For weeks, tension has been building at this warehouse in a small town in central Alabama ahead of a milestone vote, beginning this week, on whether to form what would be the first US union in Amazon’s nearly 27-year history.
Jennifer Bates, an employee-organizer at the Bessemer facility who has worked at Amazon since shortly after the warehouse opened last spring, said that making it to this point is a huge feat in and of itself. “We didn’t know how we’d reach so many people,” Bates, a learning ambassador who helps train other workers at the facility, told CNN Business. “Amazon is so huge. We have four floors and thousands of people in there. But we realized there were enough voices and enough issues. You can have complaints at any job but these were cries.”
Bates, who said she was represented by a union in a previous job, ticked off a list of issues that workers hope to improve with the help of union representation, including adequate break time, better procedures for filing and receiving responses to grievances, higher wages, as well as protection against Amazon wrongfully applying policies like social distancing to discipline workers.
In a statement to CNN Business in January regarding the union effort, Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox said, “we opened this site in March and since that time have created more than 5,000 full-time jobs in Bessemer, with average pay of $15.30 per hour, including full healthcare, vision and dental insurance, 50% 401(K) match from the first day on the job; in safe, innovative, inclusive environments, with training, continuing education, and long-term career growth.”
“The pandemic opened a lot of peoples’ eyes that workers really need a voice in their workplace in order to protect themselves,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU. “People are worried about their lives.”
At the same time, workers at Bessemer have been motivated by the ongoing racial justice movement, according to Appelbaum, who said roughly 85% of the workforce is Black. “People were inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to stand up for their own rights and dignity,” Appelbaum said. “This campaign has been as much of a civil rights campaign as it has been a labor campaign. We’re talking about basic dignity for working women and men.”
“The most aggressive anti-union campaign I’ve seen”
All together, Appelbaum called it “the most aggressive anti-union campaign I’ve seen.”
Workers are now left to sort through the mixed messages. One Bessemer worker, who requested their name be withheld for fear of retribution, said they are puzzling over the financial impact of dues and the potential benefits of union representation.
The worker, who has not decided which way to vote yet, was initially attracted to the job because of the set hours and schedule, but now has concerns about pandemic safety measures inside the facility. “If you don’t want the people to have a union, you need to do everything [to address the concerns], or at least piece by piece,” the worker said.
Another Bessemer employee, Dawn Hoag, is adamant about how she’ll vote: “No.” She said she doesn’t feel like Amazon hid any of the conditions of the job when she was hired. “Not everybody is going to like having to work hard,” said Hoag, a seasonal process assistant who said she would request to transfer to a different facility if the union were to succeed. “I don’t see a purpose in me paying somebody else to fight my battles. I’ve always been told fight your own battles.”
Workers at other Amazon warehouses in the United State are paying attention to the outcome. At a Baltimore facility, Amazon associate Andre Goodin said he and several of his colleagues talk about the Alabama union vote “quite often, believe it or not.” Goodin, who has also previously worked a union job, said he believes there’s a host of things that could be potentially improved with the support of a union.
“We’re hearing from Amazon workers all over the country. I think that what has happened thus far is significant regardless of the outcome of the election,” said RWDSU’s Appelbaum. “It opens the door for more organizing in the future. It opens the door and shows you’re able to stand up to Amazon.”