Perry Connelly has been working at Amazon for 11 months, a tenure long enough to earn him the status of “old timer” among his colleagues at the facility in Bessemer, Alabama. Not long after he started, and after a run-in with management that he and others felt unfair, he discreetly pulled two co-workers aside. “I was like, man . . . what we need here’s a union.”
It wouldn’t be easy. At 58, Connelly had been a union member in previous jobs. But he’d never started one, nor did he know how to. And he was up against Amazon, which in its 26-year history has proven as effective at union-busting as it has at delivering packages.
A victory for the union would also be symbolic of the leftward shift in American politics in the wake of the pandemic. Within weeks of entering the White House, Joe Biden gave a resoundingly pro-union statement, urging workers to “make your voice heard”. His team has also been challenging ideas about debt, inflation and the role of government that have been economic orthodoxy for the last 40 years.
“What’s happening in Bessemer, Alabama, is the ultimate David and Goliath story,” says Marc Bayard, director of the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. “It’s one of the largest companies in the world, and those workers are located in one of the historically most conservative and historically racist states in the US. That’s the spark that Amazon is most worried about.”
He adds: “If you can win in Bessemer, then you probably can win anywhere.”
“The way that labour ultimately succeeds in the south is to reframe it as a civil rights issue,” says Keri Leigh Merritt, a historian of slavery and southern labour. “Framing it in these terms gives it a spiritual meaning, a higher meaning, a way for people to think really of the common good, and the interests of the community.”
The labour and civil rights movements have long worked arm-in-arm. When Martin Luther King Jr walked with 250,000 people to Washington in 1963, it was a march for “jobs and freedom”. In 1968, King lent his support, and delivered what would be his final speech, to black sanitation workers in Memphis pushing for union representation, and who were calling for dignified treatment from their city bosses. The battle produced some of the era’s most iconic images — black male workers holding or wearing signs stating simply: “I am a man.”