BESSEMER, Alabama — For union organizers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, the second time could be a charm — or not.
After a crushing defeat last year, when a majority of workers voted against forming a union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is hoping for a different outcome in a do-over election. The National Labor Relations Board on Monday began counting mail-in ballots that were sent to 6,100 workers in early February. Results could come as early as Thursday.
If the vote goes in favor of the union, it would be Amazon’s first one ever in the U.S.
Like last time, the RWDSU is driving the union campaign in Bessemer. Vaccines have made it easier for organizers to do face-to-face meetings during the pandemic as opposed to the texts, emails and phone calls they relied on the first time around.
“It’s been easier to spread the message this time, and we’ve had more support inside the building,” said Dale Wyatt, an Amazon worker at the Bessemer facility who’s assisting in the union push. “For example, more people are wearing T-shirts and pins and apparel, and more people are willing to come up and talk to us this time.”
Amazon has had a chance to regroup as well after the NLRB determined that the company unfairly influenced last year’s election. The country’s second-largest private employer continues to hammer the message that it invests in both pay and benefits for its workers. Regular full-time employees in Bessemer earn at least $15.80 an hour, higher than the estimated $14.55 per hour on average in the city based on an analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau. They also get health care as well as a 401(k) with company match.
Amazon has also made some changes to but still kept a controversial U.S. Postal Service mailbox that was key in the NLRB’s decision to invalidate last year’s vote.
Labor activists say the company is still relying on consultants and managers to hold mandatory staff meetings to talk about why unions are a bad idea. Such meetings stopped right before the ballots were sent, in accordance with labor laws.
An Amazon spokesperson said the meetings give employees the opportunity to ask questions and learn what a union “could mean for them and their day-to-day life working at Amazon.”
Prior to the Bessemer union drive, Amazon hadn’t faced a major union election in the U.S. since 2014 when the majority of the 30 workers at a warehouse in Delaware voted against organizing. In many European countries like France, Italy, Spain and Germany, where union membership is higher and there are fewer obstacles for labor groups, Amazon workers have long been unionized.
Amazon also faces two union elections in the more labor-friendly New York City, though they’re being spearheaded by a nascent independent labor group.
Amazon’s sprawling fulfillment center in Bessemer opened in 2020 just off an interstate exit where 18-wheelers painted with the Amazon logo come and go past small manufacturers, transportation companies and the city’s high school.
Bessemer itself is located about 20 miles southwest of Birmingham. The once-vibrant manufacturing town of 26,000 people fell on hard times after the area’s steel industry began slipping in the late 1900s. Today the city is more than 70 percent Black, with about a quarter of its residents living in poverty.
Workers at the warehouse reflect Bessemer’s racial demographic — roughly 85 percent of them are Black, according to RWDSU. They drive to their jobs from as far away as metro Montgomery, nearly 100 miles to the south.
RWDSU has been working with community organizations who have helped to frame the union push in Alabama in the context of the Civil Rights movement, focusing on the dignity and treatment of Amazon workers and linking their rights with human rights.
“The community support has been essential, and it’s always been a part of the civil rights struggles in the South and other struggles in the South,” said Marc Bayard, the director of the Institute for Policy Studies’ Black Worker Initiative.
Erica Iheme, deputy director of Jobs to Move America, said her organization honed its message from last year, going beyond pay. It visited barber shops, beauty shops and other places where Black residents frequented and distributed 6,000 flyers.
“For this election, what we have to get people to understand is it goes beyond bread and butter issues,” Iheme said. “Sometimes, your body has physical limitations. Sometimes you are tired. Sometimes you have children and you need to step away without losing your job. It’s about humanity of our community.”
While unions are historically a tough sell in the South, Wyatt comes from a labor family. He began working at Amazon in August, taking items off incoming trucks and placing them into pods before they shipped to customers.
“We need better working conditions, better hours, better pay,” Wyatt said. “We need longer breaks and more attention from management and a better HR system.”
RWDSU’s first union campaign came in a year of widespread labor unrest at many corporations that has only reinvigorated the group’s cause. Workers at more than 140 Starbucks locations around the country, for instance, have requested union elections and several of them have already been successful.
The pandemic spotlighted the plight of hourly workers who felt employers didn’t do enough to protect them from the virus. But labor shortages have only given workers more power to push for higher wages and better working conditions.
Still, organizers are up against strong federal labor laws that favor corporations. Alabama itself is a right-to-work state, which means that companies and unions are prohibited from signing contracts that require workers to pay dues to the union that represents them.
Labor activists also battle high turnover at the Bessemer facility. RWDSU estimates that roughly half of the 6,100 workers eligible to vote are new, making it difficult to organize.
“It’s an uphill fight,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the RWDSU. “No matter what happens, we are not walking away. The first campaign initiated a global debate on the way Amazon operates. It has inspired workers all over the country and all over the world to stand up to their employers.”
Story by Anne D’Innocenzio, Haleluya Hadero and Jay Reeves.