep South, in a “right to work” state, where workers aren’t required to pay dues to unions which represent them. This weakens unions and reflects the region’s long-standing hostility to worker organisation. This is an antagonism that the labour movement has tried to overcome, but never succeeded.
While Alabama has slightly higher union density than many other Southern states, that is an exceedingly low bar. In the United States as a whole, only 10.8 percent of workers are unionised. In the private sector, it’s a measly 6.3 percent.
Bessemer’s union history
The residents of Bessemer have a storied industrial history. The small city, located near Birmingham, is named after Henry Bessemer, a British inventor and engineer who helped revolutionise the steel-making process. The region’s natural resources made it an ideal location for steel mills.
With the rise of industry came worker organisation. Bessemer’s coal and iron-ore miners frequently went on strike. Communists in the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (Mine-Mill) organised multiracial union locals. They argued that the Southern workers’ movement needed to confront white supremacy if it wanted to defeat the bosses’ strategy of divide and rule. As historian Robin D. G. Kelley said of Mine Mill, “the prevalence of Black workers and the union’s egalitarian goals gave the movement an air of civil rights activism.” The resulting militancy enabled workers to fight back even in the face of at-times deadly repression, as the ruling class and the likes of the Ku Klux Klan tried to terrorise workers into submission.
Yet what the workers’ opponents could not achieve in the short term ultimately came to pass. The jobs in mines and mills were engineered out of existence. Low-wage work now predominates in the Bessemer area, as in much of the country. Much of it is in the service sector; little of it is unionised. Poverty is high. This is the context into which Amazon entered.
The company was greeted with near-universal fanfare by local elected officials. Amazon pays below the prevailing wage in its industry and has been shown to lower wages at nearby warehouses. But the mega-corporation’s PR operation, combined with the unconscionably low federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour (a number that has not been raised since 2009) allows the tech behemoth to present itself as a good opportunity.
But it didn’t take long for workers at the new warehouse in Bessemer to grow agitated. The company’s algorithmic despotism, its tracking of their movements down to the second and firing of those deemed insufficiently productive, led them to reach out to a union. They called the Retail, Warehouse, and Department Store Workers’ Union (RWDSU), which represents thousands of local poultry-processing plant workers and has recently tried to organise Amazon warehouse workers in New York City. By November of 2020, less than a year after the facility opened, the union drive went public, with workers filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency that oversees union elections.
Amazon’s campaign against the union
Amazon wasted no time trying to destroy, dismantle, and demonise the campaign. It held “captive audience meetings”. In these, the employer requires workers to attend sessions in which management lies, fear-mongers, and testifies against unionising. Yes, a company that infamously does not allow workers adequate time to use the restroom miraculously found hours in their schedule to attend such meetings. Amazon deployed the finest lawyers money can buy to stall the union election process; delaying always helps the boss, as it extends the time he has to try to flip pro-union workers to opposing the union.
These lawyers were also determined to expand the size of the bargaining unit, and in this aim, they succeeded magnificently: while the union had filed for a 1,500-person unit, the NLRB ultimately agreed with the company that the correct number was 5,800. That gave the union the task of tracking down thousands more workers, including temporary and seasonal workers and persuading them to back the organising drive.
Other highlights of Amazon’s anti-union campaign (an effort that, it should be noted, likely cost the company millions of dollars) include papering the warehouse’s bathroom stalls with anti-union propaganda and having workers who were ineligible to be in the union wear “Vote No” badges on the shop floor.
The vote and its aftermath
Fear, exhaustion, confusion, resentment: whip these bad feelings up and tie them to the union, that’s the boss’s strategy. Employers do it because it works. When the NLRB counted the vote in late March of 2021, after an extended mail-in balloting period, the result was 738 for the union, and 1,798 against. Amazon challenged 400 ballots: the union’s president, Stuart Appelbaum, told me the company challenged every ballot cast on the final day of voting, when the union had the momentum. Accounting for the challenges, they say roughly 1,100 workers voted union.
As of this writing, the two sides are testifying before the NLRB. The union alleges that Amazon broke the law, which the company naturally denies. Among the allegations are that Amazon had keys to a ballot-filled mailbox it demanded the United States Post Office (USPS) install outside of the warehouse. That seems to be a direct violation of the NLRB’s decision that the company could not have a dropbox for ballots. If the evidence is sustained, the NLRB will likely order a rerun of the union election.
Whatever the outcome at the NLRB, the thing to keep in mind is that in the United States a company doesn’t have to break the law to infringe on workers’ rights to self-determination, democracy, free speech, and assembly. Captive audience meetings are legal. Determining the scope of a bargaining unit, as Amazon did in this case, is legal. Even when employers are found to have violated the law, the punishment is effectively nonexistent.
Workers must organise globally
Amazon operates globally, and it is at that level that our organising must take place. The company builds redundancies into its network of warehouses so it can reroute goods around any facility where workers are restive. For instance, German Amazon workers have gone on strike several times, and the company responded by building facilities in Poland, where workers receive lower wages. Rather than accede to these national divisions, or allow resentment to fester, German and Polish Amazon workers began organising together in 2015 under the banner of Amazon Workers International. UNI Global Union likewise helps coordinate across the different unions representing workers at Amazon facilities across Europe. This is the scale at which organising must operate if it hopes to evade Amazon’s efforts to crush it.
Where Amazon does not yet operate, it will soon. The company is dedicated to expanding until it becomes the infrastructure of our daily routines. Usually, Amazon’s strategy when entering new markets is to throw money at the operation so it can quickly bury itself into the life of a country’s residents, leapfrogging past domestic competitors and generating momentum before unions, regulators, or any other opponents can mobilise against it. By the time its presence registers, it has burrowed too deep. Workers need to be ready before the threat emerges, with a clear strategy for stopping the company from entering, subverting, and undermining existing labor standards and regulations.
Workers around the world can take note of Amazon’s actions in Bessemer and draw inspiration from the workers’ efforts to wrest power away from the company. The result was a setback, but a union in the United States has finally taken on the challenge of organising an Amazon facility in a serious way. It is not only here that the labor movement is weak; workers are undergoing casualisation, fragmentation, and disorganisation around the globe. It will require unions to take risks to overcome this. When they lose, workers should metabolise what worked and what didn’t, incorporating that knowledge into future organising strategy.
Amazon has global ambitions, and it will take a global effort to stop it. What was already one of the world’s most powerful corporations has been supercharged by the events of the past year. As one Wall Street analyst put it, the pandemic has “injected Amazon with a growth hormone.” The company, always trying to grow fast, has ballooned, hiring hundreds of thousands of people just in the United States alone.
Yet by swallowing the world, it also brings us together inside of its empire, connecting forces that can destroy it. We know what Amazon’s vision for the coming years looks like; it’s up to us to struggle for a different future, and to win.
Alex Press is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine.