A video was posted a couple of days on the YouTube channel of Quenlin Blackwell, an African-American influencer with millions of followers, in which she visits an Amazon hub, showing the wonders of logistics technology and talking with happy workers. The girl was given access to film in a warehouse at the invitation of the company, a PR operation which partly recalls The Truman Show and partly Soviet propaganda. The e-commerce giant is resorting to every possible tool to convince its employees not to claim their rights.
Starting two weeks ago and continuing until March 29, the 6,000 employees of the hub in Bessemer, Alabama, are voting by mail to decide whether to form a union. They’ll have to vote with a more than a 50 percent majority, because Republican-led Alabama is among the 25 states that have passed a “right-to-work” law: this sounds like a good thing, but instead it limits a union’s ability to organize labor. Wherever such laws are in place, the number of union members goes down and wages are lower.
The year 2020 has been a golden goose for Amazon: turnover, already soaring, has been pushed up by the lockdowns, leading to a near doubling of profits. However, every attempt to organize labor has been quashed at the roots. A year ago, two workers who protested the lack of safety measures taken after the outbreak were fired in New York and Minneapolis, along with two employees at the Seattle headquarters who were guilty of expressing solidarity with them.
As of October 1, there were 20,000 employees that had tested positive. Those at Amazon are among the workers we have learned to call “essential” in 2020, and they have continued to show up at the warehouses throughout the health emergency, their shifts stretched, their productivity goals raised.
In return, they get the $15 an hour wage that other categories can only dream of.
But that’s not the point: “I thought that the bigger the company, the more benefits and guarantees I would have,” says Essimae Skinner in a video posted by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, the union that is leading the battle for unionization in Bessemer. “But instead, our joints are hurting and we’re sweating like football players, but without getting their salaries.”
Like everywhere else in the U.S., essential workers mainly belong to minority groups: half of Amazon’s employees are African-American or Hispanic, while among managers the proportion is 20%. That’s also why a Black Lives Matter caravan came here, and why on Monday night, the Reverend William J. Barber II, who leads the Poor People’s Campaign—the closest thing to the civil, social and economic rights campaigns of the 1960s in the United States today—gave a sermon here. Come what may, there is a sense around this battle that it represents an important transition point.
Amazon makes no secret that it frowns upon unions: the training videos for warehouse managers, in which they’re shown scrambling to meet deadlines, make that explicit.
“At Amazon, we value the direct relationship with employees, and this connection is the best way to meet their needs and support the innovation and flexibility that are key to our success. Unions are a threat to this direct relationship.” It’s hard to be any clearer than that.
What’s new in 2021 is the majority in Congress. President Biden has recorded a video message in which he doesn’t go so far as to tell people how to vote, but comes close to it: “Workers in Alabama — and all across America — are voting on whether to organize a union in their workplace,” Biden said. “It’s a vitally important choice — one that should be made without intimidation or threats by employers.” At the same time, the House approved text that would eliminate loopholes that help keep unions out of workplaces. Passing the bill in the Senate will be tricky, but a push for unions is also under way in Washington.