In Bessemer, Alabama, a historic, worker-driven grassroots union organizing campaign is underway at the Amazon warehouse there. The votes are being cast and will be counted, and the campaign could drastically change the lives of over 5,800 workers at the facility, who are demanding better treatment and a voice on the job.
The Amazon campaign is so important because it represents the story of working men and women in the pandemic era. Americans depend now more than ever on working people: workers at supermarkets, pharmacies, food processing and health care facilities––many of them RWDSU members––and of course, at Amazon. From daily necessities to luxury items, Americans depend every day on the work done by these Amazon employees.
This sprawling facility opened in March of last year, just as the world was coming to grips with COVID-19. And workers there had the same health and safety concerns of all frontline workers, which were exacerbated by Amazon’s workplace conditions and grueling productivity quotas. Workers perform their jobs close together, and short and infrequent breaks often don’t allow for adequate handwashing and sanitizing. Workers say Amazon monitors their productivity so closely that they are afraid to take bathroom breaks.
The concerns of workers in Bessemer reflect those of Amazon workers across the world. Thousands of Amazon workers have signed a petition calling for better health and safety policies. Amazon workers at facilities in Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, and the United Kingdom have held strikes or other worker actions to demand safer workplaces. Here in New York, the attorney general’s office has filed a lawsuit against Amazon for failing to provide adequate health and safety measures and for firing and disciplining employees that objected to Amazon’s unsafe work conditions. Even amid the Alabama workers’ organizing drive, Amazon continues to disregard safety, having insisted upon an in-person union election despite the COVID-19 pandemic. That move was shot down by the NLRB, which instead called for a mail-in vote. With at least 13 deaths at Amazon facilities––even before the pandemic––Amazon made the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s “Dirty Dozen” list of dangerous employers two years running.
The Alabama Amazon workers approached the RWDSU because they saw the difference the union was making in Alabama. The RWDSU was at the forefront fighting for frontline workers in the early days of the pandemic, bringing swift attention to the unsafe working conditions at poultry plants. In the wake of the RWDSU’s efforts, poultry plants improved their social distancing policies, erected barriers between workers, provided PPE and sanitizer for workers, implemented COVID testing, and increased pay for workers who were risking their lives to feed America while also providing pay for workers who were under quarantine. Bessemer Amazon workers took notice and, by December of last year, thousands of them had signed union cards.
The Amazon organizing drive is more than just about one campaign; it’s a moment working people are seizing to demand change, and to be treated as human beings. Regardless of the outcome of their campaign, the Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have already made history. They’ve brought renewed attention to the labor practices of the world’s largest retailer, and shown that when workers stand together, they can stand up against any employer in the world. Their inspiring campaign has already changed the landscape, and is resonating with working people everywhere who now know they can demand safer workplaces and the dignity and respect of union membership.
Stuart Appelbaum is president, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union
www.rwdsu.org. Twitter: @Sappelbaum