'We Deserve More': An Amazon Warehouse’s High-Stakes Union DriveHistorians in the News
tags: unions, Southern history, Alabama, labor, labor history, Amazon
Darryl Richardson was delighted when he landed a job as a “picker” at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to work for Amazon, work for the richest man around,” he said. “I thought it would be a nice facility that would treat you right.”
Richardson, a sturdily built 51-year-old with a short, charcoal beard, took a job at the gargantuan warehouse after the auto parts plant where he worked for nine years closed. Now he is strongly supporting the ambitious effort to unionize its 5,800 workers because, he says, the job is so demanding and working for Amazon has fallen far below his expectations.
Last August, five months after the warehouse opened, Richardson began pushing for a union in what is not only the first effort to organize an entire Amazon warehouse in the United States, but also the biggest private-sector union drive in the south in years. “I thought the opportunities for moving up would be better. I thought safety at the plant would be better,” Richardson said. “And when it comes to letting people go for no reason – job security – I thought it would be different.”
He complained about the fast, unrelenting pace of work and about seeing co-workers terminated for falling behind Amazon’s production quotas. As a picker, Richardson takes merchandise out of large metal bins that robots carry to his workstation, and he then hurries to put the items in various totes that a conveyor belt takes to packing. Nearby video monitors tell him what to do minute after minute. His quota is to pick 315 items an hour, five items a minute: toilet paper and toys, baby food and books destined for Amazon customers. “You’re running at a consistent, fast pace,” Richardson said. “You ain’t got time to look around. You get treated like a number. You don’t get treated like a person. They work you like a robot.”
Joseph McCartin, a professor of labor history at Georgetown, said Amazon was a good target for labor. “There’s a growing anti-Amazon appetite in the country,” he said. “There’s a growing sentiment that companies like Amazon have grown too powerful. They’ve reached a point where they have to be checked.” McCartin said winning a unionization campaign in the south can be tough; he pointed to labor’s high-profile losses at Nissan in Mississippi, Boeing in South Carolina and Volkswagen in Tennessee. He said that Amazon – with sales soaring to $125bn in its most recent quarter – was a “better target” for unions because “it has become enormously wealthy on jobs that are poorly paid and exploitative. It’s a bigger and more vulnerable target.”
Amazon’s anti-union tactics are in many ways typical for corporate America. In a study of unionization drives, Kate Bronfenbrenner, a researcher at Cornell University, found that 89% of employers held mandatory anti-union meetings, 57% threatened to close operations if workers unionized, 47% threatened to cut wages or benefits, and 34% fired union supporters. (Under current law, there is no penalty for illegally firing workers for supporting a union.)
John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State, said that in the Amazon-RWDSU face-off, “there’s absolutely not a level playing field. The union is competing with a company that has unlimited access and all different ways of reaching employees.” But under federal law, corporations can even prohibit union organizers from setting foot on company property. Last February, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (Pro Act), which includes many provisions that make it easier to unionize, including a ban on mandatory anti-union meetings and imposing fines on companies that fire workers for backing unions. Then the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, blocked a vote on it, although Democrats recently introduced the measure in the new Congress.
“I don’t think there’s any amount of money Amazon won’t be prepared to spend to win,” Logan said. “If the RWDSU lost, it would be a tremendous disappointment. If Amazon loses, it’s a disaster, it’s a catastrophe for them.”
Another big factor that could help the union win is racial solidarity. Bessemer’s population is 72% Black, and that helps explain the RWDSU’s notion that this is both a labor fight and a civil rights fight. “Viewing it through the lens of civil rights is going to make this take on a higher meaning, a more spiritual meaning,” said Keri Leigh Merritt, a historian who has written extensively on slavery and southern labor. “People are going to rise above their worries and unite over this higher calling. This is really something they can get behind.”
“One of the reasons this really might work is it’s a tie-in to civil rights and human rights,” said Michael Innis-Jiménez, a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama. “It’s about much more than bread and butter.”
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