By Amy Traub
Many observers were surprised when workers at Amazon’s warehouse outside Birmingham, Alabama filed for a union election in October 2020. It’s not that workers’ dissatisfaction was unexpected; the hardships faced by Amazon’s warehouse employees are well known: The company was slow to provide protective equipment during the pandemic; it curtailed its COVID-19 pay bonuses and access to unlimited unpaid time off long before the health crisis was resolved; shifts are long and work schedules are erratic; a failure to invest in climate control means warehouses are often swelteringly hot or viciously cold; and worst of all, the company’s algorithmic management system imposes brutal productivity quotas that penalize workers for taking too many minutes on bathroom breaks or pausing work even briefly.
What startled some people was that it was predominantly Black workers in Alabama—an “unlikely place,” according to the New York Times—who were standing up, organizing with the Retail Warehouse and Department Store Union (RWDSU), and challenging the power of a $1.7 trillion company.
But it shouldn’t be a surprise. Just as Black voters in Georgia made history in the 2020 election by delivering the state to Joe Biden and electing 2 Democratic senators, Black workers in the Alabama warehouse stand to keep making history as they vote on union representation. In this case, what’s at stake is not political democracy but the potential for a more democratic economy—a chance for working people to have a collective voice in the decisions that shape their working lives. If the union drive succeeds, managers at one of the nation’s largest and wealthiest companies will have to sit down with workers’ representatives and negotiate about the conditions that make their jobs unbearable. Black workers will have shifted a degree of power from Amazon’s corporate headquarters into their own hands.
Of course, Amazon is not letting go of power easily. The company is notoriously anti-union and has spared little expense to crush the latest organizing attempt. Workers report being forced to attend intimidating one-on-one anti-union meetings with supervisors and mandatory group meetings every few shifts. Amazon bombarded workers with text messages and even placed anti-union signs in the warehouse’s bathroom stalls. Like the politicians who tried to hold on to power by restricting the right to vote, Amazon argued that mail-in ballots should not be allowed, and workers must be required to vote on unionization in person, despite soaring rates of COVID-19. The National Labor Relations Board rejected that argument, and vote-by-mail began for warehouse workers earlier this month. It comes as little surprise that Amazon’s anti-union drive is being run by a consultant with ties to some of the same funders who have long bankrolled voter suppression tactics and other anti-democratic efforts.
As is so often the case, political and economic democracy are deeply intertwined. Political strength contributes to greater economic power. Because Black voters in Georgia organized, registered, turned out, and voted, legislation strengthening workers’ rights to join a union and negotiate with their employers now stands a chance of being signed into law. Under the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, reintroduced in Congress this month, workers banding together to form a union would not have to overcome the same obstacles to unionization that Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama are facing. Employers would no longer be able to interfere in workers’ union elections: For example, managers would be banned from forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings as Amazon did. Working people would have greater power to support each other through secondary boycotts, and employers would finally face meaningful penalties for violating workers’ rights. If Amazon warehouse workers succeed in gaining union recognition, the PRO Act would facilitate their ability to negotiate a first contract, requiring Amazon to enter binding arbitration if it refuses to negotiate in good faith.
“Alabama has a rich history of labor organizing,” Resha Swanson, of Adelante Alabama Worker Center told The American Prospect. “For generations, Black workers have risked their lives to spearhead worker rights efforts—fighting for their lives in the face of lynching, death threats, job loss, and most of all, white supremacy. Amazon’s workers’ partnership and unionizing with RWDSU is just an extension of the legacy of worker militancy.” This Black History Month (and into March), workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse have the power to keep making history by voting for their union.
(Amy Traub is Associate Director, Policy and Research at Demos, a New York City-based “think-and-do” tank that powers the movement for a just, inclusive, multiracial democracy.)