Technology Brief #40
Biden Administration Gives the Green Light to Unionization Efforts in Amazon Warehouses
By Scout Burchill
March 14, 2021
By the end of the month, history may well be made in Bessemer, Alabama as workers at an Amazon warehouse there are currently voting on whether or not to unionize. If successful, it will be the first Amazon warehouse in the United States to be represented by a union and will surely send shockwaves throughout the nation, encouraging other Amazon warehouses to stand firm against the company’s notorious union busting tactics and begin the fight for their own collective bargaining rights.
In a short video shared on Twitter, President Biden delivered an emphatic message of support for the warehouse workers of Bessemer, Alabama. He condemned any attempts by Amazon to intimidate, threaten or coerce employees who attempt to organize and exercise their rights. Doubling down on the Biden Administration’s pro-union agenda, on Tuesday, March 9th, the House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. It is one of the most transformative labor rights bills to see the light of day in recent memory. The bill’s fate is far from certain as it will face a considerable uphill battle in the Senate by both Republicans and Democrats that are more sympathetic to the interests of big business than those of the multiracial working class.
President Biden’s strong pro-union signaling, along with the PRO Act and the growing momentum of workers organizing for their collective bargaining rights in Amazon warehouses nationwide could set the stage for a long-overdue resurgence in labor rights. The warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, which employs around 5,800 workers, will be voting by mail on whether or not to unionize through the end of March.
Despite paying substantial lip service to social justice causes – especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests – Amazon’s business model, which has captured record profits during a deadly pandemic and a harrowing economic crisis for the working class, exploits the labor of working class Black and Brown communities. Look no further than their vile treatment and vilification of Staten Island warehouse employee Chris Smalls to see how the company actually treats their Black and working class employees who speak out about mistreatment in the workplace (See Technology Brief #27 for more details on this case and Amazon’s notorious union-busting tactics). On their website, Amazon claims to, “stand in solidarity with the Black community,” and rightfully denounces “the inequitable and brutal treatment of Black and African Americans.” The company also boasts of $10 million donations to organizations, “working to bring about social justice and improve the lives of Black Americans.” If Amazon truly cared about Black lives, they would not spend even more millions of dollars crushing unionization efforts that allow them to exploit the labor and lives of these communities. The example of Bessemer, Alabama presents a powerful case that labor rights are integral to rebuilding our democracy and strengthening the civil, political and economic rights of marginalized communities and the multiracial working class as a whole.
Bessemer, Alabama is an unlikely battleground for such a potentially momentous moment in American history to play out, but there are clues that help make sense of why Bessemer and why now. Alabama is one of the 28 ‘right to work’ states that have laws prohibiting union contracts from requiring non-union members to share in the cost of union representation and bargaining efforts even though these efforts tend to directly benefit them. These laws have proved extremely successful in undercutting the strength of unions in workplaces by causing union membership and funding to deteriorate. Amazon has quickly become the second largest employer in the United States, which was fueled by an unprecedented hiring spree this past summer as the company raked in record profits during the pandemic. As previously covered, the work in these warehouses is often physically demanding and workers are constantly tracked and monitored. This context is important in making sense of what is currently going on in Bessemer.
For one, Amazon has expended significant resources and hired specialists to track, crush and intimidate unionizing efforts in warehouses and Whole Foods Markets (also owned by Amazon) nationwide. There is a good chance that Bessemer, Alabama flew under the radar in their workplace surveillance efforts, as it is a ‘right to work’ state that lacks the aggressive organizing infrastructure and ethos of other states and communities. Furthermore, the Bessemer warehouse is a part of the incredible growth of Amazon during the pandemic. The warehouse is only about a year old, opening right as the pandemic started. According to the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is assisting the unionizing efforts at the warehouse, employees reached out to them in the summer, shortly after the warehouse opened. In the midst of Amazon’s sky-rocketing growth and in the heat of the Black Lives Matter protests that rocked the nation, the beginnings of what could be Amazon’s first unionized warehouse in the United States took shape in the Deep South.
Bessemer is a largely working class suburb of Birmingham, Alabama with a population that is over 70% Black or African American. The area owes much of its early prosperity to steel and mining industries, which tended to be heavily unionized and integrated. Union members marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960’s and unions raised bail money to free demonstrators in Birmingham during the civil rights protests there. Labor rights, or workers’ rights, and civil rights are deeply intertwined and best complement one another through solidarity.
The political climate certainly seems ripe for a change. The results of the unionization vote in Bessemer, Alabama will be declared by the end of March. Whatever happens, the effect of this working class movement has already encouraged other Amazon employees to advocate for themselves. Over 1,000 Amazon employees across the country have since reached out to the RWDSU to learn how to unionize their workplaces. President Biden has so far positioned himself on the right side of this battle and hopefully he will continue to steer the rest of the Democratic Party in the same direction. As tech giants and corporate behemoths like Amazon continue to rake in record profits and serve the interests of their shareholders, the public is primed for a political party to truly represent the economic interests of the multiracial working class. The Democratic Party is being presented with an opportunity to do exactly that.
The Congress of Essential Workers (Established by Chris Smalls)
Economic Policy Institute Study on Unions
Learn More Sources:
Biden’s message to workers
Guardian Reporting on Union Vote in Bessemer
Amazon’s Statements on Black Lives Matter
Biden’s Pro-Union Campaign
New York Times Reporting on Union Vote in Bessemer
Vox news on the passage of the PRO Act in the House
Economic Policy Institute on PRO Act