Jason receives upwards of two dozen text messages a day about his warehouse’s union drive. Some are pro-union, and some against it. There are those from Amazon, his employer, to “protect what you have.” Then there are messages from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, known as RWDSU, urging him to use his vote to pave a new future for himself and the 5,805 workers at Amazon’s colossal warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.
When he goes into work, Jason is confronted with “Vote No” signs blanketing the 855,000-square-foot building, known as BHM1. The signs are in break rooms, at workstations, and even in bathroom stalls.
Still, just days before voting ends on March 29, Jason remains undecided.
“Everyone’s been confused,” said Jason, who like many of the 10 Bessemer warehouse workers interviewed for this story did not provide his surname for fear of repercussions. “In my opinion, no one around my age in the building has a clear-cut answer of how they’re going to decide.”
The 20-year-old stower — responsible for lifting boxes and scanning them for processing over a grueling 10-hour shift — is part of a sizable group of younger, noncommittal BHM1 workers. Their votes or abstentions could determine the outcome of the most closely watched American union election in decades.
In a sign of the push to engage young workers in the union drive, groundwork is being laid to bring Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to Alabama this weekend, according to two sources with knowledge of the planning. The trip, being put together by Sanders’s office and a constellation of activist groups, along with the union organizing Amazon workers, would bring one of Congress’s most ardent supporters of the labor push to the front line.
More than 80 percent of the 5,805 Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer are Black. While Sanders underperformed among Black voters in Southern Democratic primaries during the 2020 presidential race, younger Black Americans were more likely to support him.
Jason, who is Black, is sympathetic to the union effort but admits his unfamiliarity with unions has delayed his decision. His story resembles that of other younger workers in the warehouse — something an older generation of local workers, many of whom have led the union drive, has come to recognize.
“Some of the young people don’t realize what the union’s all about because they haven’t been taught the history,” said Mona Darby, a local poultry processing plant worker who has been a union member for 33 years. Darby was one of two dozen poultry and warehouse workers who showed up last October outside the Amazon warehouse to effectively launch the RWDSU’s on-the-ground organizing campaign.
There, at the tiny intersection of Premiere Parkway and Power Plant Road, she and other RWDSU organizers clad in the union’s bright-red colors have gathered nearly daily for months to speak to thousands of workers coming and leaving their shifts.
Darby said she often has to counter “misinformation” about the union when speaking to younger workers at the intersection’s stoplight. “They’ve been told by managers that the union means less money in their pockets and the end to their benefits,” said Darby. “I tell them to just give us a chance and we can show you what we can do.”
Over the course of reporting with workers in Bessemer earlier this month, both supporters and opponents of the union acknowledged that the outcome of the vote will not fall neatly along age lines.
Yet the organizing effort has been largely led by older workers, many of whom worked in union jobs before coming to Amazon. And many younger BHM1 workers have never interacted with a union over the course of their working lives and may have little understanding of the role a union has traditionally played in the workplace — a consequence, labor experts say, of a decadeslong assault on organized labor in the Deep South.
Alabama’s post-war deindustrialization, coupled with capital flight and the domination of the so-called right-to-work movement’s push to make unions optional over the last 40 years has denied an entire generation the education, collective memory and material benefits of labor unions, said UCLA professor Robin D.G. Kelley, an expert on Alabama labor history.
“Young Amazon workers in Bessemer are in a unique position,” said Kelley, whose seminal 1991 book “Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression” documented organized labor’s heyday in industrial powerhouse Alabama in the 1930s. “They have the ability here to upend the prevailing public narrative that they’ve been fed all their lives, which demonizes unions as ‘takers’ and praises employers as ‘makers’ and forge a new path for workers in the 21st century.”
Poverty and Inequality
BHM1 sits on land once owned by U.S. Steel, a major employer in the region until the latter half of the 20th century. The steel industry’s collapse precipitated Bessemer’s decline along with it.
When Amazon opened the Bessemer fulfillment center in late March 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic began to ravage the country, the company hired an initial 1,500 workers. Bessemer officials hailed the facility as an economic boon for a city where nearly 30 percent of residents live in poverty.
Bessemer Mayor Kenneth Gulley said Amazon’s $361 million investment in the center was the largest to ever come to the 138-year-old city. Left unmentioned was that the city had granted Amazon $3.3 million in tax incentives, in addition to promised investments in road improvements. (Gulley, who has not publicly stated his position on the BHM1 union election, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)
The historic union election in Bessemer has gained global attention because who the union is challenging. Amazon’s net profit soared 84 percent in 2020, with sales hitting $386 billion, even as tens of millions of Americans lost their jobs on account of layoffs and Covid-19 lockdowns. In October, Amazon disclosed that nearly 20,000 of its more than 1 million U.S. employees had contracted Covid-19. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added a staggering $132 billion to his wealth, becoming the public face of stark income inequality during the pandemic.
“I think that the pandemic has opened a lot of people’s eyes,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told The Intercept, “that you need a collective voice in the workplace.”
BHM1 workers in support of the union say they want job security, better working conditions, a return of $2-an-hour pandemic hazard pay, less invasive surveillance at work, and to curb the use of aggressive time clock practices where workers are docked pay. The overwhelming sentiment among those workers interviewed by The Intercept — even among those voting against the union — was that workers wanted to be treated as human beings, not as detached robots in the relentless algorithm-driven assembly line of the Amazon warehouse.
Amazon has fought aggressively to defeat the union drive in Bessemer. “We respect our employees’ right to join, form or not to join a labor union or other lawful organization of their own selection,” Amazon spokesperson Heather Knox told The Intercept in a statement. “Across Amazon, including in our fulfillment centers, we place enormous value on having daily conversations with each associate and work to make sure direct engagement with our employees is a strong part of our work culture.”
There are no unionized Amazon workers in the U.S., with Bessemer seen by labor experts as a test case which, if successful, could trigger a wave of unionization drives at other Amazon facilities nationwide. Michael Foster, the lead RWDSU organizer at BHM1, said, “My belief is that no matter the outcome, the labor movement is alive again.”
Opportunity Where Little Exists
Roughly 20 miles north of the warehouse, in Birmingham, the state’s largest city, K.D., a worker who asked that only his initials be used, first saw a job ad on Facebook. He had recently lost his job at a Mercedes-Benz automotive plant and said the pandemic recession meant finding a decently paying local job was unlikely. Options were slim: Companies like Walmart and Dollar General paid less than the $15 an hour Amazon offered, which was more than double the state’s $7.25 minimum wage. K.D. applied to Amazon in May and was hired in July 2020.
“I was excited to work at Amazon,” K.D., a 27-year-old community college student, told The Intercept. “But when I got there, I realized it wasn’t what they were selling.”
He described a warehouse where the virus was spreading uncontrollably with little intervention from management, except to enforce high productivity quotas. As a picker, K.D. spent his days pulling items off the line and placing them in boxes at a pace he portrayed as so frenzied that he often left work with swollen hands.
K.D. said cameras documented workers’ movements on 50-inch monitors displaying red circles around employees who, unwittingly, had veered within 6 feet of a colleague — a difficult task, he explained, in a warehouse with nearly 6,000 workers. (The Amazon spokesperson confirmed use of the “Distant Assistant” technology in its warehouses.)
“People were getting sick all around me,” he said, of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some days, K.D. said, he contemplated quitting but stayed in the job to put himself through school and pay rent.
On a cold January evening, as K.D. left his shift, a union organizer approached his car window at the intersection, handed him a flier, and informed him of the organizing effort within the warehouse. He signed a pledge card. Last month, he voted in favor of the union.
“Things didn’t start changing inside the warehouse until the threat of the union,” he said. “It’s a little too late.”
Once Jamelle Adams, a 33-year-old processing guide, heard of the union election, he encouraged his co-workers to vote no. His sole experience with a union, he said, was four years ago when he worked as a field technician for AT&T in St. Augustine, Florida. When he asked for a transfer to Alabama, he said the union was unsupportive. He cited good relations with his manager and Amazon’s college reimbursement benefit, which covers the bulk of workers’ college expenses, as the reason he opposes the BHM1 union.
As a “right-to-work” state, workers in Alabama are not obligated to pay union dues even in union workplaces, but some workers still worry about the fees. “To pay someone to come and speak on my behalf, I don’t need anyone to do that,” Adams said.
Older Workers Lead Union Push
Older warehouse workers played a critical role in the development of the union drive. The BHM1 union push began last fall with Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native Darryl Richardson. Richardson, 51, used to work at an auto plant — a union job — until he was laid off in 2019 when the plant closed. At the plant, he earned $23.58 an hour. At Amazon, he earns $15 as a picker.
Richardson began working at BHM1 when it opened last March but soon grew frustrated by the warehouse’s working conditions, his erratic work schedule, and unrelenting surveillance. If he left his scanner for too long to use the bathroom or to get water in the break room, he said his manager tracked his “time off task,” known as TOT. Accrued TOT began cutting into his paycheck. “You feel like a robot,” said Richardson. “You feel like just a number.”
At home one night, he went on Google to search for a union that could represent Amazon workers. The first result: RWDSU. Richardson went to the union’s website and filled out a query.
He received a call back a few days later and soon began meeting with union representatives, alone at first. The secret meetings soon moved to the Fairfield Inn, just down the road from BHM1. They included roughly a dozen workers and organizers. “We wanted to see if they were serious,” said Foster, the union organizer.
In mid-December, the National Labor Relations Board ruled to allow a union election at BHM1 after the RWDSU presented more than 2,000 signed pledge cards from workers, crossing the necessary 30 percent threshold.
One of the workers at those early meetings was Jennifer Bates, a 47-year-old learning ambassador at BHM1, who quit her unionized job last May at U.S. Pipe in Bessemer, where she earned just over $19 an hour. She joined Amazon, hoping she could grow in her career.
Like Richardson, she soon grew exasperated with the warehouse’s working conditions and “invisible” managers, who she says valued the products more than the health and safety of workers.
“The only times managers show up is to tell you that you’ve done something wrong,” said Bates, who testified this month before the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. “It’s a crazy monitoring system. It’s just like we’re in prison.”
The campaign to reach undecided younger workers in the warehouse has reached fever pitch in the election’s final stretch. The Birmingham chapters of Black Lives Matter, Our Revolution, and the Democratic Socialists of America, among others, have canvassed neighborhoods to build community support.
On a recent Saturday evening, Eric Hall addressed patrons at a Black barbershop in West Birmingham. He mentioned that 85 percent of BHM1 workers are Black and said the union could give workers higher wages, job security, and collective bargaining rights. “BLM is more than an organization,” said Hall, a co-founder of BLM Birmingham. “It’s an affirmation that Black lives are valued, that Black workers are respected.”
Bates is optimistic about the election, if warehouse employees can band together.
“There is no Amazon without its workers,” she said. “Together, we can win.”