There’s a standoff in Bessemer, Alabama, right now, and the whole world is watching. For nearly the entirety of the past year, amid a deadly pandemic, warehouse workers and organizers with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) have rallied to attempt a historical feat: To create the first official Amazon union in the United States, which would represent around 5,800 workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer. The votes have been cast; now we wait for the results.
With the support of the RWDSU, these warehouse employees, 75-80% of whom are Black, have pushed back against the unsafe and unfair working conditions that have become synonymous with Amazon’s business. But the worker-led unionization effort has also highlighted the ways such conditions have come to define more broadly many sectors of labor in the South.
In a country where labor law has been systematically designed to favor the bosses and to make it exceedingly difficult for workers to unionize, the mere fact that Amazon workers in Bessemer have made it to this point is remarkable. But workers and organizers on the ground have also had to combat a pervasive anti-union and anti-worker culture that has been built up over decades, even centuries—a culture that has made it possible for companies like Amazon to weaponize a multitude of misguided narratives about what unions do and how Southern workers should feel about them.
Just as these workers represent a new chapter in the struggle for labor rights in the South, Amazon’s countermeasures evoke the ugly, repressive history of anti-worker politics that has dominated in Southern states for generations, including a concerted and sustained campaign to misinform workers and the broader public about organized labor. Every step of the way, while its warehouse workers fought to secure a fair union election, Amazon has sought to capitalize on that repressive history.
If the union vote in Bessemer is successful, it will no doubt have tremendous implications for the labor movement in the South and beyond. Regardless of the eventual outcome, though, the people behind the Amazon union drive have made significant advances in the ideological and rhetorical battle against a longstanding anti-union culture that, until recently, seemed stubbornly unshakeable.
Shortly after graduating from Dunbar High School in Bessemer, Alabama, a young man named James Boggs hopped aboard a hulking freight train headed north. His final destination? Detroit. Like so many other Southern Black men, Boggs was hoping to escape racist, oppressive Jim Crow laws and economic deprivation. The promise of a decent job—preferably at the stud-piloted Budd Wheel assembly plant where his uncle worked—propelled him across state lines.
After receiving training at a trade school through the Works Progress Administration, Boggs would eventually get work as a template maker at a Chrysler factory during Motown’s wartime economic boom. It was after his arrival there, in tandem with joining the United Auto Workers, that James Boggs evolved into a political radical, a militant labor organizer, and a fierce social critic. “My early experience was in the union, and that’s where I got my real organizing skills—in strikes, wildcats, picketing, goon squads, stuff like that,” he later said.
Boggs would go on to become a subversive advocate for civil and economic rights for Black communities, so much so that, in the early ‘60s, he called for a new American Revolution: a revolt against racial capitalism, imperial violence, and social deprivation.
One thing that greatly worried Boggs, though, was that the same unions that spurred so much crucial political action and mobilization during the Great Depression had neglected the struggles of Black workers, particularly in the South. Boggs had witnessed firsthand the failure of “Operation Dixie,” a robust 1946 effort by a pre-merger Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to “organize everything in sight” below the Mason-Dixon line.
The goal of Operation Dixie was to strengthen union power in key cities like Birmingham and New Orleans and simultaneously wrestle political power away from the Southern aristocracy. Not only was such an objective vital for the lives and livelihoods of Southern workers, it was critical for a national labor movement that had to contend (as it still does today) with the fact that Northern companies were strategically trying to escape union organizing by fleeing to the South. But the operation largely failed to achieve its objective, and history went in another direction—a direction that would see the eventual creation of the AFL-CIO and a shift toward less militant, more business-friendly unionism.
Even while key labor leaders like UAW president and “Most Dangerous Man in Detroit” Walter Reuther vocalized support for the Civil Rights movement and the plight of Black workers, Boggs sharply pointed out that organized labor’s vacillations in the South had left Black workers stranded, atomized, and charged with fending for themselves against the dual corrosion of racism and exploitation.
“Millions of workers in the South have never been organized by the unions and never will be because the unions no longer have the social power to overcome the resistance of the Southern industrialists who control the local sheriffs, judges, police, politicians, and agents of the federal government,” Boggs wrote in 1963.
Boggs’ concerns still ring true almost 60 years later, largely because the issues he identified never really went away. Across the board, workforces in Southern states have lower union density than the national average (10.8%) and trail far behind the highest-union-density states like Hawaii (23.7%) and New York (22%).
In 2020, as a recent news release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes, “30 states and the District of Columbia had union membership rates below that of the U.S. average, 10.8%, while 20 states had rates above it. All states in both the East South Central and West South Central divisions had union membership rates below the national average, while all states in both the Middle Atlantic and Pacific divisions had rates above it.”
Even in places like Alabama, which has an impressive regional high of 8% union density, worker protections are still paltry at best: As in many other states, misclassification of workers as independent contractors, wage theft, unannounced schedule changes, termination without just cause, etc., are not uncommon for low-wage workers in the Cotton State. Moreover, much like Boggs decried over half a century ago, the institutional and political weakness of organized labor in the South means that working people have had few opportunities to halt the calcification of power arrangements that shore up employers’ influence, legal protections, and control over the labor market, creating a very steep mountain for organizers to climb.
Not only has this vacancy allowed anti-union propaganda to circulate unimpeded, it has played an outsized role in the general degradation of living standards for working people. In general, workplace accidents, income inequality, social mobility, and health quality are substandard in Southern states, and all of these are intimately connected to the question of organized labor. A study on the impacts of low union density in the South by the labor researcher and academic Lance Compa found that “social outcomes in the American states are closely linked to levels of trade union representation.” This, as James Boggs knew in the 20th century and as Amazon workers in Bessemer today know, is why unionization is not only a matter of democracy in a specific workplace; unions themselves are a vital vehicle for (re)building communities around shared interests and needs, and for empowering those communities to drive social, economic, and political change.
Since the RWDSU publicly announced its union drive in October of last year, workers at the Bessemer warehouse have been subjected to mandatory “captive audience” meetings, wherein management and a team of union-busting advisers fearmonger about what unions will do to their wages and “workplace culture.”
“They’ve been going to 30-minute union busting classes every day. [Amazon] talks to the people more often than we do, but we have made a big push in these last months,” Michael “Big Mike” Foster told TRNN. Foster, a former poultry plant worker and lead organizer with the RWDSU Mid-South Council in Birmingham, has been speaking with Amazon workers in Bessemer for half a year.
Foster explained that, despite Alabama being a “right-to-work” state, which quite literally means workers cannot be contractually compelled to pay union dues, Amazon continues to exploit the gaps in common knowledge about unions that have resulted from a pervasive anti-union culture, including scaring workers into believing they will be forced to pay union dues, that unions will negotiate for lower pay, and so on.
From an organizing perspective, Amazon’s bad faith statements aren’t necessarily meant to persuade anyone, but rather to muddle the actual discussion on what unions can provide for workers. Because, strategically, that’s all Amazon has to do: sow enough doubt about what a union could mean in the minds of workers who have historically (and intentionally) been provided with few opportunities to learn or experience what having a union actually means in practice.
But Foster himself has become somewhat of a master at turning these anti-union talking points on their head and showing, like with a house of cards, how little they hold up under minimal pressure. “[If] the union was so bad,” he often asks workers, “and the union was gonna take your money and drop your pay down, don’t you think Amazon would allow us to just run in? I mean, Amazon wants the cheapest labor that they can get, most companies do. So if every union was going to do that, why is Amazon fighting us so hard?”
In general, the scale is tilted heavily in favor of employers during a union drive. Especially at places like Amazon, where body-breaking workloads ensure consistently high employee turnover, it is exceedingly difficult for workers to make it through the kind of yearlong marathon that workers in Bessemer have endured just to get to this point, including meeting covertly and reaching out to a union, getting at least 30% of their coworkers to sign union authorization cards, securing an election vote with the NLRB, and combating their employer’s union busting efforts every step of the way. This is to say nothing of the fight that still lies ahead if the union vote is successful—many new unions are subjected to decertification challenges and tactical delays by employers during bargaining to the point that they never even reach a first contract.
Not only can companies legally force workers to attend the captive-audience meetings described by Foster, but illegal political tactics—like threatening to move their shop or contact immigration officials as a way of retaliating against workers who speak up—are hard to combat. Employers can also violate a plethora of labor laws, such as firing employees for organizing, without much consequence. This is partly because penalties for such violations (like companies being required to hang a blue-and-white sign in their workplace stating they have previously broken state or federal labor laws) are not sufficiently steep. It is also because the legal process for holding employers accountable and securing restitution (if one’s right to pursue that process wasn’t signed away at the start of employment) is long, arduous, and often prohibitively expensive.
Amazon not only frames unions as pernicious, but unnecessary. Dave Clark, the company’s SVP of Worldwide Operations, stated on social media that “we actually deliver a progressive workplace for our constituents: a $15 minimum wage, health care from day one, career progression, and a safe and inclusive work environment.”
What Amazon representatives like Clark regularly neglect to mention is that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the base pay at Amazon’s Bessemer facility (around $15.50) is roughly $3 less than the median hourly wage in the greater Birmingham area, of which Bessemer is a part. When represented by a union, workers doing similar warehouse jobs in the area are making $19 or $20 per hour.
Amazon’s stance is that they “do not believe unions are in the best interest of our customers, our shareholders, or most importantly, our associates.”
It’s a softer, ostensibly liberal rebranding of a common message from Southern Republicans, whose rhetoric and power were so aptly forecasted by James Boggs.
In 2014, when manufacturers with unionized workforces sought to do business in South Carolina, then-Governor Nikki Haley stated she was uninterested. “We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water.”
And former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley said in 2015 that “it hurts Alabama … when a plant is nonunionized and suddenly it becomes a unionized plant.”
Ben Hamm, a veteran organizer at the Bessemer branch of the International Union of Operating Engineers, understands where such animosity comes from, whether it’s being spewed by robber baron Republicans or faux progressive companies like Amazon.
“How is the 12 % of us union workers so detrimental to the economy?” Hamm asked TRNN while driving through the streets of Bessemer. “Why is that itty-bitty 12% such a bad thing? Let me tell you what: As long as there’s a union wage somewhere, for your type of work, that non-union (workplace) has to be competitive.”
“They want to bottom the wages out. But when there’s a big enough gap, those people on the bottom are gonna go, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We want to make that money, we want those benefits. And so we want to be a part of the union,’” he continued.
The Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer seem to understand that, in Hamm’s words, “it ain’t gonna be a race to the top.” All the while, Amazon continues to rake in hundreds of billions of dollars in profit.
Darryl Richardson, one of the workers who initially contacted the RWDSU about organizing his workplace in July of 2020, decided to reach out after Amazon failed to keep workers safe during the pandemic and withdrew hazard pay.
“I thought it was going to be a nice place to work when I got there,” he said.
Richardson works as a “picker,” which involves going up and down the massive aisles of the warehouse with a bulky cart and finding the items that need to be shipped out. The expectation is that pickers will withdraw about 350 units per hour, with a 7 second “takt time.”
Richardson describes the job as depleting and hard on the body: Chronic foot pain, backaches, and exhaustion are common descriptions among the Bessemer workers. After he finishes his usual 7:15 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. shift, Richardson says that he feels unable to do anything besides sleep. Even then, he needs to stay vigilant.
“They change employee schedules, including mine, while you’re sleeping. We lay down, thinking we have to be in at a certain time, only to wake up and find out you need to be in an hour early,” he explained.
But most importantly, he feels that Amazon grants little dignity or understanding to their employees.
“You have employees getting fired for going to the bathroom, right? You have employees being monitored anytime they leave their station to get a drink of water. Employees getting fired for not being six feet apart when you have 40 to 50 people walking in and out of the facility to leave or go on break. And when it comes to [unpaid time off], if you’re 15 minutes late, they automatically take an hour out of your check,” Richardson said. “It seems like you are set up to fail.”
And while Amazon claimed it set new industry standards by raising its hourly wage to $15—as well as having backed a national minimum wage hike—the multinational distributor remains one of the companies employing the greatest number of people receiving SNAP and other welfare benefits.
Despite Alabama’s efforts to revitalize the local economy by guiding Amazon to Bessemer with a $48 million incentives package, the poverty rate in the area is still at almost one in three (over twice the national average).
Before joining the RWDSU union drive, Richardson—who lives two hours away in Tuscaloosa—was cleaning apartments on his days off in order to accrue some meager savings. Since working at Amazon, though, even this modest goal has been unattainable.
“We make just enough to pay-on, not pay off,” Richardson, who makes $15 an hour, said. “Before you get the check, it’s gone. It’s unbelievable. When you get paid, you already know where it’s going, where it needs to go,” he continued.
Historically, unions have been key in fighting income inequality and racial wealth gaps. Lane Windham, the associate director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, explains that in the 1970s, women and people of color became highly mobilized in the labor movement as part of the widespread attempt to turn the tide against centuries of poor working conditions and wages.
“The height of union density among Black men in this country was 1973. Among women, it was in 1979. Black women more or less—within unions—had erased the race differential. And the fact that so many Black women had unions meant that they made huge inroads to narrow the wage differential by race,” Windham told TRNN.
Unfortunately for organized labor, following the ascension of Ronald Reagan—who ironically negotiated three strikes as the head of the Screen Actors Guild—union density began to rapidly decline. Windham’s book, Knocking on Labor’s Door, addresses textile, retail, and industrial workers (many of whom were Black women) that brought about the temporary, but empowering, revitalization of the post-Civil Rights labor movement.
And despite Windham’s insistence that historians shouldn’t work in counterfactuals, she wonders how that brief moment of aggressive working-class politics could have reshaped the country. “What if, after workers had gotten full access to the job market, following the Civil Rights Act, they had actually been able to form unions and had full access to this whole system?” Windham queried. “What would that have done for poverty rates? How would that have maybe even changed things like incarceration rates? How would it have changed wealth differences? How would it have influenced politics?”
This is why the Bessemer drive, regardless of how the election swings, will be a flashpoint in the fight surrounding private sector power, workers’ rights, and income inequality. Since the effort became a public forum on union power, at least a thousand Amazon workers from across the country have reached out to the RWDSU.
Even when unions fail to win elections or disrupt parasitic employment relations, their organizing efforts have lasting impacts. In the early 1930s, Jim Lipscomb, a former mine worker and blacklisted organizer, returned home to Bessemer to assist the left-wing International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers—or, simply, Mine Mill. Mine Mill was fighting back against the exploitative and dangerous working conditions in Alabama’s coalfields, and Lipscomb wanted to use his legal knowledge to assist them.
The 5,000 miners in Bessemer, of whom 80% were Black, were not adequately represented by their employee-approved union. As such, Mine Mill was formed as a coalition between Black labor and Communist Party-affiliated organizers.
From its inception, Mine Mill was undermined by the company: Workers were fired arbitrarily, given heavier work-loads, punished for anodyne offenses, and intimidated for organizing. But two strikes, in 1934 and 1936, greatly improved the lot of the coal miners, and Mine Mill would soon win over more local white workers. A pay restitution settlement in 1938 would result in $700 payouts for financially harmed workers.
Unfortunately, after the end of World War II, the Red Scare and racial tensions between Black and white workers would corrode the structural integrity of the union—but not before it paved the way for the Bessemer chapter of the NAACP, a voting rights organization, and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights in Birmingham. Thus, the necessary pieces for ending racial apartheid in Yellowhammer country were, in part, put in place from such efforts.
No matter what happens, whether workers vote in favor of the union or Amazon’s propaganda effort curries enough favor to keep the RWDSU from getting over the finish line, the stand that has been made in Bessemer is going to resonate within the labor movement—even if we can’t feel the magnitude right now.