On Monday, February 8, 5,805 workers at an Amazon facility in Alabama will decide whether they wish to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. If they vote yes, they would be the first Amazon warehouse in the United States to unionize (Washington Post). The vote-counting is scheduled to be completed by late March. This Black women-led movement is one of the greatest and most significant unionization efforts in recent history.
This organizing has placed the Bessemer, AL facility in the spotlight. The city, a working-class suburb of Birmingham, was once a powerful industrial city called “Marvel City” (Alabama Pioneers). But after steel mills exited the area decades ago, unemployment rates rose. 28% of the population (which is 72% Black) lives under the poverty line (Census.gov). The mayor said it was the largest single investment in the city’s 130-year history (CBS 42). And the jobs, which pay twice as much as the state’s minimum wage, could offer a much-needed boost (NPR).
But, according to a video by More Perfect Union, a media company covering labor issues, employees say that conditions inside are like a sweatshop, and employees are treated “worse than robots (More Perfect Union video). Employees shared more details on conditions to Michael Sainato in his article for The American Prospect:
‘They work you to death,’ said Sara Marie Thrasher, who worked as a ‘stower,’ an employee who stocks items in warehouses before they’re ordered by customers, at Amazon BHM1 [facility] in October and November 2020, before she claimed she was fired via email without warning. ‘It’s crowded. Sometimes you can’t even find a station. We would get reprimanded if our stowing time was above 20 seconds or higher, with rates needing to be done in 8 seconds per item’ (The American Prospect).
These stories reflect thousands of others that employees have shared at Amazon factories across the globe. And many of these stories are not new; here’s reporting on the issue from 2013. But conditions for many workers, including those in Bessemer, have deteriorated since the start of the pandemic. The Bessemer facilities opened in March 2020, and rules started to change quickly as the pandemic worsened. Una Massey, a former level five area manager at the facilities, tells the Guardian that rules changed rapidly weren’t adequately communicated to staff, causing more terminations and leaving the team short-staffed (The Guardian). Massey also stated that a supervisory group called Space Force designed to ensure social distancing would give final warnings to associates that were less than six feet from one another. “But that was so unfair to the associates,” she states, “because there weren’t even enough seats in the lunchroom” (The Guardian).
In response, Amazon has gone on the offensive. The organization now forces employees to attend anti-union meetings during their shifts (Business Insider) and have plastered anti-union fliers everywhere, including bathroom stalls (Washington Post). Employees are receiving text messages and being targeted with sponsored ads on Facebook linking to the organization’s anti-union website (The Guardian). The organization is also pressing for the upcoming vote to be held in-person instead of through mail ballots, even though we’re still in a pandemic (Washington Post).
Last June, the company was celebrated for making broad statements in support of Black lives (Business Insider). But those words fail to justify their actions. Their gross profitization on the oppression of Black and brown communities is a clear example of racial capitalism, a term coined by Cedric J. Robertson, describing the process of extracting social and economic value from nonwhite communities (Harvard Law). This isn’t just reflected in Amazon’s treatment of its employees, but other aspects of its business: the racial discrimination of its AI and the partnership between their Ring and local law enforcement (The Forge). It also makes an egregious impact on the environment, which we know disproportionately affects communities of color. A September 2019 report released by the organization outlined that, in 2018, it emitted 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere – roughly equal to the annual emissions of Norway (Wired).
On Tuesday, February 2, CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he’s stepping down and will be replaced by cloud executive Andy Jassy (CNBC). This news came hours after the story broke that the company will pay $61.7M in fines after stealing a percentage of drivers’ tips (TechCrunch). Since the start of the pandemic, Bezos’ net worth has increased by $70 billion. Progressive International estimated that if Bezos gave every Amazon worker a $105,000 bonus, he’d still be as rich as he was at the start of COVID-19 (Twitter).
It’s important to remember that even with a new CEO, it’s likely that Amazon’s predatory capitalism will continue to grow. For NPR, RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum notes that this movement isn’t just a labor struggle, but a civil rights struggle, too (NPR). Supporting this initiative isn’t just a way to honor those bold organizers’ work but stand for more equitable working conditions for all laborers, especially those most vulnerable to racial capitalism. The outcome of this upcoming vote could define the future of Amazon and the labor decisions of thousands of other organizations.
An Amazon facility in Bessemer, AL is planning to vote next week on unionizing.
If completed, this will be the first unionization against Amazon
Amazon’s inadequate treatment of employees is one form of racial capitalism