Organizers in Brooklyn took the energy of the South and brought it up north.
On Saturday, members of the December 12th Movement rallied outside of an Amazon facility in East New York to call attention to the fight for workers’ rights and to show support for the thousands of Amazon workers at the fulfillment center Bessemer, Ala. (and members of Southern Workers Assembly) who are organizing in the hopes of joining the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
According to Vinson Verdee, of the December 12th Movement (a Black human rights organization known for their annual Malcolm X “Shut It Down” marches in Harlem in late May), the fight in Bessemer is their fight too.
“It shows that even during this pandemic, the continued exploitation of workers is constant and unless we take up the fight and secure our rights, it’s always gonna be a struggle,” Verdee said.
Bessemer workers have complained about abrupt changes in schedules on a regular basis (and about how they were fired if they didn’t notice), working in extreme heat and being forced to work even after more than 200 workers tested positive for COVID-19. They’ve also voiced displeasure with restroom trips being counted as “time off task” (or TOT).
More than 5,000 ballots were sent out to Bessemer employees with votes slated to be counted in late March. Barring a negative vote, the workers would join RWDSU. This doesn’t mean that the retail giant didn’t try to stop this from happening.
In late January, Amazon made a motion to request a stay of the union election and appealed the decision by the National Labor Relations Board Region 10. Both notions were denied.
New York protesters also took to the Whole Foods supermarket, a company owned by soon-to-be-former Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos, in Union Square. Workers across the South rallied over the weekend to show solidarity with Bessemer workers. Members of Nashville Nonprofit Workers United stood outside of a Whole Foods to protest Amazon’s actions. Workers in New Jersey took a car caravan to Amazon’s fulfillment center in Carteret, N.J., to show support.
The movement has friends in high places. This past weekend, Georgia gubernatorial candidate, voting rights activist and founder of Fair Fight Stacey Abrams took to social media to throw her support behind the workers in Bessemer.
“As a long time supporter of labor rights, I strongly support your efforts to form a union and I urge each of you in favor of doing so,” said Abrams in a video posted on her Twitter page.
Abrams discussed her parents raising six children while working non-union jobs.
“…They struggled,” Abrams said. “I understand the importance of a good job and decent wages. And because they raised us to take care of one another, I believe in the power of collective bargaining.”
Initially, the AmNews’ contact attempts with Amazon’s press department were unsuccessful. However, earlier this month, Amazon officials told the AmNews that since the company opened the site last March, 5,000 people now have full-time jobs with pay starting at $15.30 an hour with “full health care, vision and dental insurance, 50% 401(k) match.”
They also said that the RWDSU is not a union that “represents the majority of our employees’ views.”
When the AmNews finally got to Amazon for comment, they sent the same statement from early February.
Amazon’s spokesperson stated at the time that the company provides a safe working environment for its employees, but some workers and a state attorney general have called that statement into question.
At the beginning of the nationwide quarantine former Amazon warehouse worker Chris Smalls spoke out against what he felt were subpar working conditions and lack of hazard pay for working during a dangerous time. Smalls organized a work stoppage and was eventually fired from his job of five years. In a memo obtained later by Vice News, Amazon officials labeled Smalls “not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James hopes that she smartly articulated her legal issues with Amazon.
James’ office filed a lawsuit against the retail giant accusing them of failing to provide personal protective equipment (PPEs) and ensure other safety and health measures at its New York-based facilities violating New York State Labor Law. The lawsuit also accuses the company of retaliating against workers who spoke out about said conditions in reference to Smalls’ experience in 2020.
James stated that Amazon, and all companies engaging in alleged worker exploitation, have to be held accountable.
“While Amazon and its CEO made billions during this crisis, hardworking employees were forced to endure unsafe conditions and were retaliated against for rightfully voicing these concerns,” said James. “Since the pandemic began, it is clear that Amazon has valued profit over people and has failed to ensure the health and safety of its workers. The workers who have powered this country and kept it going during the pandemic are the very workers who continue to be treated the worst.”
The support from workers around the country and public officials hasn’t made Amazon officials change their ways. They’re currently offering bonuses of $1,000 or more to all workers who quit their jobs before the union voting deadline in Bessemer.
This, Verdee said, is the action of a company looking to disrupt unity.
“They will pit workers against each other,” said Verdee. “‘We can get someone else who’ll take it.’ In this economy, people are desperate. They’re trying to continue the exploitation. We gotta be cognizant of that because that’s how they continue to operate.”
Verdee also spoke of how workers at the East New York facility told them that they couldn’t talk to them when approached during the rally. He said it was another example of Amazon rattling their employees into complying with current conditions.
“There were people we approached who said they couldn’t talk to us,” said Verdee. “They were told not to talk to [us]. You can’t speak out. Look at what happened to Chris Smalls. Unless it’s a united front, where people stand together and say no, they will continue to pick us off one by one.”