Annenberg Radio

Amazon workers in Alabama spark union debate

Eyes across the country turned to an Amazon warehouse in Alabama as it became the center of a growing labor movement.

Activists, organizers, politicians, actors, and musicians, all showed up in support for what was shaping up to be a historic call for worker’s rights. Now after suffering a highly publicized loss, union advocates plan to build for the future.

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In March, senator Bernie Sanders and rapper Killer Mike led a rally in Bessmer, Alabama supporting the unionization efforts.

“If they won’t treat their people right, who are we if we stand on the side of evil just to get a package to our door in two days.”

“Union’s not going to solve it all, but what it does do is allow you a seat at the table.”

Other vocal supporters included the NFL Player’s union, actor Danny Glover and even President Biden.

“You know, every worker should have a free and fair choice to join a union. The law guarantees that choice.”

Despite the apparent breadth of public support, the vote came and went, and the union was decisively rejected. Amazon employees in Bessemer voted against unionizing by two to one.

After that vote failed, organizer Chris Smalls created the Amazon Labor Union. He saw what happened in Bessemer from the ground, and hopes to use the loss there as a blueprint for building a new union by and for Amazon employees.

Smalls worked for Amazon for five years. He was fired alongside others last year at his Staten Island warehouse after protesting a lack of COVID 19 hazard pay and protective clothing. The New York Attorney General’s office has filed a lawsuit against Amazon over the Smalls case, worker safety and retaliation.

Smalls says he began the Amazon Labor Union to prevent others from receiving the same treatment he did.

“You know, I poured my blood, sweat and tears into this company for almost five years. I was a great employee, a great supervisor. And at the end of the day, this company did nothing but turn their back on me and fired me.”

The first question for Smalls and other union advocates to ask is … “what happened in Bessemer?”

The Bessemer plant had just opened up right about the start of the pandemic.

And a few months in, essential workers at Amazon facilities started complaining about unsafe conditions. That’s when a handful of workers in Bessemer started reaching out to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

RWDSU organizer Chelsea Connor says these conditions motivated workers towards a vote to unionize.

“The labor movement is looking to this as a call to action among workers who’ve been mistreated throughout this pandemic, but who’ve also been mistreated as we’ve reverted as a society to e-commerce and manufacturing.”

Workers filed a petition in November to hold a union vote at the Bessemer warehouse. Connor says Amazon responded with a series of legal challenges to block the union from taking hold.

Anne Susan DiPrizio is a civil rights activist who lives in Bessemer and organized several pro-union demonstrations.

She said: “In December, the city changed the streetlights so workers wouldn’t stop and talk to union organizers standing/recruiting at [the] edge of Amazon property.”

DiPrizio says the tactics amount to intimidation. She says Amazon cut union access to the workplace by firing petitioners, distributing anti-union training material and offering bonuses to workers who refused to vote.

These tactics were especially successful due to Alabama’s current labor laws. They give corporations much looser restrictions on reasons they can fire employees. Because of these laws, it is easier to prevent workers from organizing.

Chelsea Connor explained why organizing in the south is so important for the RWDSU.

“What the Bessemer battle stands for is so much more than Amazon and so much more about what is happening in the southern United States, which is that companies are running to anti-union right to work states to open up shop to prey on workers who don’t have a union voice in their workplace.”

Despite this, the majority of Amazon employees in Bessemer voted the union down.

The Bessemer warehouse brought competitive wages to the community. Meanwhile, some union advocates say workers saw the RWDSU as an outsider looking to change things.

The Bessemer campaign taught Smalls that internal pressure is necessary to get workers invested in unionization. He believes that Amazon workers should build their own union.

“We learned of how we’re going to have to connect with these workers. That’s the reason why we chose to go the independent route and create ALU because we realize that trying to have an established union, sometimes it doesn’t have a good taste.”

Smalls wants Amazon workers to know about the benefits they used to receive and should demand for again. This includes higher payment, a stake in the company and performance bonuses.

Although the Bessmer union vote was unsuccessful, Smalls says the labor movement within Amazon shows no signs of stopping. The ALU is moving to authorize a vote at the Staten Island warehouse.

“We all are Amazon workers and we’re all creating this together. So the fact that we’re able to connect like that, that’s a different type of connection, a different type of relationship that seems to be working.”

Smalls says that the momentum and publicity from the Bessemer effort is helping unionization become closer to reality for Amazon employees around the country.