Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, have made headlines in recent weeks as they vote in a historic unionization election set to end March 29. Should the employees choose to unionize, they will be the first Amazon workers to do so in the United States — a possibility that could have ripple effects across the country.
Amazon is currently the second-largest employer in the U.S., behind Walmart, and its workforce continues to grow. In 2020 the company hired an average of 1,200 workers every day — some in the U.S., others international. Amazon also saw record profits during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report from The Seattle Times.
A union could limit the company’s ability to hire and fire workers in response to shopping trends, according to former Amazon executives who spoke anonymously with the Washington Post. The website for the union campaign also points to the potential for members to advocate for better working conditions and safety standards. Amazon has been widely criticized for the pace at which it expects warehouse employees to work, its high rate of on-the-job injuries and its practice of firing workers who can’t keep up.
Even before the final votes come in, the events in Bessemer are making waves. Actor and civil rights activist Danny Glover visited the Bessemer warehouse in late February, in support of the unionization drive. The National Football League Players Association — a union representing more than 2,000 NFL players — released a video supporting the workers. The Black Lives Matter movement has also come out in support of a union at the Bessemer warehouse, where a majority of workers are Black.
President Joe Biden joined the conversation Feb. 28, insisting that “there should be no intimidation, no coercion, no anti-union propaganda” from employers. While he didn’t mention Amazon by name, Biden’s comments came after a slew of reports accused the retail giant of anti-union tactics, including signs posted in bathrooms and frequent emails and text messages to employees.
In Amazon’s hometown, Seattle, local organizers are adding their voices to the call supporting workers.
On Saturday, March 20, a crowd gathered below the Amazon Spheres as part of a National Day of Action in solidarity with workers in Bessemer. A second, larger rally at the Spheres is planned for Friday, March 26 at 5 p.m., featuring speeches from Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, City Council candidate Nikkita Oliver and educator Jesse Hagopian.
The rally Saturday wasn’t the first example of the Seattle area showing solidarity with Bessemer. In February, a protest in Renton called attention to a lack of affordable housing in King County while expressing support for the union drive in Alabama.
Saturday’s rally was originally spearheaded by Seattle’s branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) but was officially rescheduled after Stephanie Formas, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief of staff, requested organizers move the date or time of the rally in order to accommodate a pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Amazon Meeting Center about a block away.
DSA hosted a virtual meeting the morning of the rally in which a majority of sponsoring organizations present voted to postpone the event. The change of date was announced shortly before the rally began on Saturday.
The request from the Mayor’s Office raised suspicions among some demonstrators who sensed that the request to postpone the event was influenced by or deferential to Amazon. Attendees insisted the official rally would not have hindered the clinic.
Ramy Khalil of DSA did not attend Saturday’s event but said he thought some suspicion of the Mayor’s Office request was “merited,” given Amazon’s $350,000 donation to a group supporting Durkan’s mayoral run in 2017 and the company’s successful campaign convincing the City Council to overturn its 2018 head-tax vote.
“But, at the end of the day, there was a possibility that we might stand in the way or be perceived as standing in the way of vaccinating people, which is something we don’t want to do. We want everyone to get vaccinated,” Khalil said.
Formas oversees Seattle’s vaccine rollout and said she monitors for any events, like reopening schools and last month’s snow storm, that may impact vaccine clinics.
Regardless of whether the Bessemer employees vote to unionize, Khalil is encouraged by the organizers’ progress there and the nationwide impact they have had for unionizing.
“I think they’ve already kind of achieved a victory in the sense that they’ve planted the seed,” he said.
Indeed, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which is leading the drive in Bessemer, says they’ve received over 1,000 queries from Amazon workers around the country expressing interest in unionizing their own workplaces.
Christy Carley is a freelance journalist in Seattle and former English teacher in Spain. Find her on Twitter @christy_carley.
Read more of the Mar. 24-30, 2021 issue.