Workers in Bessemer, Alabama are currently voting on whether to form the first union of Amazon workers in the United States. Due to the pandemic, the election is taking place via a mail-in vote, rather than in-person — the company fought to force an in-person election, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rightly rejected the request on health and safety grounds (and then rejected Amazon’s appeal on this matter).
Ballots were mailed out to the roughly fifty-eight hundred workers on February 8, and are due back by March 29. It’s unclear if the unusual voting method will help or hurt the union effort. The lengthy voting period means more time for the company to push its anti-union propaganda (it is legally barred from holding captive-audience meetings with workers during the voting period, but there is no barrier to other, more subtle forms of fearmongering).
But voting by mail may help the union. All it needs is majority support from those who vote, not from the entire bargaining unit; mail-in voting might allow the union to undertake efforts to ensure that its supporters vote, while hoping those who are ambivalent simply do not send back ballots.
The cause for the organizing drive won’t be surprising to readers of this publication: overwork, with frequent firings. Amazon is infamous for its innovations in controlling workers, using algorithms to track productivity down to the second, with too much “time off task” grounds for a talking to and, frequently, termination. Such is the basis for the well-known stories of workers peeing in bottles to avoid trekking across the enormous warehouses to go to the bathroom — the Bessemer location is 855,000 square feet, and multiple floors.
As Jennifer Bates, a worker at the Bessemer facility, put it in a recent interview, this technology-heavy approach to labor discipline means that Amazon’s insistence that a union will get in the way of workers’ relationship to the company rings hollow — the workers have a relationship to an app, to an algorithm, not to the company.
No one knows how this election will shake out, or what the consequences will be. Amazon is virulently anti-union, and it is spending a lot of money to defeat the organizing drive — one anti-union consultant, hired on January 25, was paid $3,200 a day for his services. It’s running the standard anti-union playbook, with captive-audience meetings, incessant anti-union texts, and flyers in the bathroom stalls. It’s even getting the most precarious workers, temps who are ineligible for the union, to wear “Vote No” flair on the shop floor.
All this is taking place in a right-to-work state in the Deep South. And the pandemic makes the logistics harder than usual for the union: home visits to talk to workers are a no-go, and with workers socially distancing on and off the job, there are fewer opportunities for the sort of informal shop talk and camaraderie that is so crucial for collective efforts.
Even if the union drive succeeds, challenges will remain: Amazon does not shy away from closing facilities where labor unrest is on the rise, and workers can also expect the company will do its damnedest to prevent them from ever winning a first contract. One study from 2009 found that one year after voting to unionize, 52 percent of workers had not yet won a contract, an important marker due to the fact that if workers lack such a contract one year in, the NLRB allows them to vote on decertifying the union.
On the flip side, had you asked labor-movement people — union organizers, labor journalists, rank-and-file activists — a year ago whether Amazon warehouse workers would be voting on unionizing an Alabama facility in early 2021, most of them would have laughed at your naivete.
These are workers who reached out to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) within months of the Bessemer warehouse becoming operational in March of 2020. They have support from people around the world. The help isn’t only coming from other workers, though there is that too: the union also recently received a Congressional delegation, and a video from Joe Biden. Their efforts have already inspired other Amazon workers. Just in the past few weeks, a nascent Teamsters effort in Iowa has become public.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the town in question has a rich history of radical, anti-racist, militant union organizing: Bessemer, the scene of landmark 1930s coal strikes and the radical Mine Mill union. This history suffuses the union drive — the workers there say so themselves — and the campaign is being led by other workers, RWDSU members employed in nearby meat processing plants. There are unions of Amazon workers in other countries, but no one has gotten this far in organizing the company’s US facilities. Only a fool would presume to know what these workers are capable of, and what their victory might inspire among a working class that has been pushed to the brink.