Bessemer, Alabama—Amazon warehouse worker Isaiah Thomas is a certified troublemaker, a term meant to be disparaging that workers have reclaimed and redefined to celebrate courage and militancy. He got a slap on the wrist from Amazon management in January for talking to coworkers about the benefits of building a union, in violation of the company’s solicitation policy.
“While we understand your activity may have occurred during your break time, you were interfering with fellow associates during their working time, in their work areas,” the warning letter reads.
At captive-audience meetings, workers are required to sit and listen to Amazon’s highly paid anti-union consultants launch scorched-earth speeches replete with lies, distortions, and fear-mongering. Thomas was inoculated against these tactics—and he let the consultants know it. When one consultant tried to paint the union as an outside “third party” that would get between workers and management—presumably sullying Amazon’s world-renowned worker-manager relations—Thomas countered: “That’s not true. A union is us workers, bargaining with management.”
He said workers in the meeting would then look up “What is a union?” on their phones. Then they would turn to the consultants and ask: “Why are you lying to us?”
“Then, the union-buster would get upset and practically kick us out,” Thomas says. He remembers one consultant saying, “Well, we have another meeting coming up,’’ to which Thomas replied, “Well, you didn’t even finish the PowerPoint.”
Dale Wyatt, who works in the warehouse’s stowing department, described one anti-union consultant telling him that collective bargaining couldn’t guarantee workers an increase in pay but that they could go and talk to managers, despite not having collective bargaining rights.
“If I go to HR right now and ask them, ‘Hey, I believe that I’m working in a middle-class job, and I deserve middle-class wages,’ are they going to bargain with me one-on-one or send me back to my job?” Wyatt asked.
“And, of course, he took the politician’s approach,” said Wyatt. “‘Well, I certainly hope they wouldn’t,’” he remembers the consultant saying.
Eventually, workers said, Amazon stopped holding the captive-audience meetings.
Amazon workers in Bessemer are once again voting on whether or not to unionize. Ballots went out to Thomas, Wyatt, and over 6,100 workers at Amazon’s mammoth warehouse on February 4. Returned ballots will be counted starting on March 28, nearly one year to the day from when vote counting began in the historic first attempt by workers to unionize at the Bessemer facility, which ended in defeat. Will workers going on offense in captive-audience meetings make a difference in the election outcome this time around?
Nearly 50 percent of workers at the warehouse will be voting for the first time on whether to unionize with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). If successful, they will become the first unionized Amazon workforce in the US. That workforce includes Wyatt, who began working at Amazon last August after working at another distribution center. Amazon has a high turnover rate for warehouse workers, which company founder Jeff Bezos praises as a baked-in feature of its operation, designed to prevent what he calls a “march to mediocrity.” But that turnover rate is significantly lower in Bessemer than at the company’s other warehouses, where a 150 percent yearly churn rate is typical, according to a New York Times exposé.
The election will run through March 25, when ballots are due back. Last year, pro-union workers lost by a landslide after Amazon waged an aggressive anti-union campaign that included frequent captive-audience meetings. The company also handed out anti-union “Vote No” pins—featuring its warehouse mascot, “Peccy”—and “Vote No” tags for workers to hang from their cars’ rear-view mirrors. It offered buyouts to current employees and outfitted temp workers, who were not eligible to vote in the election, with “Vote No” swag, enlisting them to serve as walking anti-union billboards in the warehouse.
The company also festooned common areas with banners encouraging workers to “Speak for yourself” and “Vote No.” It plastered bathroom stalls with similar messages, sent emails and texts saying “Don’t Give Up Your Voice,” and even got the timing of nearby traffic lights changed to make it harder for union organizers to approach workers in their cars.
A National Labor Relations Board field officer recommended last April that the election be rerun, describing Amazon’s anti-union onslaught as “propaganda.” Then, last November, the NLRB’s regional director ruled that Amazon had broken the law by pushing the US Postal Service to install an unmarked mailbox as a ballot-drop site right in front of the Bessemer facility entrance, within full view of company surveillance cameras. On these grounds, the regional director ordered a new, mail-in election, saying the voting process in 2021 had been “essentially hijacked” by the company.
This time around, the ballot box has been moved, but the union has asked to have it removed from the premises.
“The mailbox’s continued existence on Amazon’s property stands as a stark physical memorial of a tainted election,” said warehouse worker Jennifer Bates during a virtual press conference in January.
“This is no ordinary rerun,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “Because it is Amazon, the whole world is watching, and no one is watching more closely than the NLRB General Counsel.”
The General Counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, has considerable power to set guidelines for the Board’s regional offices across the nation for dealing with cases before them. Among the new directives issued during her first months in office, Abruzzo revived a rule known as Joy Silk, which stipulates that a company deemed to have engaged in unfair labor practices for the purposes of blocking a union’s organizing campaign can be ordered to recognize and bargain with that union if most workers had signed cards to affiliate and requested recognition from the company.
With the NLRB no longer having a Trump-appointed majority, the RWDSU filed several unfair labor practice charges against Amazon, including one asking the Board to rule that simply having anti-union captive-audience meetings is an unfair labor practice in and of itself. (If the Protect the Right to Organize Act was signed into law tomorrow, for instance, such captive-audience meetings would be outlawed.)
“We felt, at least, we would have a receptive air with this new Board,” RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum told The Real News. “Employers should not have unlimited access that forces people to have to attend these lectures on why unions are bad, while at the same time unions are not even allowed anywhere on the premises.”
“Amazon was holding captive-audience meetings in two rooms, each operating sixteen hours a day,” Appelbaum continued. Workers have to stand or walk through grueling shifts on the warehouse floor, and “the only time they could sit down was during these union-busting meetings.”
Along with a highly visible Vote-Yes social media push, Appelbaum said workers have also held solidarity T-shirt days to show their support for the union, and gone door-to-door in neighborhoods where coworkers live.
“The excitement and energy this time is very different inside the facility and out,” Jennifer Bates said in an email statement. “Workers are throwing down like never before and we’re seeing it in our neighborhoods too.”
Nearly two-thirds of residents in Jefferson County, Alabama (which includes Birmingham and Bessemer), say they support the unionization push at Amazon, according to a February survey of 1,000 residents by the Institute for Policy Studies. Among African Americans, that support is nearly 80 percent.
Although only 5.9 percent of Alabama’s working population consists of union members, ranking 34th nationwide, it has a rich history of Black workers fighting to form interracial unions, especially in the steel industry. Birmingham was once dubbed the “Pittsburgh of the South,” and Bessemer, a town with a population that is 72 percent “Black or African American,” was named after Henry Bessemer, who invented a landmark method of converting iron to steel in the 1850s.
Even though they lost the first union election, workers inside the warehouse have managed to win small improvements by taking actions on the shop floor, such as marching on the boss with a petition demanding a microwave oven and more chairs in the break room.
These actions both demonstrate worker power and give union supporters a means of assessing how firmly workers will stand when the employer inevitably attacks the unionization drive by stoking fear, sowing division, and generating confusion among workers. The boss has the power to make life miserable, to discipline, and to fire. But workers can counter that power by banding together and demanding better treatment.
In January, Thomas and co-workers in the shipping dock department collected signatures on a petition demanding higher pay, longer breaks, better communication about their rate targets, and respect and dignity at work—and they delivered that petition to management.
Yet the more vocal individual workers become, the greater the chance is that Amazon will move them to jobs where they can be isolated and have less mobility. That was the experience of Darryl Richardson, who described how the company had assigned him to a job that required him to stand in one place after he emerged as a workplace leader, thus making it harder to organize on the job.
“At Amazon, we were designated to a station,” Richardson told Labor Notes last year, comparing restrictions on mobility within the warehouse to his previous job at a unionized auto parts plant. “We couldn’t roam. We was tied down.”
In contrast, Thomas says, “I literally do everything.” His various roles enable him to move around the warehouse interacting with coworkers. They include what Amazon terms “water spidering” (going into truck trailers with pallet jacks, pulling out pallets of packages, and setting them up to be unloaded onto the conveyor); “palletizing” (stacking boxes on wooden pallets); “transship” (moving inventory from one fulfillment center to another to fulfill customer orders); and “V-Ret” (vendor returns).
Thomas is a hard worker, a good worker. So, how did he become a “troublemaker”?
“The thing that really pushed me over the edge was the fact that we just don’t have a voice at all,” he said. “There are people living paycheck to paycheck, working two jobs, just to make a living, and every time they voiced their concerns, they’re never heard. We’re used as a means for Amazon to make more money. And that is what made me realize that I have to push as hard as I can for a union.”
Asked if the union had shifted its strategy from the last election, Appelbaum said it was the decline of the pandemic more than anything that changed the nature of the campaign. “During the revote, there was a vaccine and that made a difference,” he said. “During the first vote, it was at the height of the pandemic.”
For the first union election push, Joshua Brewer from the union’s Mid-South Council told Labor Notes that, to protect everyone’s safety, union organizers had abstained from knocking on doors or venturing inside the homes of Amazon workers. Few Americans were vaccinated and COVID was still raging across the nation.
“Now, because of the vaccine, we can do what is necessary for a campaign like this, and that is: knocking on every door of workers at the Bessemer facility,” said Appelbaum, adding that the seven-week campaign leading up to the first vote had limited the union’s ability to mobilize. Now, he touts the support workers and organizers in Bessemer have gotten from the labor movement, which has enabled them to enlist as many as 150 people at a time to knock on doors.
“The American labor movement understood the importance of taking on Amazon, not allowing it to go unchallenged,” he said. “Amazon is transforming industry after industry, from e-commerce to logistics, to technology, to medical prescriptions. Amazon’s model for the future of work and how workers should be treated in that future is unacceptable. Their model denies workers their humanity.”
Amazon is fending off challenges to its business model on multiple fronts. Last year, California approved a law restricting the company’s productivity quotas. Work-related injuries at the e-commerce retail giant’s warehouses occur at a rate almost 80 percent higher than in the rest of the industry, according to a May 2021 study by the union-backed Strategic Organizing Center, using data reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2017 to 2020.
At the federal level, talks continue in Congress on antitrust legislation to rein in Big Tech. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and other members of Congress sent a letter on March 3 to the Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission calling for an investigation into Amazon’s attendance policy to determine if the company is breaking the law by punishing and terminating employees for taking legally protected time off.
In New York, Amazon workers at two warehouses on Staten Island are voting on whether to unionize. Amazonians United, a network of worker committees spanning the US and Canada, staged three work stoppages across New York City and Maryland on March 16, with more than 60 workers participating in the shop floor actions.
Back in Alabama, even if Appelbaum would prefer to say vaccine availability is the chief driver of the union’s ramped-up efforts, there’s been a notable shift in organizing tactics.
“The union also learned important lessons from its defeat last time around,” said Bronfenbrenner, who has been in conversation with the RWDSU. “It is putting in more staff and financial resources and doing so more strategically. Most important, the rank-and-file workers who trusted Amazon have learned the lesson that the only way to make things better was to take the risk and build an organization that they could control—a union.”
Even if workers have a better sense of their power this time around, they are still sailing into fierce headwinds. Unions win about 70 percent of first-round union elections, but less than half of revotes, according to data from the NLRB.
“It is a very tough campaign for the union to win given the fear and intimidation the company already created in the first campaign,” said Bronfenbrenner. “But there has been a shift in this country nationwide.” If Amazon campaigns too aggressively, she adds, it risks having the NLRB order it to bargain with the union.
Amazon remains defiant, sending workers letters encouraging them to vote no. “I believe that we all work better when we work together,” one letter states, “and I hope to keep the same direct relationship without involvement of a third party with a ‘No’ vote to keep the union out of BHM1.” (That’s the company’s lingo for its warehouse in Bessemer).
Last year, thousands of farming equipment workers, hundreds of cereal workers, coal miners, health-care workers, and taxi drivers went on strike. Nationwide, Starbucks workers have voted for unions at seven stores, six in Buffalo, New York, and another in Mesa, Arizona. Workers at the Art Institute of Chicago voted 142-44 to unionize. Tech workers at The New York Times voted 404-88 to join The New York Times Tech Guild. At the outdoor-equipment and apparel cooperative REI in New York City, workers voted overwhelmingly 88-14 to unionize with RWDSU on March 2, rejecting what Appelbaum described as “woke union-busting.” (The company CEO opened an anti-union podcast by stating his preferred gender pronouns and acknowledging that he was speaking from former Native American land.)
“The fact that the workers [at REI] won, and they won so overwhelmingly, sends a message to the workers in Bessemer, and elsewhere, that you can stand up, and you can win,” said Appelbaum.
Then, of course, there was the first Bessemer campaign, sending a message to the world in one of the most covered union drives in recent memory, which made the public broadly aware of Amazon’s labor abuses and the righteous struggle of workers to improve their conditions. With a bevy of reporters, elected officials, and actors traveling to Alabama to show their support, news stories proliferated about what was characterized as a struggle between David and Goliath, a large, predominantly Black workforce going up against the world’s fourth-most-valuable company and one of the richest men in the world.
The New York Times had a live count of the ballots on its website, treating the campaign like a conventional Congressional election. Dressing a fight against the boss in all the pageantry and fanfare of political elections in the US doesn’t guarantee a union victory (as everyone invested in last year’s Amazon union drive learned), but it can at least break through the public consciousness, and something, however small, changed after Bessemer.
Amazon is now recognized more than ever as the international corporate leviathan that it is, and more workers are organizing against the danger posed by its virtually unchecked power. The campaign Bessemer workers advanced against Amazon ignited interest in new organizing and emboldened many other workers, including more than 1,000 mine workers at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama, who have been on strike for a better contract since April of last year.
This time around, win or lose, the very fact that workers are getting back in the ring is a sign that the fight to take back power cannot be stopped with one defeat. Because it is a fight for the future.
Union victories and worker struggles raise expectations among other workers, creating cascading, unpredictable effects on other struggles, inspiring other victories. The point, as workers in Bessemer have shown, is to keep fighting. Asked what needs to change at Amazon, Dale Wyatt says, “everything.”