Organizing Amazon in Bessemer

by Bill Barry, ASR 83 (2021)

No organizing campaign is ever really a failure, and the Amazon campaign in Bessemer, AL, is a perfect example. The campaign was started by the workers who wanted something that so many other Covid campaigns ignored – UNION RECOGNITION; so even though the union “lost” in the distorted structure of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the lives of everyone involved – in the warehouse, in the community and hopefully across the union movement – were changed. This was the most exciting campaigns to come out of Covid, one enormous location for the most powerful boss, where all the numbers about union interest became a workers’ movement, and not just a hopeful statistic.

More importantly, the campaign made union organizing a topic of national discussion for the first time in decades.  The election results were the lead story on the front page of the New York Times (probably not read by many Amazon workers) with extensive commentary from union supporters. Evaluation of the mechanics of the campaign were debated – should more home visits have been done, or why did only 53% of the workers vote, should the union have struck for recognition rather than submitting to the procedures of the NLRB? These fundamental discussions on union strategy should expand as more details from organizers on the spot are distributed.

The impact of the campaign and its consequences – does it prove that passage of the PRO Act will save unionism, should RWDSU have rejected the workers at Bessemer in favor of a more “promising” location, like Pittsburgh? – filled our in-boxes with opinions. The election became the 30 seconds of fame for the union movement.

The Amazon campaign was a compelling illustration that workers organize unions, not unions organize workers. The campaign started as a protest movement last summer, when a new group, Amazonians United, proclaimed the importance of building solidarity actions, of creating organizing committees and of building solidarity with other shops. “Amazonians United is for building deep organizations where coworkers democratically assess their own issues, determine a strategy together, and, most importantly, build the power in our workplaces necessary to win these changes.” (Labor Notes, June 2020) No mention at this point of a demand for UNION RECOGNITION, no proposal to either join an existing union or to create a new one.

One of the newest of the Amazon facilities, the Bessemer warehouse began operating in March 2020 as one of dozens of new logistics sites the company has opened since the pandemic began to address the surge in online buying caused by consumers’ reluctance to shop in person. It could be the focus of a permanent change in retail preferences, already illustrated by the vacancies and bankruptcies in retail shopping malls.

The workers in Bessemer rapidly contacted the RWDSU, which represents packinghouse workers in Alabama, and at the end of December RWDSU filed the petition with the NLRB. “I think that this is the most significant union election that has been held in many years,” said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum. “Because we’re not just talking about another company, we’re talking about Amazon.”

The union’s proposed bargaining unit would have covered 1,500 full-and part-time workers, “all hourly full-time and regular part-time fulfillment center employees including leads and learning ambassadors,” and excluding truck drivers, clerical, maintenance and engineering employees, and supervisors, among others.

Represented by union-busters Morgan, Lewis and Bockius, Amazon started the bitter trench warfare at the NLRB so familiar to every organizer, especially a proposal to expand the bargaining unit to 5,723, including seasonal workers, who were soon offered a large bonus to resign. After three days of hearings, the unit was set at this higher number, with more hearings on how the election would be conducted – in person, with workers taken in special buses to a nearby hotel to vote, or by mail. The regional director held firm and a mail ballot election was set up, with votes to be counted on March 30, five weeks after ballots were mailed out.

The first question for every organizer is the numbers: if you figure the unit is 1,500, you need 1,000 cards but a unit of almost 6,000 requires almost 4,000 cards. What did the RWDSU have?

The second question is how to keep up the campaign energy over the four-week period, not knowing who has voted and who can still be convinced. As any organizer will tell you, if you file for a petition with the NLRB, the election day is like Super Bowl Sunday but you know – for better or worse – that the workers can be influenced until the instant they actually vote. It is also assumed that voting in the workplace brings almost 100% turnout.

One number missing from discussions about the Bessemer campaign is the low voter turnout. With 1,798 No votes, and 738 Yes votes – and another 500 challenged ballots – only about 53% of workers mailed in ballots, an indication that both campaigns were ignored by almost half of the workers.

This is a historic campaign that should have been supported by every union member in the U.S. While much of Amazon’s warehouse staff in Europe belongs to unions, the company has successfully fought off employees at its U.S. facilities. A small group of equipment maintenance and repair technicians at the company’s Middletown, Del., warehouse voted against unionizing by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in 2014, after a hard-fought battle with the company. During this campaign, a manager told hundreds of workers that when his father died, a union had abandoned the family. The story turned out to be fabricated, the New York Times reported at the time.

In the Alabama campaign,

Employees [were] ordered to attend meetings where managers sow doubts about the unionization drive, according to two workers who attended. The meetings typically last about half an hour and target about 15 employees at a time, one said, frustrating workers because they fall behind in their duties during the sessions and have to catch up later. “They present anti-union propaganda thinly veiled” said the worker, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. Both workers said questions about potentially positive aspects of union membership are brushed off. One recalled asking why “Amazon is beating us over the head with these ‘facts’ in such a one-sided way,” and said the manager responded: “Amazon is very clear with our stance with unions.” (Matt Day and Spencer Soper, “Amazon Rachets Up Anti-Union Pressure on workers in Alabama,” Bloomberg, February 2, 2021.)

A more subtle campaign issue is that many of the Amazon workers doubled their pay by going to work in the warehouse. The minimum wage in Alabama is still the federal wage of $7.25 (not increased since July, 2009) and Amazon was hiring at $15, so many workers will have figured they were doing so much better that they “don’t need a union.”

While the campaign is in Bessemer, a huge solidarity movement spread across the country, as workers turned out to publicly support the campaign. In dozens of cities, outside more than 50 other Amazon “fulfillment centers” – doesn’t that expression make you gag? – the importance of unionism was stressed, generating such momentum that President Biden even issued a video on March 1, endorsing the right of the workers to vote without interference, emphasizing that “unions created the middle class.”

As importantly, this was a Covid campaign – one created by the lousy conditions of the pandemic, but a campaign that demanded UNION RECOGNITION, and not just a temporary relief.

This campaign was extraordinary because of Amazon’s intense anti-union techniques:

Amazon is looking to hire two intelligence analysts to track ‘labor organizing threats’ within the company. The company recently posted two job listings for analysts that can keep an eye on sensitive and confidential topics ‘including labor organizing threats against the company.’ Amazon is looking to hire an ‘Intelligence Analyst’ and a ‘Sr Intelligence Analyst’ for its Global Security Operations’ (GSO) Global Intelligence Program (GIP), the team that’s responsible for physical and corporate security operations such as insider threats and industrial espionage. The job ads list several kinds of threats, such as ‘protests, geopolitical crises, conflicts impacting operations,’ but focuses on ‘organized labor’ in particular, mentioning it three times in one of the listings.

After this story was published, Amazon deleted the job listings and company spokesperson Maria Boschetti said in an email that ‘the job post was not an accurate description of the role – it was made in error and has since been corrected.’ The spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions about the alleged mistake. The job listing, according to Amazon’s own job portal, had been up since January 6, 2020. (Lorenzo Franceschi, “Amazon Is Hiring an Intelligence Analyst to Track ‘Labor Organizing Threats,’” Vice, Sept. 1, 2020.)

More information developed about Amazon’s incredibly sophisticated use of surveillance equipment in its warehouses to both increase efficiency and monitor any union organizing.

Open Markets Institute, an advocacy group that focuses on antitrust and tech company monopolies, reported that Amazon utilizes navigation software, item scanners, wristbands, thermal cameras, security cameras and recorded footage to keep its store and warehouse workers under close watch. The group claims Amazon uses these tools to influence where it stations its employees in an effort to undermine potential unionisation efforts. In one example, Amazon reportedly uses heat maps and data detailing employee’s attitudes towards the company, as well as a ‘diversity index’ to help determine which stores are more likely to face a unionisation attempt. If it is likely a store’s employees will attempt to unionise, then they are separated, according to the report.” (Greg Graziosi, “Amazon uses worker surveillance to boost performance and stop staff joining unions, study says,” The Independent, Sept. 1, 2020.)

Finally, the high percentage of workers of color in this campaign, and among the supporters from other RWDSU workers in packinghouses in Alabama, shows a new and hopefully lasting dimension to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has become derailed into exclusively political action.

The ferocious opposition by Amazon to any concerted activity by its workers, and its determination to vilify any warrior, was shown more than a year ago. Christian Smalls became briefly a media star after he was fired by Amazon at the “fulfillment” center in Staten Island in early April 2020. He was let go almost immediately after he led a group of colleagues from the building during lunch hour to protest what they saw as the company’s inadequate response to the crisis. They were calling simply for the building to be temporarily closed and more stringently sanitized and for workers to be paid during the hiatus as several had become sick.

Amazon claimed Smalls was fired because he violated the company’s 14-day quarantine policy by returning to work after coming into contact with a co-worker who tested positive for Covid-19. 

Not content merely to fire Mr. Smalls, executives planned to exploit him as part of a public-relations strategy meant to deflect attention away from safety issues. Internal notes from a meeting of executive leaders at Amazon obtained by Vice News reveal the company’s general counsel David Zaplosky trying to smear the organizing campaign by calling Mr. Smalls “not smart or articulate” and thus a useful tool in its ongoing plan to besmirch unionization efforts. (Ginia Bellefante, “‘We Didn’t Sign Up for This’: Amazon Workers on the Front Lines,” New York Times, April 3, 2020.)

In minutes of a meeting, Zaplosky stated:

We should spend the first part of our response strongly laying out the case for why the organizer’s conduct was immoral, unacceptable, and arguably illegal, in detail, and only then follow with our usual talking points about worker safety. Make him the most interesting part of the story, and if possible, make him the face of the entire union/organizing movement.  (Paul Blest, “Leaked Amazon Memo Details Plan to Smear Fired Warehouse Organizer: ‘He’s Not Smart or Articulate,’” Vice News, April 2, 2020.)

To reinforce its anti-unionism, Amazon produced a warning video for the Bessemer workers, which everyone should watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdpvBSDaP8A

In a shocking development, in late December the NLRB – loaded with anti-union members – issued a complaint against Amazon for firing Smalls. Every organizer who deals with the NLRB recognizes one problem: it took the Board eight months to issue the complaint, the trial and appeals could take another three or four years, and Christian Smalls is out of work for a long, long time.

The power, the numbers and the militant anti-unionism of Amazon and Wal-Mart are a challenge that the union movement in the U.S. has generally refused to accept. While at least one union finally tried to organize one Amazon warehouse, ideally every member of every union – from the international officers to the part-time members – should be focused on organizing Amazon, since its impact is so seismic, and growing as a reflection of the pandemic.

The company, for example, posted more than 35,000 job openings in the Philadelphia area last year, compared with 5,000 for the second-biggest advertisers, Lowe’s and Penn Med. Worldwide, Amazon added 500,000 workers in 2020, including 400,000 in the United States, and grew its real estate footprint by a startling 50%, largely to meet growing consumer demands for home deliveries. In the Philadelphia area, for example, the company now has 50 warehouses – and more under construction of sizes beyond the imagination of anyone except Jeff Bezos.

Both of these warehouses will be well more than a million square feet once completed and are among nine new Amazon facilities that the company has announced for the region in the next year… That’s in addition to 14 sites added in 2020 across the Lehigh Valley, South Jersey, northern Delaware, Philadelphia, and its collar counties. …

Amazon now has 57 buildings online or underway, across this greater Philadelphia region. Real estate and industry analysts say they have never seen anything like the company’s explosive expansion[,] … part of a worldwide hiring spree sparked by the pandemic. The company added roughly 500,000 employees in 2020, according to company filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, including 400,000 in the United States. Amazon hired nearly 175,000 people from October through December alone, far more than in any prior fourth quarter.

The e-commerce giant employed 950,000 Americans as of last year, a company spokesperson said. Meanwhile, the company has grown its real estate footprint by 50% year-over-year in 2020, company executives told investors in February. Amazon now has more than 800 warehouses across the United States. (Jake Blumgart and Christian Hetrick, “Amazon now encircles the Philadelphia region with over 50 warehouses,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 18, 2021.)

In general, we should have a goal of 100% of workers organized, globally. For selfish reasons, members should demand that other locations of their employer, or other employers in their industry, must be organized, expanding the union’s “market share” and building leverage for negotiations. In reality, money spent on new organizing comes back to the pockets of the members as non-union competition is brought under union contracts.

In one of the unions that until recently consistently refused to try to organize Amazon, organizing has dramatically become an issue in the campaign for international president. With the retirement of James Hoffa, Jr., the Teamsters are having a election and both candidates – Sean O’Brien out of Boston, and Steve Varima from Colorado – have committed themselves to organizing, especially Amazon and FedEx, the two largest non-union competitors for UPS, where 250,000 workers are represented by the Teamsters.

O’Brien sees organizing Amazon as essential to the health of the union and criticized the current Hoffa administration for lacking an effective strategy to organize Amazon. “It should have been a target 10 years ago,” he said. …

“It’s not just about the Teamsters processing packages, loading packages and delivering,” he said, adding that the organizing drive can’t be ‘old school’; instead, it should rely on alliances with unions and partnerships in the community and must utilize existing Teamster members at UPS and courier giant DHL to assist with organizing the megafirm. …

Vairma spoke similarly about the need for a broader organizing effort. “It will take more than the Teamsters to organize at Amazon,” he said. “We need to build a campaign to engage the entire labor movement, aggressively elect more pro-labor elected officials, pursue a 50-state legislative strategy in Congress, and build support in the communities where our members live.” (Matthew Cunningham-Cook, “Divide Over Controversial UPS Contract Defines Teamster Presidential Election,” The Intercept, May 11, 2021.)

The Bessemer campaign made organizing strategies a topic of national debate but the noise quickly died down as RWDSU focused its strategy on Labor Board procedures: an appeal of the election results, and Unfair Labor Practice charges – which will be endless, and take place (for the warehouse workers) in another universe. The whole procedure takes power and control out of the hands of the warehouse workers, instead of a continuing campaign to try to convert the No votes as workers come to realize that company promises are empty. A new campaign inside the warehouse, and inside every Amazon warehouse, should have started the minute the election results were announced.

Since the RWDSU ran a Labor Board campaign, a second response has been the demand for a stronger law – the PRO Act, which would block a lot of the anti-union activities that Amazon used. Once again, this moves power away from the workers in the hope that 535 politicians – and maybe nine Supreme Court members – will somehow, some day, help us reach the Promised Land.

Not going to happen. As we saw from the enormous increase in union membership in the early 1930s, without the protection of any laws, workers can organize on their own, but we have to make it happen. What if we did the same direct action today?  We can but have to make it happen. It would be great if every union provided the labor history of the sit-down strikes to the members, but the consequences – workers taking power in their workplaces – is too scary for most union officers.

When workers showed that direct action could bring us power, the bosses passed laws to make unions “legal,” under controlled structures like the NLRB, creating a dependency that is the only strategy most organizers know today.

The Bessemer campaign should still be urgently debated at every union meeting but there has been an ominous silence for the past five months about it. Who knows what is going on inside the warehouse, in the community? What campaigns – if any – for the union have continued?

Don’t we all get our 30 seconds of fame?

Maybe that’s all it was, unfortunately.

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