Activists, community groups, and labor organizers protesting against Amazon’s HQ2 plans at City Hall, New York City. January 30, 2019. Photo: Brett Wallace.
This is an ongoing series about labor and the U.S. economy. Suggestions are welcome. For this post, I have included an update on what’s happening with the Amazon unionization effort in Bessemer, Alabama in the context of Amazon’s long-held war against workers organizing.
Amazon’s Long-Held War Against Worker Organizing
I took the photo above on the morning of January 30th, 2019 outside New York City Hall. It was a freezing day (sort of like this week has been). So cold that the camera shut off a few times on its own. The photo shows activists, labor organizers, and local coalition groups rallying on the steps of City Hall before the second oversight meeting between the city council and Amazon. Even though Amazon has avoided unions since its founding in 1995, you can see representatives from the Teamsters and RWDSU (Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union) in the photo, two of the biggest national unions supporting Amazon workers. The Teamsters represent the UPS drivers who help power Amazon’s distribution machine. The 5,805 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama are voting on whether to join the RWDSU in late March.
During the 3-hour meeting, titled, “Does the Amazon Deal Deliver for New York City Residents?”, Amazon executives were rocked by both the city council and the audience of workers, activists, and labor coalitions, for their defiant anti-union stance. Brian Huseman, Amazon’s VP of Public Policy, fell back on the tired counter-argument of how Amazon is all about creating jobs. The question is what kind of jobs (in terms of safety, security, wages) and how are those workers treated? There are plenty of flaws in Huseman’s response if one asks those questions.
After the meeting adjourned, I vividly remember Huseman storming by me on his way out of the building. I was struck by the feeling that the HQ2 deal was dead in New York because it did not and could not deliver for residents or workers. Amazon is not the type of company that will bend to the needs of workers or communities – rather, it expects incentives from the communities it occupies.
HQ2 was an event that shined a light on Amazon’s defiant anti-union stance. I ended up turning my footage from that day and other Amazon-related events leading up to it into an artistic film, called HQ2. Since this time, Amazon has become more aggressive and coordinated to shut down workers from organizing.
What’s happening in Bessemer?
Amazon warehouse workers in its Bessemer, Alabama facility have been organizing to create a union since last fall. A rally was held last Saturday, February 6th, in support of the upcoming vote. Bernie Sanders showed his support by having 40 pizzas delivered to workers and union supporters. A few days later, on Monday, February 8th, 5,805 ballots were mailed out to workers in the Bessemer warehouse – a major step in the closely watched union organizing event. The 5,805 Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama have until March 29th to vote on whether to join the RWDSU. On March 30th, the votes will be counted.
The Bessemer warehouse opened in March 2020. And, given this recent opening, the union likely caught Amazon by surprise. The last union event at Amazon was in 2014. As Alex Press writes in the New Republic, looking at the Birmingham-Bessemer region, a former center of steel and iron, offers additional context behind the union activity that has taken hold in Bessemer.
“It’s pure David and Goliath, though maybe that doesn’t fully capture it. Bezos is worth $184 billion; the median household income in Bessemer is just over $30,000. One in four residents live in poverty. This is a man who has everything trying to crush a town.”[efn_note]”The Alabama Town That Could Defeat Jeff Bezos.” The New Republic. Last modified February 8, 2021. https://newrepublic.com/article/161278/amazon-workers-unionization-bessemer-alabama[/efn_note]Alex Press
Workers are fighting for their dignity – unable to communicate with Amazon over better wages, working conditions, and job security. This is also a fight connected to the movement for Black Lives and civil rights – the Times reports, “Many of the employees at the Amazon warehouse are Black, a fact that the retail union has used to focus on issues of racial equality and empowerment. And leading the organizing effort are about two dozen unionized workers from nearby warehouses and poultry plants, most of whom are also Black.”[efn_note]”Amazon Union Drive Takes Hold in Unlikely Place.” The New York Times – Breaking News, US News, World News and Videos. Last modified January 25, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/25/business/amazon-union-alabama.html[/efn_note]
Nora De La Cour provides rich context on how the fight to unionize Amazon is a fight for racial justice. She writes, “If Amazon actually thought black lives mattered, the company would have already voluntarily recognized the union.” [efn_note]”The Fight to Organize Amazon Is a Fight for Racial Justice.” Jacobin. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://jacobinmag.com/2021/02/amazon-union-racial-justice-bessner-alabama [/efn_note].
This is a closely watched union drive given the size of Amazon and the fact that it is has evaded unions for so long. An Amazon worker union would stand in sharp contrast to Amazon’s poor treatment of workers and the staggering wealth accumulated by Jeff Bezos ($90 billion in the pandemic alone).[efn_note]Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies, 10-13-20 Billionaires Data, accessed via web October 26th, 2020[/efn_note] The ballots are due back on March 29 with the count beginning on March 30.
For more information about how a union election works and common union-busting tactics, check out this informative video from A More Perfect Union and labor reporter Kim Kelly.
Amazon’s History of Anti-Union Tactics
Over the last six years, Amazon has increasingly fought to undermine workers from organizing. The company believes that unions block the agility and speed that Amazon seeks in the era of rapid eCommerce order fulfillment and distribution at scale. In reality, a union would defend workers against Amazon’s aggressive strategy to squeeze costs out of its labor force by any means possible. In response to the union efforts in Bessemer, Amazon has created a full website and hashtag, #doitwithoutdues/, and posted flyers in bathrooms countering the benefits of union membership. This is not surprising given Amazon’s prior anti-union tactics.
In 2014, during an attempted union drive, Kellen Wadach, an Amazon manager in Delaware, created a false narrative about how his family was abandoned by his father’s union. The story was later disproved. The make-believe story remains an early example of how Amazon nurtures a culture that is hostile to union activity, enough for managers to rely on conjuring up fake stories to halt workers from organizing.
In 2018, Amazon sent a union-busting training video to Whole Foods management. It was then leaked by Whole Worker, a coalition of Whole Foods workers, to the media. The video is an instructional training video on union-busting, awkwardly branded and dressed up by HR with that gleeful background music and renders of cartoon-styled employees seen in tech explainer videos. In promoting Amazon’s direct connections with employees, the video states –
“We are not anti-union, but we are not neutral either. We will boldly defend our direct relationship with associates as best for the associate, the business, and our shareholders.”– Amazon union-busting video leaked in 2019
Whole Foods has continued its fight against unions resorting to using heat maps and sentiment analysis to under potential union activity across its network of stores and labor force.
Who remembers when Amazon aired this commercial in the early days of the pandemic praising their employees as retail heroes?
No doubt this PR stunt was a reaction to employees speaking out about the unsafe warehouse conditions of working through the pandemic. The realities of Amazon’s fulfillment centers, such as the tracking and termination of workers or workers peeing in bottles and skipping bathroom breaks, are left out of this commercial. These centers are ground zero for the company’s worst labor abuses and the direct action and protest against such conditions.
As the pandemic spread and worsened from March to May 2020 Amazon workers spoke out about the unsafe working conditions they faced. One action was an open letter to Jeff Bezos signed by 5,210 Amazon workers outlining specific concerns and constructive recommendations of working through the pandemic. Other worker-led efforts of raising awareness to Amazon and pushing for facilities to be sanitized took place in Amazon warehouses in Staten Island, New York, and Shakopee, Minnesota. Amazon’s response was to fire the workers involved for raising awareness, demanding safer working conditions, and doing the right thing. Among those fired were Bashir Mohammed, who worked at the Shakopee warehouse for three years, and Chris Smalls, who worked at Amazon’s New York City warehouse for five years. Other employees fired for speaking out included Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, and two leaders of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ), Maren Costa, and Emily Cunningham.
Chris Smalls was fired on March 30, shortly after he organized a group of colleagues to leave the warehouse during lunch hour to protest the company’s lack of safety precautions during the pandemic. As it addressed allegations around the firing, Amazon touted its commitment to health and safety. Leaked notes by Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky from an internal meeting where Jeff Bezos was present show Amazon’s abhorrent attempt to smear Smalls.
Two months later, on May 1, Smalls convened a protest at the Staten Island warehouse. Joined by nurses, transit workers, and former Amazon co-workers, he spoke out against the conditions he and his co-workers faced in the warehouse and how he was fired for ringing the alarm to protect workers. Chris continues to be a leading voice in the fight against Amazon’s growing power and has since gone on to launch the Congress of Essential Workers (T.C.O.E.W).
That same day, May 1st, Tim Bray, ex-VP, and Distinguished Engineer of Web Services resigned from Amazon based on the company’s treatment of warehouse workers and its firing of several leaders of Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ). Bray explained:
“And at the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of Covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done.[efn_note]Bray, Tim, “Bye, Amazon”, accessed via the Internet, https://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/202x/2020/04/29/Leaving-Amazon, October 29th, 2020[/efn_note]Tim Bray
By October 2020 Amazon reported 19,816 workers had been infected by the virus. [efn_note]Lerman, Rachel. “Amazon Says Nearly 20,000 Employees Have Caught the Coronavirus.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2 Oct. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/10/01/amazon-workers-covid-positive [/efn_note] The pressure from workers, officials, activists, and others eventually forced Amazon to do more to clean its facilities and take proper safety protocols. They had to if they wanted to recruit more workers. While other sectors and companies were devastated by the pandemic, the rise in eCommerce sales contributed to a massive hiring spree at Amazon in November.
Amazon’s latest anti-union, anti-organizing tactics in Bessemer, Alabama have gone beyond the new website, posting flyers in bathrooms, and conducting mandatory informational meetings to influence votes. Amazon tried to disrupt the union vote by pushing to require in-person votes, instead of a mail-in ballot – a request that was rejected by the NLRB. Amazon is not a pro-worker enterprise when you can order something to arrive at your doorstep tomorrow, but you have to vote on a union in-person.
Lee Fang reported this week that Amazon hired Russ Brown, an anti-union consultant to fight the union organizing efforts at the Bessemer warehouse. Brown is the CEO of RWP, a 3-person outfit, which markets itself as “the Nation’s premier full-service labor relations and management consulting team.” The company states that “third party interference makes business less productive and less competitive” and offers a range of services to protect employers like Amazon, including influencing employees during a union election campaign, strike preparation, and vulnerability assessments. This move comes after Amazon has hired FBI officials to improve its surveillance apparatus to protest the company against threats of antitrust, worker strikes, and other events disruptive to its business.
The recent announcement that Jeff Bezos was moving into Executive Chairman and Andy Jassey was to become the new Amazon CEO, was interesting timing. It could be read as a plan to distract from the union activity and/or as a move for Jeff Bezos to step back amid the intensifying antitrust scrutiny coming at the company from the European Union and Congress. Earlier this month, Tim Bray, the former executive who resigned from Amazon, penned a thoughtful response to the announcement outlining the legal challenges posed by antitrust legislation that will create more barriers for Amazon to navigate.
Despite Amazon’s efforts, the worker movement against Amazon continues to build. The movement of respect and dignity for workers who kept the economy running throughout the pandemic also continues to build. Last month, 1,400 workers at Hunts Point Produce Market in New York City walked off the job for a one-week militant strike that led to their successful contract negotiation. Like Amazon workers, these workers put themselves and their families at risk working through the pandemic.
My view – I support breaking up Amazon, and other big tech monopolies, given their unchecked accumulation of power and their abuse of this power against the workers that make their businesses – and the economy – run.
I plan to travel to Bessemer in the coming weeks to learn more from the local community and workers. Stay tuned.
Also, on a separate note, stay tuned for an exciting collaborative project, The Amazon Observatory. A core group of us – artists, researchers, activists – have been working to get the Amazon Observatory off the ground. The Observatory is an experimental, abolitionist virtual laboratory. It was established and works in solidarity with the fightback against Amazon’s growing power. It is made up of artists, researchers, and activists and combines their methods and approaches in order to share data and information, publish reports, curate and distribute artworks, support projects, and communicate with allies and the public. Stay tuned for more.
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